Special to The Jewish Post & News
An autograph book that reflects an artist’s life in the Theresienstadt ghetto and transit camp, once belonging to Holocaust survivor and Danish violinist Mænni Ruben, has reemerged in Victoria, BC.
Ruben’s unique perspective on the Holocaust is chronicled in his autograph book as the war is ending and survivors are being liberated.
His is a story not only of survival, but about enduring friendships, and the music and art that held them together under grim circumstances. With ethereal drawings from artist Hilda Zadikow, life in Theresienstadt is brought alive and forms a significant part of Ruben’s keepsake.
Besides the concerts and recitals that happened in Theresienstadt, many of the people in Ruben’s autograph book participated in the historic 1944 Red Cross concert, and a Nazi propaganda film.
Ironically, Ruben never set foot in Canada, having died in 1976 in Copenhagen, but his wife Susi did. After living in Victoria for 26 years, arriving with her second husband Dr. Avi Deston, she gave the book to Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-el preceding her death in 2018.
“When the rabbi showed the book to me last year, I could see right away that it was special and should go to a museum. It is in remarkable condition for being 75 years old and is a tremendous addition to Holocaust studies,” says Project Coordinator Janna Ginsberg Bleviss. “I was fascinated by the book––who were these people and what happened to them? Reading the pages filled with optimistic greetings, illustrations, and pieces of music was like finding a hidden treasure, waiting to be opened. I wanted to discover who these people were and hear their stories.”
With the understanding that it would leave the Victoria Jewish community once gifted to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Ginsberg Bleviss decided to develop a compelling visual narrative from the book.
“Despite the horrors of being in a camp, these people survived. The emotion behind their inscribed messages speaks to friendships, and the power of music and art that held them together in these dreadful times. I knew these stories had to be told,” explains Ginsberg Bleviss.
The book depicts hope and optimism about the future, of friendships formed through the war, and at the camp. Ruben and his friends, some of whom were top-of-their-field musicians, artists, and intellectuals, survived the Holocaust, and many returned to successful careers in the performing arts. One of the musicians, 109-year-old pianist Alice Sommer Herz, became the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary, The Lady in Number 6.
“There is a huge educational value to these pieces for students learning about the Holocaust, or for researchers who want to continue exploring the stories of these most interesting people during an important time at the end of the Second World War,” says Rabbi Brechner. “We want the book to stay in Canada” and it will soon become a permanent part of the CMHR.
An introductory video of the Theresienstadt Autograph Book, the exhibit panels, and the replica book with translations and accompanying notes are available at https://terezinautographbook1945.ca
The Theresienstadt Autograph Book is sponsored in part by . Established in 2016, the project is dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and education.
Founded in 1863, is a progressive, Conservative, egalitarian, and inclusive synagogue, and Canada’s oldest one in continuous use.
Post script: After reading that the Autograph Book will be coming to the CMHR, I reached out to Dr. Jeremy Maron, who is Curator at the CMHR, to ask him how the CMHR plans to incorporate this precious artifact into its collection –and when it might arrive. Here is how Dr. Maron responded:
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has indeed accepted this artifact for acquisition after it was generously offered by Janna Ginsberg and her congregation in Victoria.
To clarify, we are not bringing this item in as a stand-alone exhibition. We have accepted this historical object as part of our permanent collection, which means we are committed ensuring its long-term preservation, as well as providing access in order to share this book and Ruben’s story with our visitors. With this in mind, this book will likely be on display in the future in our Examining the Holocaust gallery, but we do not have dates in mind yet.
The book will require some conservation work in order to ensure its long-term preservation and viability, and its delicate condition will also inform how often (and how long) the item will be on display. So in short, the object will be part of the museum’s permanent collection, and will be on display at times. But we do not yet have display dates planned for it yet. Once it does go on display, it would just be for specific periods, not permanently, which will protect it from continuous light exposure and ensure its ongoing preservation.
Undoubtedly, this artifact marks a valuable and unique addition to the permanent collection of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The written entries offer direct, first-hand insights from people as they were living their day-to-day lives in Terezin. The musical entries in particular speak to the persistence of artistic and cultural expression that people strived to retain during a gross violation of human rights (and the importance that music played in the life of Ruben himself). It also conveys the cultural vibrancy that existed within Terezin, which affords consideration of how the Nazis used Terezin for propaganda purposes to deflect attention from atrocities that they were committing elsewhere (and within, beneath the guise prepared for international visitors).