Sephardic Life Stories Gathered
By Elias Levy, Journalist (Canadian Jewish News)
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Sephardic memory will take an important place in the « Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by Genocide, War and Other Human Rights Violations » research project.
This large-scale project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Concordia University, in partnership with the Communauté sépharade unifiée du Québec, the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre and JIAS Montreal – Jewish Immigrant Aid Services.
This five year project, headed by historian Steven High, from Concordia University, has as its main objective to create an oral archive for the members of communities living in Montreal who have experienced great tragedies in their countries of origin, such as the Shoah, the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides …
This project will retrace the life stories of members of six Montreal communities: the Ashkenazi Jewish community, the Sephardic Jewish community, the Rwandan community, the Cambodian community, the Haïtian community and the Central American community.
Nineteen community organizations and thirty-nine Montreal university academics are involved in this ambitious project.
Historians Yolande Cohen, professor at Université du Québec à Montréal (U.Q.A.M.), and Frank Chalk, emeritus professor at Concordia University, are the co directors of the research component concerning the Life Stories of members of the Sephardic community of Montreal.
The goal of this « Sephardic » component is to collect testimonies from Sephardic Montrealers who are 70 years and older, to testify on the disruptions experienced during the Second World War and/or during the post 1945 period, notably characterized by significant displacements of people, whether in North Africa, the Middle East or in Europe.
These Life Stories will be filmed, digitized, added to an inventory, archived and made accessible to the public via a website.
“For the Ashkenazis, these Life Stories are shaped by the experience of the Shoah. The life experience of the Sephardic is different. We are going to try to retrace the processes which led to the displacement of Sephardic populations. Cognitive individual and collective processes. The objective of this research is to clearly identify, through the long interviews, the memory that these people, who were between 18 and 20 years old at the time of the last Great War, have of their displacement and their settling in Montreal. Do they consider their departure from their native country like an exile, a forced displacement, a massive immigration? What did their departure from Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt represent for them…? We are not only interested in the Moroccan Sephardic community but also in other communities from the Maghreb and from a part of the Machrek – the Arabic Orient,” explains Yolande Cohen in an interview.
This historian, who has been interested in the migratory movements of Moroccan Jews for thirty years, wishes to inscribe these movements into a larger whole where Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews will be able to share their experiences instead of confining themselves to two solitudes.
“Even if language is a barrier, it’s very important to reinscribe these life stories in a common experience, even if these life experiences are different. This approach will allow us to see the vision of exile, the feeling of fear that held sway in these communities before their departure from the native land. The life of North African Jews wasn’t a long tranquil river, says Yolande Cohen. We have to come out of this nostalgic vision that we promoted for thirty years, which consisted of saying that the Sephardic past in Islamic lands was a glorious period, that Jews and Muslims lived in harmony … Our goal is to make those moments re-emerge which led to the fact that all Jews left. Even those who were happy in these Arab Muslim countries ended up leaving. There are reasons, both objective and subjective that pushed them to leave their native land, which we would like to identify properly.”
For Professor Frank Chalk, the experiences of Sephardic Jews living in Montreal have been avoided for too long. This research project will compensate for this lack.
“In my forty years of research in Montreal, I’ve ascertained that the life experiences of the members of the Sephardic community have almost never been gathered, nor published. It’s a very big gap, he says. It’s important that these Sephardic life exeriences be preserved for posterity. You don’t need to have been a victim of the Holocaust ro have been deeply influenced in your life. There are also other tragic and moving experiences of life which are part of the heritage that we will leave our children and grandchildren.”
All of the people interested in telling their Life Stories, in the context of this project, will be interviewed by competent people -- volunteering their time – having taken several training workshops beforehand.
The testimonies of thirty members of the Sephardic community about the Second World War and the post-war years have already been gathered.
Will these life stories be able to form a narrative framework for a historiography of Montreal Sephardic Jews having experienced the sufferings of the last Great War?
“I don’t know if we will be able to write a complete history of the Sephardic during the war years based on these oral stories, in the sense that the memory of people of an advanced age is often very uncertain. However, these oral testimonies will be a very important counterweight to classical history. What is certain is that these life stories will shed a light on the emigration processes of North African Jews, and on their perception, thirty years later, of this immigration, inevitably chronological. I intend to develop a more thorough analysis of these stories to eventually write a work or some articles, Yolande Cohen specifies.
This research project will not limit itself to storing these life stories in digitized archives. It includes several other components: youth education, the publication of pedagogical material – brochures, books … -- intended for schools and libraries; the making of radio programs, of documentaries …
For more information on this research project or to tell your life story, contact Marilyn Bernard at 514-544-5089 or by email at: email@example.com.
(English translation of the article, published in French)