In 2011, the Emanu-El cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia was desecrated by vandals. Headstones commemorating the lives of Holocaust survivors were sullied with swastikas and dollar signs. For a community that prides itself on inclusivity and tolerance, this event was profoundly shocking. Within weeks, Victorians from all backgrounds gathered in droves to stand together in solidarity against this act of hatred.
Alissa and I have been working on an online exhibit with Michael Schwartz for the Jewish Museum and Archive of BC that investigates this event, the community reaction, and the role of historians in preserving historic sites like the Emanu-El cemetery. Over the last two months we have delved into secondary literature and engaged a variety of people in oral history interviews. What does the cemetery mean to the person who lives across the way? To the person who walks their children to school by its walls every morning? Or to someone who has family buried there and deep roots in the Victoria Jewish community? These are guiding questions that frame our research and have generated fascinating insights into the cemetery’s place in Victoria.
Interviewing historians has provided further richness to our research. Susan Roy, co-curator of the award-winning c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before The City exhibit in Vancouver shared her insights regarding the historian’s role in preservation. Jordan Stanger-Ross, researching the forced sale of Japanese-Canadian property, reflected on the significance of historical places in his own research. Both scholars present creative and thoughtful approaches to communicating academic historical research to broader audiences.
How can we explain the 1000 person turn-out at the 2011 vigil in Victoria? What motivated people to stand out in the cold on a January afternoon? The events surrounding the desecration of the Emanu-El cemetery are telling of the Jewish community’s place in Victoria, as well as of the different values placed on the cemetery by diverse demographics. Even further, we’ve found that many people have experienced the targeted desecration of their own sacred places, and can therefore relate to this sense of violation. Even if the vigil attendees had never visited the Emanu-El cemetery before, these experiences allowed them to empathize with the Jewish community and to assert their rejection of hatred and intolerance.
It’s been a pleasure conversing with our interviewees, who have been generous with their insights and reflections. They have acted as guides to the Emanu-El community, to the Jewish cemetery, and to understanding the strength of solidarity in face of an incident of intolerance and hate. We look forward to unveiling our new exhibit and to presenting it at the JMABC in December. As history students, this has been an inspiring opportunity not only to gain new skills in online media and oral history, but to also explore a community’s expectations of the historical profession and the potential for engaged and creative collaborative work.
Kaitlin Findlay and Alissa Cartwright are history students at the University of Victoria. Their project is part of a graduate public history class they are taking with Dr. Jordan Stanger-Ross.