‘Remember the past, change the future’

The inspiring story of Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Center.

December 6, 2014 22:47
SURVIVORS GATHER at the Jewish Holocaust Center in MelbourneRABBI PINCHAS ZEKRY

SURVIVORS GATHER at the Jewish Holocaust Center in Melbourne. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Center is an institution dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.... We consider the finest memorial to all victims of racist policies to be an educational program which aims to combat antisemitism, racism and prejudice... and foster understanding between people.

MELBOURNE – With an estimated population of between 55,000 and 60, 000 Jews, Melbourne – in far-distant Australia – has one of the world’s most active Jewish communities.

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The city is host to a network of some 10 Jewish day schools ranging across the ideological spectrum and catering for an estimated 60 percent or more of the city’s Jewish children. Home to scores of synagogues and numerous youth, philanthropic, Zionist and other communal organizations, Melbourne’s vibrant Jewish population enjoys an enviable reputation as one of the most dynamic Jewish communities in the diaspora.

Australia, with its modest pre-World War II Jewish population, became a haven for more than 35,000 Holocaust refugees between 1946 and 1954, and Melbourne reputedly became home to the Diaspora’s largest per capita Holocaust survivor community. Only Israel gained a greater percentage of Holocaust survivors.

Nestled in the suburb of Elsternwick, between Sholem Aleichem College, a secular Yiddish day school, and the more-than 100 year old Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre and National Library where Yiddish culture still flourishes, lies the Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC), one of the community’s most active organizations. With a staff of almost 20 people and 100 volunteers, the JHC runs educational programs for about 21,000 students annually, holds exhibitions, commemorations, lecture evenings, and hosts a regular film club as well as a social club for retirees and former survivor- guides. It also conducts a weekly Holocaust studies course over the entire year as part of its guides’ training course and for members of the public interested in the Holocaust.

The museum itself is visited by some 10,000 members of the public annually and is augmented by an archives department which houses thousands of artefacts related to the Holocaust. A testimonies department, administered by a 92 year old technologically savvy Holocaust survivor from Lithuania, houses over 1300 recorded Holocaust testimonies.

The JHC also has a well-established library and research facilities for academics and members of the general public.

Holocaust survivors, most of them in their late eighties or early nineties, attend the JHC weekly on a rostered basis to tell their stories – to give testimony – to the school groups and others. There are currently about 25 survivors on the weekly roster whose presentations are the ‘centerpiece’ of the JHC’s educational programs.

Students arrive at the JHC indifferent; after meeting and listening to a survivor and visiting the exhibition, they leave “different.”

The Jewish Holocaust Center was created 30 years ago by Holocaust survivors, eye-witnesses to an unprecedented genocide about which they wished to educate the public. These survivors were escaping the never-ending nightmare that had hitherto gripped them for some 40 years. For themselves they created a place to memorialize family and friends who had been murdered during that dark period, but for the community they created an educational resource designed with the hopeful objective of making people aware of the horrors of the Shoah and of the consequences of racism, prejudice and bigotry. Some had other reasons. Sonja Wajsenberg, a survivor from Bialystok, Poland, recalls that she came to serve at the Centre because she felt it was a place where she could be with members of her family who had been murdered. And Abram Goldberg, a survivor from Lodz, Poland, recalls the last words his mother said to him before they were separated at Auschwitz: if you survive, tell the world what happened here. His mother’s charge is etched indelibly in his memory.

Why did it take 40 years to build this public memorial centre? Why not earlier? Survivors had traveled to a foreign country and had to re-establish their lives, find employment and learn a new language. Yet they could not forget, and did not want to forget. With the proliferation of Holocaust denial, and increasing Holocaust awareness in the 1960s, several groups of Jews from different backgrounds came together with a common purpose: to found an institution dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Shoah, and an educational and research centre to promote the study of the Holocaust, foster tolerance and understanding and combat racism and all the ills associated with prejudice and hatred.

The story of the JHC is as much about the history of the actual events of the Holocaust as it is about the history of the public response to Holocaust commemoration.

This has evolved through various stages, from silence to dialogue to Holocaust fatigue, that phenomenon where some people, Jewish and non-Jewish, contend that there has been a saturation of Holocaust literature, movies, museums and the like. The sentiment - “Shouldn’t you just move on and put the past behind you?” - is often heard. This, like the facile comparison and conflation of the Holocaust and Nazism with comparatively more trivial events in the media, fails to take into account the enormity of the Holocaust.

The JHC is successful not only because of the Jewish community’s need to remember, but because of the public’s need to learn from what historian Yehuda Bauer calls the “unprecedentedmess” of the Holocaust and to try to understand how and why it happened.

Why do so many schools study Elie Wiesel’s book Night? Why is the graphic novel Maus on the state’s school matriculation English syllabus? Why do school and tertiary students come to the JHC as part of lessons in democracy, human rights, civics and citizenship? It is because within the topic of the Holocaust there is so much to learn about survival, resilience, evil, propaganda and human kindness.

It is a platform to educate about humanity.

The historian Simon Schama holds that “historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation.”

We are doomed, he holds, “to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”

It is indeed a truism that students of history chase shadows in their quest to learn about the past, but those who visit the JHC have the unique privilege of having the witnesses speak directly to the public about what was.

Historians will never be able to understand the past completely, nor to reconstruct the past, but at the JHC, with living witnesses, as a staff member has noted, “We do not (yet) chase shadows. Nor are we (yet) not out of earshot.”

Together with similar Jewish organizations in the Diaspora, the board and professional staff at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Center are fully aware of the future challenges which they will confront when Holocaust survivors are no longer able to attend the Center. To meet the challenges, the JHC has recorded the testimonies of its survivor guides and other Holocaust survivors with a view to broadcasting these recordings in the future. Some already appear on the JHC’s YouTube channel. The museum also features audio-visual stations with survivors talking throughout. These and other avenues to record and preserve the stories of the survivors – written testimonies, interviews and more – represent attempts to keep the survivors’ voices and memories alive in the museum space for perpetuity.

The Melbourne Holocaust survivor community has bequeathed to the JHC what Canadian professor Roger Simon has called ‘a terrible gift’. They have recorded their experiences on camera, 1300 of them; they have donated thousands of documents together with photographs of murdered loved ones, primary source evidence of their persecution; many have written detailed memoirs; some have donated camp uniforms and cloth badges that labelled them as Jews; and others have made artworks as testimony to their memories. The gifts are ‘terrible’ because they carry with them an enormous weight that the recipient is forced to accept. The burden is not only to preserve them and care for them but to continue to relate the sometimes indescribable stories that are attached to them. One cannot simply lock these items away: we are forced to consider them, conserve them and exhibit them.

The Jewish Holocaust Center deems it an honor and a privilege to be the recipient and custodian of these artifacts, and is committed to carry on a cardinal message that the survivors intended for the institution: never to forget. Thirty years after the JHC opened its doors in a converted 1930s dance hall in Elsternwick, Melbourne, the Center is now double in size and bursting to capacity as it struggles to host the many thousands of school children and other students who visit annually, the host of volunteers who serve at the Centre and the visitors from the wider public. With plans currently being drawn for a new building, it is clear that the founders of the JHC were indeed visionaries in sensing a public need to hear about the atrocities and injustices they witnessed and endured. And the next generation is just as passionate and committed to ensure that their memories live on – in perpetuity.

Michael Cohen is director of Community Relations, with Jayne Josem, Curator and Head of Collections at the Jewish Holocaust Centre, Melbourne.

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