Is the Holocaust relevant to New Zealanders?

Holocaust museum director says her challenge is to teach its importance to Kiwis.

Board of New Zealand's Holocaust Center_370 (photo credit: Woolf)
Board of New Zealand's Holocaust Center_370
(photo credit: Woolf)
It was a crime committed by one group of foreigners against another on the other side of the planet about 70 years ago. So why should children growing up in New Zealand today care about the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust?
Answering that question is the challenge facing Inge Woolf, the director of the Holocaust Center in New Zealand. The head of the revamped museum, which will reopen in a ceremony on Thursday, a date that coincides with Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, said her aim was to show young Kiwis why the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II mattered in their lives.
“We have a lot of refugees in this country, some of them are from places like Somalia and Ethiopia and are people who have been victimized by their race,” she said over the phone from Wellington.
“[Jews] are a very small minority group in New Zealand and we have to make the Holocaust relevant.”
Holocaust education in a country that could not be further away from the killing fields of Europe and where Jews make up a tiny fraction of the population – about 7,500 out of a total of 4.4 million – can be a struggle. Woolf said schools do not regularly teach the subject and as a result awareness was relatively low. That is why, she said, the Holocaust museum housed at the Jewish community center in Wellington, directs its efforts toward teachers as well as students.
“Children are not taught about the Holocaust unless the teacher wants to teach it,” she said. “Many avoid it because it’s such a big and difficult subject, but we have on our website a curriculum showing how it can be taught.”
Woolf, who was born in Vienna in the 1930s and whose family managed to escape before the war, is one of the few New Zealanders with personal ties to the Holocaust. The country took in Jewish refugees from Europe in small numbers before the war and some Holocaust survivors emigrated there afterward.
Perhaps the most famous descendent of Jews who fled Nazi persecution in the country is Prime Minister John Key. The mother of the National Party politician, now in his second term in office, was a Jew who escaped Austria before the Nazi invasion. While he does not identify as being Jewish he has spoken about his heritage at the Holocaust museum in Wellington.
“He has visited the center and reminded people that his mother is a survivor,” Woolf said. “He has been to and speaks at our ceremonies.”
Woolf said her museum was in the process of putting together profiles of Holocaust survivors in New Zealand, most of which have either passed away, like the late mother of the prime minister who died in 2000, or are ailing.
“We have very few survivors now,” she said. “We are now recording their stories and we now have second generation people speaking about the Holocaust. People like me.”
New Zealand’s Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford, Wellington's Mayor Celia Wade Brown and the ambassadors of Israel, Poland and France will attend the ceremony at the Holocaust museum.
Its new exhibit will be on display in a larger room and include two suitcases belonging to children who were part of the Kindertransport, a group of young Jews from Germany admitted to the UK before the outbreak of World War II on humanitarian grounds.