By Jayne Josem, Curator and Head of Collections at the JHC
“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 to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”
Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations
The Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC) was created 30 years ago by survivors of the Holocaust, eye-witnesses to the history they planned to display in a museum and about which they wished to educate the public. These survivors were not chasing shadows; they were escaping the never-ending nightmare that had gripped them for some 40 years at that point. For themselves they created a place to memorialise the family and friends who had been murdered during that dark period, but for the community they created an educational resource designed with the hopeful notion that making people aware of the horrors might prevent such atrocities ever happening again. And this attitude is confirmed in the remarks of two survivors who guide at the Centre. Sonja Wajsenberg recalls that she came to the Centre to work because she felt it was a place that she could be with members of her family who had been murdered. And Abram Goldberg remembers the last words his mother said to him before they were separated at Auschwitz: if you survive, tell the world what happened here.
Why did it take forty years to build this public memorial centre? Why not earlier? Survivors had travelled to a foreign country, set up their lives here, established families, worked hard, but they could not forget and they did not want to forget. With the rise of Holocaust denial and Holocaust awareness in the 1960s and 1970s a slow-moving force coalesced into different groups of people coming together with this common purpose: to ensure that this unprecedented tragedy was remembered and taught widely. When the survivors first arrived in Australia they were generally more silent, possibly because the public found it too difficult to hear their uncomfortable truths. But with the passage of time, they began to find willing and compassionate listeners in the community.
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, advocate that there has been a saturation of Holocaust literature, movies, museums etc. ‘Shouldn’t you just move on and put the past behind you’ is an often heard sentiment. This, like the over-use of Holocaust and Nazi comparisons to more trivial events in the media, fails to recognize the extreme nature 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 ‘unprecedented-ness’ of the Holocaust and to try to understand how it happened in order hopefully to prevent such genocide ever happening again. Why do so many schools study Elie Wiesel’s book Night? Why is the graphic novel Maus on the VCE English set-work text list this year? Why do schools 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.
History students, like historians, might be chasing shadows trying to learn about the past, but at the JHC we have the unique privilege of having the witnesses speak directly to the public. We will never be able to understand the past completely or to reconstruct the past, but we do not chase shadows and we are not out of earshot.
Today, as has been the case for 30 years, visitors are treated to the often life-changing experience of hearing survivors give testimony. The messages left by students on our message board indicate how deeply they have been moved by the experience. As former JHC Director of Education, Zvi Civins, says of the students: “They arrive indifferent, but they leave different”. A recent slogan that the Centre has proudly adopted is “Remember the past: change the future.” This message resonates clearly with the school students, who leave with a sense of purpose, rather than a sense of despair.
We are keenly aware of the future challenge for our Centre when survivors are no longer able to attend, as the average age of the 20 or so survivor guides currently serving at the JHC is pushing 90 years old. We have recorded most of them giving short testimonies as well as answering frequently asked questions, with a view to broadcasting these recordings in the future. The museum features audio-visual stations with survivors talking throughout. We feel confident that we have done everything we possibly can to keep the survivors’ voices and memories alive in the museum space for perpetuity.
The Melbourne survivor community has bequeathed to the JHC what Canadian professor Roger Simon called ‘a terrible gift’. They have recorded their experiences on camera, 1300 of them; they have donated thousands of documents, primary source evidence of their persecution; many have written detailed memoirs; they have given us precious photos of murdered loved ones; they have donated camp uniforms and cloth badges that labelled them as Jews; and some 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 tell the horrible 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 Centre is of course honoured to be the recipient and custodian of these terrible gifts, and we are committed to carry on the message that the survivors intended for this institution: never to forget. Thirty years after the JHC opened its doors in a converted 1930s dance hall in Elsternwick, the Centre has doubled in size and is bursting to capacity as it struggles to host the many school children that visit – over 20,000 each year – and the 100 or so volunteers that come through the doors each week to assist. With plans being drawn for a new building, it is clear that the founders were indeed visionaries in sensing a public need to hear about the atrocities and injustices they witnessed and endured. The next generation is just as passionate and committed to ensure that their memories live on.
Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwanted Speculations, 1992
Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust, 2008
Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, 1996
Elie Wiesel, Night, 1960 (Le Nuit, 1958)
Roger Simon, “The Terrible Gift: Museums and the possibility of hope without consolation”, Museum Management and Curatorship, Volume 21, Issue 3, 2006