In a large, well-lit section of the new permanent Holocaust exhibition at Sydney’s Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst, one’s eye is immediately drawn to two pillars. The first supports a large photograph of a beautiful Polish autumnal forest on which is superimposed photographs of civilians, numbering up to 16,000; Jews, politicians, intellectuals, priests and psychiatric patients, forced to dig their own graves before being machine gunned into them and buried, dead or alive.
The second pillar features a photograph of the Latvian Skede dunes with the beach in the background. Superimposed on this scene is a series of three photographs evidencing the humiliations and agonies of a small group of Jewish women in the last moments of their lives. First they were compelled to strip to their underwear, then sent to the next stop to suffer the further indignity of being forced to undress completely before being hustled to the edge of a pit where they were to be gunned down to fall and join the many dead already there. These women were amongst 2,731 Jews and 23 communists murdered at Skede by German and Latvian killing squads.
A third pillar captures the last moments of a group of men facing a firing squad. The juxtaposition of such images and the fate of the victims may stop many viewers in their tracks as they ponder the unfathomable. Remarkably, there is a survivor of one such massacre and he has recorded his story.
The recently-opened exhibition aims to remember and honour victims and survivors by telling the story of the Holocaust, defined by the curators as “the State orchestrated persecution and annihilation of some six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. The Nazis also persecuted and killed many other groups they defined as inferior or as a threat to their regime.”
Many survivor members of the SJM have dedicated their lives to preserving the memory of those shameful times. Some have written books detailing their experiences, many travel to schools, churches, synagogues and community organisations to tell their stories of survival and to tell the stories of their families and friends who did not survive. Some survivors have reported that during the Holocaust they were beseeched by Jews who knew they would likely perish to tell their stories for them after the war, not only to keep alive their memories but in the fervent hope and belief that such atrocities will never be repeated.
While museum exhibitions have long since been another way of reaching wide audiences, at the SJM “Where History has a Voice” remembering is central. The dedicated survivors, their ranks now thinning, have, very often at great emotional cost to themselves, continued to respond to the exhortation, Zachor (remember). For more than 30 survivors, the work of passing on memory continues with many of them being on hand as guides at the exhibition as are some descendants of survivors.
The largely chronological exhibition comprises more than 300 artefacts, and a mix of exhibits incorporating the latest technology, visual and auditory modalities. Its main architectural feature is the Star of David shaped central atrium, under which are engraved the first names of people remembered; survivors who are, or have been, involved with the museum, their murdered relatives and those named in honour of them. Whilst viewing the exhibition, one follows the Star of David and the engraved names.
Before wending their way over the three levels of the presentation, visitors can download “Voices”, a custom curated app that features survivor voices recounting their personal experiences of the event depicted in the relevant exhibit. In addition there are maps and an abundance of photographs accompanied by explanatory text on the wall, and interactive touch screens at stations en route where more stories can be heard.
There is a remarkable collection of artefacts made in the ghettos or camps and equipment from the camps, all of which were salvaged and accompanied their survivor owners to Australia. One survivor who escaped the Warsaw ghetto through the sewers, managed to take with her a watch and a hand mirror.
On the first level there is a screen showing footage of Jewish life before 1933. Another, running the length of the wall, shows clips of Nazi activities and other scenes from the 1930s. Contemporaneous British press headlines are (tantalisingly) superimposed on some of the clips. There are also photographs and explanatory texts of the boycott of Jewish shops on 1 April 1933 and Kristallnacht on 9-10 November 1938.
Australia’s shame is on show, first with a report on the Evian Conference held in July 1938. Each of the 32 participant countries sent several delegates but there were no positive outcomes, no country being prepared to offer refuge to the thousands of European Jews in desperate need of both compassion and justice. The Australian delegate announced to the assembly that: “as we have no real racial problem [in Australia]we are not desirous of importing one.” The immediate problem was obviously not addressed by Australia’s offer to take up to 15,000 Jewish refugees over three years.
In 1938, Leo Steiner found refuge in Australia. He was 20 years old, legally a minor, but the Australian government repeatedly denied his requests for visas for his parents and brother. On display is his last rejection letter, received in May 1939, in reply to his letter written more than three months earlier. Leo’s father was murdered the following year, his mother and brother later, the former in Minsk, the latter in Yugoslavia.
Aboriginal activist William Cooper is honoured in the exhibition as one who was not an indifferent bystander. Following Kristallnacht, Cooper led a delegation to the German Consulate in Melbourne. He carried a petition condemning “the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany.” The delegation was not admitted to the Consulate and their petition was not accepted. The protest, reported in the Australian press, did not inspire similar actions. Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, reports that this was the only protest of its kind in the world. William Cooper died in March 1941.
Passing through a narrow passageway into a dim enclosed space, one sees a large screen, showing, amongst other things, footage of life in the ghetto, complemented by survivor stories accessed via the interactive touch screens. Illuminated photos and text describe one of the featured concentration camps, Theresienstadt. Here too are stories of survivors who were hidden.
Another small, separate and dimly lit space houses a haunting memorial to the one and a half million children who were murdered during the Holocaust. A wall of coloured glass frames contains names and photos of more than 400 children, given to the SJM by their families and friends. Empty frames honour children whose names and faces are lost to memory. Several recesses containing artefacts and objects serve as vignettes of the short lives of a few of the children.
A glass encased, fired clay sculpture of a mountain of children’s shoes titled All That Remained, was created by survivor Elza Pollak “as a loving tribute to the Jewish children whose lives were cut short with no mark of their existence, no name, no photograph and no loved one to remember them.”
Information on the wall gives a harrowing account of the fate that befell some of the children transported to Treblinka before being gassed there. It is illustrative of the abyss of moral depravity into which so many of the guards had sunk.
An engraved likeness pays tribute to the revered Dr Janusz Korczak who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto for almost two hundred children. Having refused to leave them, he and his assistant, Stefania Wilczynska, perished with the children at Treblinka.
A large glass Memorial Sculpture forms another wall and contains one and a half million drops of water. The stone set beneath was brought from Jerusalem and symbolises the rebirth of the Jewish people. The water drops at approximately the rate of one drop per second. With each of the one million five hundred thousand murdered children represented by one drop of water falling at the rate of one drop per second, the drops take 18 days and nights to fall one million five hundred thousand times.
Above the water sculpture is a meditation by Romanian-born American survivor Elie Wiesel:
“Listen to the tears of children… Look and listen as they quietly walk towards flames so gigantic that the planet itself seemed in danger.”
The final sections of the collection lead from the forced death marches of January – April 1945 through to the liberation of survivors and the search for surviving relatives. A video shows the horrific scenes in the camps at the time of the liberation, a salvation that came too late for too many. There are scenes from Displaced Persons Camps, the last of which, in Bavaria, was not able to be closed until 1957.
A large folder contains pertinent articles from Australian newspapers of the immediate post war period. Many addressed the plight of homeless European refugees, especially children. Other articles reported on a debate that was raging about the suitability of allowing Australian children, especially those under 16, to view the emerging newsreel footages of scenes from the death camps.
International war criminals and trials are featured, and photographs and information of the search for evidence of atrocities in Ukrainian forests.
For survivors there were new beginnings and many thousands chose Australia as their new home. There are displays relating to the new lives of some of the SJM’s members.
This is a comprehensive exhibition and fitting tribute to the six million Jewish lives lost. It is well balanced in its presentation of the breadth of events that defined the Holocaust and also honours non-Jewish victims. Winding through hushed and sometimes dimly-lit spaces we have the sensation of being on a sacred journey.
Though heartbreaking, the children’s memorial is truly exceptional but having seen it and other evidence of barbarity such as the photographs evidencing forest and beach massacres, one’s humanity surely imposes obligations; first to remember, for in the words of Elie Wiesel: “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” This knowledge and remembering also demand expression through a commitment to oppose all forms of discrimination, racism and injustice.
Elie Wiesel’s life’s work was “to hold the conscience of the Jew and non Jew in a relentless focus on the horror of the Holocaust and to make this, the worst of all evils, impossible to forget.” He would surely agree that the concept of Zachor, eternal memory, will continue to live in and through this exhibition.
Images courtesy of Sydney Jewish Museum
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