Max Kaiser on Jews For Refugees

i May 26th 2016

Read “Jews, Refugees and the (im)possibility of history”, an insightful piece by Max Kaiser, about the formation and reformation of Jews For Refugees, published in Overland earlier this month:

A few years ago I received a phone call from the current Energy and Resources minister, Josh Frydenberg. He called me in response to an email I had sent only hours earlier on behalf of Jews for Refugees (JFR), drawing his attention to the case of the MV Struma. The Struma was a ship carrying 781 Jewish refugees from Romania that, on 23 February 1942, was towed from the harbour in Istanbul to the Black Sea, leaving the ship adrift. The next day the Struma was torpedoed and sunk by a Russian submarine. There was only one survivor. When Frydenburg called, the story of the Struma was being referenced in synagogues and the Jewish media, a warning against the Liberals policy of ‘turning back the boats’.

The majority of Jews in Australia have a refugee background; usually, they, their parents or grandparents came in the late thirties from Germany or Austria, or as Holocaust survivors escaping a devastated Europe in the decade following the Second World War. In 2012, I was involved in restarting the then dormant activist group JFR. We tried to campaign within the Jewish community and to get young Jews along to pro-refugee rallies. Most people we talked to were sympathetic, but some were not. One time, we were run off Glen Eira Road by over-eager council workers acting on complaints they had received about postering.

We retreated to the western suburbs to re-assess our strategy. Why were we Jews for refugees? How did the struggles of our parents or grandparents inform who we were and how we wanted to shape the world? We were wary of calling on people morally, of arguing that because Jews have suffered in history we somehow had more of an obligation to speak out against injustice and suffering now.

In her book Landscapes of Memory: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, Ruth Klüger recounts a discussion with some German PhD students:

One [student] reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that? the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. What did he expect? Auschwitz was no instructional institution … You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps, I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theatre for? They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.

I often think of something my friend Jem said at the time we were organising JFR: ‘I don’t see history as a series of discrete events from which we can learn moral lessons. It’s about seeing history not as something that is past. History is continuous.’

We can demystify the present by historicising it. In the case of Australia’s migration history, we can understand that in the thirties, and in some senses up until the early fifties when restrictions on Jewish migration were finally abolished, Jews were marked as unwanted others. Our current refugee policy is in line with a long history of violence at the borders of a putatively ‘White Australia’.

Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, famously referred to the struggle for the ‘oppressed past’ – a concept with a double meaning. First, the history and memory of oppressed peoples; second, the fact that very past has been oppressed and suppressed. For Benjamin, history as it is currently constituted is the history of the dominant. ‘Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,’ Benjamin wrote. ‘And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.’ How, then, do we go about fanning the spark?

In an interview on the recent accusations of anti-Semitism in the UK Labour party, Norman Finkelstein discussed the ethics of making comparisons to the Holocaust, referencing his mother who was a Holocaust survivor and a Communist:

When she saw the segregation of African-Americans, whether at a lunch counter or in the school system, that was, for her, like the prologue to the Nazi holocaust. Whereas many Jews now say, Never compare … my mother’s credo was, Always compare. She gladly and generously made the imaginative leap to those who were suffering, wrapping and shielding them in the embrace of her own suffering …When she saw Vietnamese being bombed during the Vietnam War, it was the Nazi holocaust. It was the bombing, the death, the horror, the terror, that she herself had passed through. When she saw the distended bellies of starving children in Biafra, it was also the Nazi holocaust, because she remembered her own pangs of hunger in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Jewish refugees drowned at sea after the Struma was turned away

found on Wikipedia

This is a paradigmatic case of what academic Michael Rothberg calls ‘multidirectional memory’, a concept for thinking collective memory against the framework of ‘competitive memory – as a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources’. Multidirectional memory is ‘subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; [it is] productive and not privative.’ In my own research on the history of the discourse of the Australian Jewish Left, I have found frequent comparisons of the Holocaust with struggles against colonialism, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the Vietnam War.

How then do we balance Klüger’s suggestion of the ultimate meaninglessness of the Holocaust and Finkelstein’s mother’s compari

or empathetic, experiencing oppression does not mean you should be held to a higher moral or ethical standard.

Political struggle, however, has the capacity to remake and redeem these pasts, to make them move, slip, and tussle, backward, forward and across, opening new lines of solidarity, and presaging Benjamin’s ‘revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past’.

sons? Memory by itself can only take us so far. Surviving a genocide does not make you a better person, trauma does not make you more insightful Image

My conversation with Frydenberg was fairly unremarkable. He repeated Liberal Party talking points on the need to ‘stop the boats’ and I disputed them. We agreed to disagree and I hung up. I have wondered since why he called so quickly after receiving the email. It seems to me he rang so as to try and arrest the moment – to not let the memory of theMV Struma slip any further; to dispute its multidirectional capacity; to make sure that the dead stayed dead.

This article was originally published 25 May, 2016 in Overland.

On the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Marek Edelman

i Apr 28th 2016

By Arnold Zable

On this day, April 19, 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out, ushering in an extraordinary battle for freedom and dignity. We gather tonight, as we always do on this date, to honour those who took part in this, and many other uprisings during this period, and those who escaped to the forests and continued the struggle as partisans. On this night we recall many forms of resistance – including cultural resistance – the underground ghetto theatres, schools, the children who stole out via the sewers and returned with food for the starving and arms for the resistance… and the simple acts, those who stayed with their elderly family members, at the risk and often the cost of their own lives, to provide comfort and protection… On this day I also recall the most remarkable man I have met – Marek Edelman – one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who also fought in the Polish uprising a year later and who remained in Poland post-war to become a legendary fighter for freedom and social justice, a revered member of Solidarity and an innovative cardiologist. Here is an article I wrote about him, and our meeting in Warsaw in 2006—published in The Age after his death in 2010. At one point, when I asked him why he remained in Poland whilst so many others left, he replied:

“Why should I have left?… Is it any better anywhere else? All countries face the challenge of protecting human rights and opposing racism. The fight for democratic rights and social justice has to be fought here as elsewhere.” Edelman was emphatic. His life had been “one consistent, unbroken thread” that stretched from his youth as a pre-war member of the Bund and through his struggles against the Nazis and the postwar Stalinists.
Yes – we have our own battles against racism here in Australia – we have that in mind too as we honour the memory of those who were prepared to risk all for freedom and dignity on this day in April 1943.

“The one who stayed”
The Age, April 16, 2010
Arnold Zable

Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, is the most remarkable man I have met. We conversed in a Warsaw apartment in September 2006. For many of his former comrades, Edelman was an enigma. There are survivors in Melbourne who were with him in the city of Lodz in 1948, the night before they left for the Polish border to escape to the West. In postwar Poland, Edelman became revered as an innovative cardiologist and stalwart of the Solidarity movement that finally toppled the communist dictatorship in 1989. But his former comrades could not understand why he did not escape with them. He remained a mystery and became known as the one who stayed behind.

Like Edelman, my parents were pre-war members of the Bund, the Jewish labour movement that commanded a mass following in Poland in the inter-war years. For Edelman, whose father died when he was young and whose mother died when he was 14, the Bund was family. Formed in Vilna in 1897, in response to mass impoverishment and anti-Semitism, the party’s focus shifted to Poland after the Bolshevik revolution. Its democratic ideals and love of Yiddish culture would sit easily alongside contemporary ideals of multiculturalism but had no place in totalitarian Russia.

All but annihilated in the Holocaust, the remnants of the Bund regrouped in far-flung Jewish communities, among them Melbourne. In the 1950s and ’60s, the community would assemble on the evening of April 19 at the Kadimah Hall in Lygon Street, North Carlton, opposite the Melbourne General Cemetery.

At those memorial evenings, and on weekly Sunday afternoon meetings of the Bund youth group, we came to know the details of the uprising. At its height, there were up to half a million Jews crowded into the five square miles of the Warsaw ghetto. By April 1943, the population had been reduced to just over 60,000 through deportations, disease and starvation. Beginning in July 1942, inmates were transported to the Treblinka death camp where they were killed in gas chambers.

Edelman was a co-founder of the Jewish Fighting Organisation, a coalition that united members of the Bund, left-wing Zionists, communists and others under the leadership of 24-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz. The resistance was formed as a response to mass murder. Its aim was to disrupt the deportations and to make a final stand. The young fighters had no illusions about their chances but reasoned it was better to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy, and to choose their own way of dying.

Marek Edelman

Marek Edelman

Early morning, on April 19, 1943, the first day of Passover, a German force of more than 2000 men, with SS and police units, entered the ghetto to begin the final liquidation. The walls were surrounded with armed guards and more security forces were on standby. The streets were deserted. The inmates had retreated into hiding. The force was met by gunfire from the rooftops and windows, and a barrage of Molotov cocktails. The Germans retreated in panic.
There were, according to Edelman, just 220 ghetto fighters armed with a limited arsenal of pistols, home-made grenades, a few automatic weapons and rifles. The fierce battles continued for weeks. The buildings were razed street by street, and burnt to the ground to flush out the fighters. The ghetto ceased to exist on May 16. All that remained were piles of charred rubble.

On those Sunday afternoons in Carlton, we heard tales of extraordinary feats. We were in awe of the fighters, among them children who had smuggled in dynamite and pistols through the sewers. We were haunted by images of young men and women dashing through the flames, jumping from burning buildings, swallowing cyanide rather than fall into the hands of the enemy.

We heard tales of the teenage commander Dovid Hokhberg, who, when cornered in a bunker with his battalion and several hundred civilians, blocked a narrow opening with his own body, allowing the others to escape before his bullet-riddled corpse could be dragged clear. And of Mikhal Klepfish, the young engineer who set up a secret factory manufacturing Molotov cocktails and who, on the second day of the revolt, threw his body against a machinegun, allowing his comrades to escape from their besieged attic. We learnt of the exploits of teenage fighter Yurek Blones, who held off a Nazi attack single-handedly and continued shooting as he led his battalion to the surest escape route, the sewers.

Edelman was a leading figure in the pantheon, reputed to have led his fighters in a red sweater and brandishing two pistols. As commander of the Bund battalion in the brush-makers’ factory district, he was admired as a calm and calculating strategist who valued human life.

“We fought to protect the people in the ghetto, to extend their life by a day or two or five,” he once said.
The ghetto uprising became a part of my childhood dreaming. It was one of the reasons I journeyed to Poland in 1986 to explore the Polish towns and villages my parents were raised in, and to reflect upon the fate of my murdered grandparents and their families. At the time the Soviet-controlled dictatorship was still in power but facing growing resistance from the Solidarity movement. Edelman’s name came up in almost every conversation I had with Solidarity activists. I learnt he had been jailed when martial law was imposed on December 13, 1981. The following year he was kept under house arrest. He was admired for his resolve and daring, and referred to as the moral conscience of Poland.

Twenty years later, in the autumn of 2006, I returned with my 12-year-old son to show him the towns and villages of his forebears. We spent our first few nights in Dom Literatury, the House of Literature, located in the old quarters of Warsaw. The fourth floor served as a hotel for writers, while the others were given over to literary groups, among them the Polish Centre of International PEN. As a result I was able to meet the vice-president, Adam Pomorska.
Again, Edelman’s name came up in conversation. In recent years he had defended Roma Gypsies whose camps were destroyed by the police. He had expressed solidarity with multicultural Sarajevo in the 1990s when the city was under siege, and participated in the 1989 talks that led to the introduction of a democratic system in Poland. At 87, he was still working as a cardiologist in Lodz, still active in human rights.

Edelman was due in Warsaw to be honoured as one of the founders of KOR, the workers’ defence group formed in response to government repression in 1976, and a precursor to Solidarity. Would I like to meet him? I was elated.
Two weeks later I was ushered into the living room of a Warsaw apartment by Edelman’s assistant and close friend, Paula Sawicka, president of Open Republic, the Polish association against xenophobia and anti-Semitism. As forewarned, Marek Edelman was a crusty old warrior, wary of sentiment. He warmed when we conversed in Yiddish, a language that evokes a sense of fraternity and intimacy. We were connected as members of the Bund family. He inquired after his two former comrades still alive in Melbourne, Pinche Wiener and Avram Zeleznikow, who had been with him on the night before they escaped Poland. Yes, he did get drunk with Pinche that night, he confirmed. Edelman was known to be a connoisseur of cognac.

When our conversation turned to the uprising, Edelman was forthright. “Anyone can learn how to shoot,” he said. “Far more important than the number of fighters was their spirit. The uprising began in the first days of occupation, and intensified when the ghetto was set up. The Bund organised underground schools and theatres, social welfare groups, public kitchens.”

He singled out Bund activists who taught children songs in the ghetto tenements and courtyards. He reiterated what he had once written: “In all of the filth that lay about, the hunger, the humiliation and waste of every kind of human feeling, in spite of everything, we managed to give these children a little joy, a little bit of a cheerful life. For a few hours daily, they lived a normal life as if the war, the ghetto, and all the rest didn’t exist.”

Edelman extended his understanding of resistance to the parents who tried desperately to buoy their children’s spirits, and those who chose to accompany loved ones to the death camps. It was far more difficult to go to your death in Auschwitz and Treblinka, he said, than to die with a gun in hand.

Nowolipie Street, Warsaw, at the time of the uprising.

Nowolipie Street, Warsaw, at the time of the uprising.

He had escaped the burning ghetto on May 10, 1943, with the help of members of the Polish resistance, waiting 48 hours in a sewer 71 centimetres high, where the water reached to his lips. He moved about hiding places in Warsaw and fought in the ill-fated Polish uprising against Nazi occupation in August 1944. The Red Army had advanced to the outskirts of the city but stood by and waited until the fierce battles were over and the city levelled.

“We had no illusions about the Stalinists,” said Edelman. By 1948, the Polish communists had ruthlessly consolidated their power, establishing a de facto single-party dictatorship and creating a satellite state of the Soviet Union, despite mass opposition. This was the final straw for Edelman’s comrades. There could be no viable future for the Bund in postwar Poland.

Yet Edelman stayed even after his wife, Alina Margolis, a nurse in the Warsaw ghetto, finally left Poland in 1968 after anti-Semitic purges instigated by the government. A paediatrician, she settled in Paris with their two children and became active in the human rights group Doctors Without Borders. So why did he remain in Poland, I asked.
“Why should I have left?” Edelman retorted. “Is it any better anywhere else? All countries face the challenge of protecting human rights and opposing racism. The fight for democratic rights and social justice has to be fought here as elsewhere.” Edelman was emphatic. His life had been “one consistent, unbroken thread” that stretched from his youth as a pre-war member of the Bund and through his struggles against the Nazis and the postwar Stalinists.
With the fall of the Polish communist regime in 1989, his main goal had been realised. With each passing year the democratic culture was more deeply rooted. “Poland is now another world,” he said. “The people have finally put an end to dictatorship and occupation.” His struggle had borne fruit, although he was pessimistic about the recent rise of the nationalist right in Europe.

On further reflection, he quietly echoed remarks he had made before. He had remained in Poland because “someone had to stay here with all those who perished. You don’t leave and abandon the memory of them.” In many interviews and writings, Edelman continued to document the deeds and names of fighters. Each year on the anniversary of the uprising, he would lay flowers at Warsaw’s monument to the ghetto heroes.

The Edelman I met was a hardened activist without illusions. A wry sceptic and an acute observer of character, he valued most his work as a cardiologist. Better to heal than to kill, he said. The young ghetto fighters had taken up arms because there was no other way. He was wary of nationalism and retained a dim view of humanity. “People have to be educated — from kindergarten on — against hatred,” he said.

On April 19, 2009, confined to a wheelchair, Edelman laid the flowers for the final time, and called for tolerance. He died on October 2, aged 90, in the apartment where I had met him — “at home, among friends, among his close people”, said Paula Sawicka. Several thousand mourners, including the president of Poland, attended his state funeral. Edelman’s coffin was draped with the Bund banner. A band played klezmer-style arrangements of jazz standards as the procession made its way past key sites of the former ghetto to the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, where a choir sang the Bund anthem by the graveside.

On Monday in Melbourne, the Bund community will again gather and light the six candles. We will recall the feats of the ghetto fighters and recite the works of its poets. We will honour the 6 million who perished, and recall the victims of contemporary genocides, from Armenia to Rwanda. And six months after his passing, we will pay tribute to Marek Edelman, a legendary leader of the Warsaw uprising, a healer and lifelong fighter against injustice. The one who stayed behind.

This article appeared in the AJDS newsletter, Just Voices #9 – Freedom/Oppression, during Passover 2016.

‘We were once strangers’

i Dec 29th 2015

By Robin Rothfield

HOW should we Jews react to the worldwide refugee crisis? In light of the attacks in Paris, there are those who argue we should close our borders.

The attacks resulted in around 130 deaths. This is horrendous and demonstrates the complete lack of respect for the sanctity of human life by the perpetrators of this heinous crime.

But consider the situation in Syria. Estimates of the number of deaths from the civil war since March 2011 vary from 200,000 to 340,000. Taking the lower estimate of 200,000 works out at 123 deaths per day.

This means that the people of Syria have been subjected to the death toll experienced in Paris every day for four-and-a-half years. No wonder there has been such an exodus of Syrians seeking refuge in Europe and elsewhere.

On Rosh Hashanah at the Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black made the following pertinent observations regarding the Syrian refugee crisis: “Hungary’s official response has sometimes had a blatantly racist tone – Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, ‘Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims,’ he said. ‘This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity … There is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders.’

“I am sure there are some Jews who agree: ‘Muslims are all the same, violent fundamentalists, and we can’t trust any of them.’ If so, simply replace the religion – how would you feel if Prime Minister Viktor Orban had said, ‘Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Jews … There is no alternative …’

“First and foremost, these refugees – whether they are from Syria, Sudan, Iraq or Afghanistan – are people, human beings, like us, but uprooted from their homes, their extended families, their cultures, environments, languages, foods, jobs – so actually more like many of our parents or grandparents than most of us.

“They need our help, our compassion, our patience and understanding. Welcome the stranger – for you know what it is like to be a stranger – one of the most common instructions in the Torah.”

The injunction, otherwise expressed as “Do not oppress the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt,” occurs in the Torah 36 times.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has written: “It is terrifying in retrospect to grasp how seriously the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. It is as if the Torah were saying with the utmost clarity: reason is insufficient. Sympathy is inadequate.

“Only the force of history and memory is strong enough to form a counterweight to hate.

“Why should you not hate the stranger? asks the Torah. Because you once stood where they stand now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so are they.

“If they are less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says God – they are nonetheless in Mine.

“There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

The Jewish community in Australia today is well established but it is pertinent to remember that this was not always the case.

At the Evian Conference in 1938, called to discuss the issue of increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, Australia’s minister for trade and custom, Thomas White, said: “It will no doubt be appreciated also that as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.”

While we welcome the government’s recent decision to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees, let us not forget about the asylum seekers languishing in the hellholes of Manus Island and Nauru, where sexual and other physical abuse are reportedly rife and where the inmates suffer from despair wondering what they have done wrong when in fact they have broken no law.

Let us also not forget about asylum seekers languishing in the detention centre on Christmas Island.

Originally published in the Australian Jewish News, November 27, 2015

Robin Rothfield for Labor for Refugees was interviewed on ABC earlier this year. Watch it here.



Refugee crisis brings back bad memories for Jews

i May 19th 2015

The following, powerful letter was published in The Australian, 19/5/2015. Thank you to the undersigned authors for decrying the abhorrent treatment of refugees, stranded at sea and in dire need of our help. 

* * *

As Jews, the sight of desperate refugees on a ship, being refused entry to country after country, brings back memories of the German passenger ship St Louis, which, in 1939 and filled with European Jewish refugees, was turned away repeatedly, resulting in 254 passengers eventually dying under the Nazi regimen.

We therefore appeal to the Prime Minister and government as an act of mercy and generosity to immediately let into Australia the refugees who have been abandoned at sea, and to encourage our neighbours to take a share of them.

These are oppressed human beings who could make an immediate and valuable contribution to the rural workforce, and become valuable citizens, as have previous arrivals.

Jonathan Keren-Black, Kew, Vic

Robin Rothfield, Alphington, Vic

Thirty Years of Public Remembrance and Education at the Jewish Holocaust Centre

i Jul 20th 2014

By Jayne Josem, Curator and Head of Collections at the JHC

The Jewish Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick, Melbourne

The Jewish Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick, Melbourne


“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