The Sydney Jewish Museum opened in 1992. I’ve never been. One reason (or excuse) is that I expect to be confronted and need to be in the right frame of mind when I visit.
Visiting the Sydney Jewish Museum
This morning I’m ready. I gird my loins and cross Darlinghurst Road to the museum.
At the top of a short flight of stairs, I press the intercom button and after passing through a security check enter the museum through a glass door. The museum website warns visitors to expect a security check as “… sadly levels of racism, and antisemitism in particular, are on the rise.”
Reverberations: A Future for Memory
Friends have said good things about the new exhibition “Reverberations: A Future for Memory” and I make my way there first. Written in black writing on the floor beneath my feet I read, “Can you forgive? Is it difficult to share your experiences with others?”
A High-Tech Exhibition
They are two of the questions Holocaust Survivors answer in this thought-provoking high-tech exhibition. The survivors have shared their stories in person with visitors to the museum over the years. Now they have been recorded to enable their stories to be shared into the future.
I work my way along a wall where a row of small photographs of 43 neatly dressed men and women, some standing, others seated look back at me. Beneath each person’s name I read a short sentence briefly describing their Holocaust experience and arrival in Australia. Underneath, there’s a quote from each survivor as to why they share their stories.
Why Tell Their Stories?
Telling their story is difficult. One person says, “To tell my story in public was not easy.” Some find it cathartic. One says “…when I am talking, I get a feeling of relief inside…you can forget but you can’t forgive”, another and “After each of my talks to the children, I am left with a feeling of great satisfaction.”
Their reasons for telling their story vary. “To make children and adults aware of what can happen. To warn them.” And “to educate against the evils of intolerance”. A child survivor says, “I’ll be one of the last to tell our stories.” Another explains, “I’m honouring [my parents] every time I speak”.
As I read, a voice from the adjoining theatrette reaches me. It’s the recorded voice of one of the men whose quote I have just read. His filmed image on a black screen talks directly to me.
I sit glued to the stool in the theatrette, watching as Holocaust survivors answer questions relating to their experiences. This powerful use of technology paints a vivid picture of how the Holocaust impacted survivors.
Answering Difficult Questions
The questions they answer range from the expected “Can you forgive?” and “Was there justice?” to subjects I’d never thought about.
In answer to “What is the continuing impact of your experience?”, one person shares that they were “brought up to be very scared” and another, “I missed out on a childhood and a youth and a family.”
One survivor admits to still having nightmares, while another doesn’t feel “very comfortable in Germany”.
A take home message for me is that everyone has their own story, and their own experience. I think about inter-generational trauma.
“Talking” to a Holocaust Survivor
In the last part of the exhibition, I can ‘talk’ to a Holocaust survivor. Three survivors, Olga Horak, Yvonne Engelman, and the late Eddie Jaku spent five intense days being interviewed on film for this interactive conversation.
Instructing me to stand beneath a blue lit ring suspended from the ceiling a volunteer tells me to ask Eddie something, “anything”. Feeling very self-conscious, and rather uncomfortable, I begin. “What was it like coming to Australia?” and “Was there justice?”
Eddie takes a few seconds to compose himself before answering. His facial expression changes and then he begins his answer. AI at work. Even though I’m talking to a screen, I thank Eddie as I leave. He replies, “Thank you for coming.”
When I ‘talk’ to Yvonne, she tells me that when she came to Australia she was “taken care of by total strangers”. I’m reminded of the recent arrivals of Ukrainian refugees to Australia. Very different circumstances, but similar experiences.
Other Exhibits in the Sydney Jewish Museum
Leaving the thought-provoking exhibition, I explore the museum further. There’s a section dedicated to Jewish customs and festivals. I know the words Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but don’t know that honey and apples are eaten on the eve of Rosh Hashanah to sweeten the year ahead.
I’d heard about the groom breaking a glass at his wedding, but didn’t realise that the custom was a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in 70CE.
The exhibition of Jews in the Armed Forces makes me think. Celebrating Christmas might be the norm in Australia, but how do Jews (and other minority groups for that matter) in the armed forces celebrate their faith festivals?
Up another set of stairs is the section dealing with the Holocaust. One paragraph stands out:
“This exhibition offers no easy answers; it prompts you to consider the ethical implications of the processes, choices and decisions that were made.”
A map illustrates the number of Jewish deaths as a percentage of the Jewish population in various European countries. In Poland, the red circle with a small slither of blue indicates that almost the entire Jewish population was decimated. Lithuania and Latvia fared little better.
A storyboard relates how nine-year-old Judit’s doll helped her retain some ‘hope and happiness until her liberation’. Again, I reflect on the parallels of today where people in refugee camps try to hang onto hope.
I stare at a blanket made from animal and human hair. The text reads:
This blanket was thrown over 18 year old Olga Rosenberger’s skeleton-like body during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in 1945.
There’s a photograph of an older woman beside the blanket. I get goosebumps when I realise that I ‘spoke’ to Olga in the Reverberations Exhibition downstairs.
The Children’s Memorial
In the end, the exhibition proves too much for me to absorb, and I enter the Children’s Memorial. A wall of photographs, honours the memory of the children who perished. Where no photograph exists, there’s the child’s name.
A glass sculpture in the memorial contains 1.5 million drops of water. Each drops represents ‘one child murdered in the Holocaust’.
Leaving the Sydney Jewish Museum
I’ve been at the Sydney Jewish Museum for over three hours and it’s time to leave. I step out of the air-conditioned and subdued atmosphere of the museum into a hot, muggy February day.
My mind reels with questions and contradictory thoughts. The museum hopes to educate and inform and stop the world from repeating the horrors of the past. But the thought that stays in the forefront of my mind is “Has the world learnt anything?”
- The Sydney Jewish Museum is located at 148 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst
- The museum is closed on Saturdays
- Read more about opening times and what’s on here
If you are interested in museums and history, you’ll enjoy reading about my tour of the Darlinghurst Goal here.