Museum Guide

The permanent museum features state-of-the-art technology alongside traditional museum displays of original material from the Holocaust period, documents, photographs and artworks. Highlights include a large model of Treblinka, created by one of the few Jewish survivors of that camp, the late Chaim Sztajer, who settled in Melbourne after the Second World War, as well as powerful artworks by survivors and other Australian artists.

There are 18 sections which explore the rise of Nazism and the horrors of life and death in the ghettos and camps across Nazi-occupied Europe. The exhibition commences with the ‘Vanished World’, focussing on pre-war European Jewry, and ends with ‘To Life, to life, l’chaim’ where we look at the survivors who came to Australia and made it their home.

European Jewry before the Second World War was culturally rich and diverse.

In the 1930s, following the loss of WWI and the Great Depression, Germany was in turmoil. Adolf Hitler promised hope to the nation. Jews were gradually excluded from German society as part of the Nazi campaign to make Germany Judenrein (free of Jews).

In the late 1939 the Germans began occupying parts of surrounding countries because they demanded more living space (Lebensraum) for the German people. The War broke out in September 1939, after Germany attacked Poland.

According to Nazi ideology Germans were the ‘Aryan Master Race’. Jews were considered to be Untermenschen (sub-humans) and, in fact, racial enemies of the Aryan people, and therefore deserved to be treated as such.

To control the Jewish population of towns they invaded, the Nazis established ghettos, walled sections of cities where they forced Jews to live in crowded, unsanitary conditions. By the end of 1941 most of the Jews of occupied Eastern Europe were imprisoned in ghettos.

Mass open-air shooting of Jews was the first method the Nazis used to kill Jews in large numbers.

Although Nazi domination made it extremely difficult for Jews to fight back, wherever and whenever it was possible, Jews resisted. Resistance took many forms.

Under the cover of war the Nazis moved Jews around territories they occupied. They did this to achieve two aims: to use some as slave labour to support the war effort and ultimately to murder all the Jews in Europe.

The Nazis established a network of camps in which they imprisoned people they considered enemies, such as Jews and those with political views which the Nazis deemed inimical. There were concentration camps, internment camps, labour camps and transit camps, many of which were divided into numerous sub-camps.

The 'Final Solution to the Jewish Problem' or Endlöesung, refers to the Nazi plan to exterminate European Jewry. The Nazis established extermination camps for the purpose of mass murder in Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Allied armies witnessed scenes of horror as they liberated camps – unburied corpses and prisoners who looked like skeletons. They were surrounded by evidence of mass murder, in particular, the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria. With the release of photos and information, the rest of the world finally became aware of the full extent of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators.

The war ended but the suffering continued for Jews as most Jewish survivors were unable to resettle in their pre-war homes. Many found that their homes and businesses had been taken over by others.

Approximately 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, from newborn babies to teenagers.

The Nazis planned the total removal of Jews from Europe, but there were other groups that they also despised and treated with contempt, including Sinti-Roma (gypsies), the handicapped, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals.

Some Jews managed to avoid capture by the Nazis, whether by hiding or by pretending to be Christians and living openly with false documents. Others managed to flee to safer territories, not occupied by Nazis. For Jews in hiding or on the run it was a terrifying and often extremely hazardous existence.

Individual acts of courage and humanity enabled beacons of hope to flicker throughout this period of darkness, and ultimately stand as testament to man’s ability to confront and withstand extreme evil. During the Holocaust brave individuals and groups tried to help Jews. Such acts took great courage because the punishments were severe and, in some cases, the penalty was death.

The importance of creating new Jewish families was a response to the devastating loss of life. Many Jews married while still in the Displaced Persons Camps and whenever a Jewish child was born the survivors would offer the traditional toast: l’chaim, to life!

Soon after the Holocaust ended, survivors began writing about their experiences. The Jewish Holocaust Centre was created by Melbourne Holocaust survivors in 1984 with a mission to educate the public in order ‘to combat antisemitism, racism and prejudice in the community and foster understanding between people.’