A Labour of Love

Our new upgraded museum opened in 2010. Since then, thousands of students and others have had the opportunity to attend our educational programs in the refurbished Museum and to be inspired by our survivor-guides.

Jayne Josem is the museum Curator and project leader of the museum upgrade. This is the text of the address she delivered at the preview opening on 18 March 2010.

We are excited to announce that our new upgraded museum is open. Since 1 March school students have been coming every day to take advantage of the new educational experience we offer at the Centre. It has been a labour of love for all those involved – myself and all the volunteers who worked on the project, the Jewish Holocaust Centre staff, past and present, and the survivors who work here, who continue to inspire us all.

The survivors built this Centre from their shared sorrows; from the well of sadness a bucket of hope was drawn. The hope was that despite all the unimaginable, inexplicable, unspeakable horrors that form the foundation of this institution,  people would come and learn important lessons about humanity. The survivors come each week, hoping to impart some good, hoping to awaken something deep in the souls of the often indifferent students who come through our doors.

The challenge the Centre faces is to get these sometimes apathetic, sometimes self-absorbed students interested in something that happened 75 years ago, in a far away land, to a minority group. It is a tall order. Zvi Civins, our Education Director put it nicely: ‘They arrive indifferent; they leave different.’Recently the historian Simon Schama was asked: ‘What do we learn from history?’ George Bernard Shaw once famously said: ‘We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.’ Simon Schama had a particularly good answer, which rings true for our Centre and it is why we do what we do. He said: ‘History teaches us to fight for the truth.’

As much as the powerful aspect of a visit to the Centre is still the opportunity to interact with survivors, we felt the students needed a more modern-looking museum – one that communicates to them simply and one with a sizeable multi-media component. We felt they needed striking display cases, well-placed artistic reflections on the Holocaust, riveting photos and even historical film footage to make it more real. But mostly, we felt they needed to be moved emotionally. To walk into the museum today you must walk past photos of over 150 children who perished in the Holocaust – brothers, sisters and friends of Melbourne survivors. The faces of these children are not much different from those of the students walking by, or their brothers or sisters. It immediately brings the Holocaust to their level. Children were murdered en masse – 1.5 million children.

Equally important are the powerful display items, like the orange silk dress of the little girl, Basia Puszet, who wasmurdered in Treblinka aged three, and the large Treblinka model made by the late Chaim Sztajer in memory of his wife and  child who were murdered upon arrival at the death camp. Now you can be taken on a tour through the model, with a computer set up to light the different areas and explain in depth what went on in a specific area, including the gas chambers and the burial process. It is a chilling insight into the way the Nazis went about murdering the Jews and, being a model, it is more tangible, more real, than words on a page.

We hope these sometimes nonchalant students will learn just what people are capable of, if left unchecked. We want their visit to be a ‘wake-up’. In saying this we must acknowledge that not all of our young visitors are disinterested. Some are indeed motivated and interested, but the majority needs to be jolted into a sense of awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust and of racism and prejudice.

One of our main goals was to keep the survivors’ voices alive in the museum and the use of multi-media helps to achieve this. At one station you can hear retired museum guide, Rosie Bruell, asking: ‘When we are gone, who is going to talk about them?’ The ‘them’ she refers to is her family and all the millions who were murdered. This is a big concern many survivors express, this fear that in the future no one will care; no one will be left to talk about their murdered families.

Thanks to technology, the survivors will continue to be heard in the museum and we too will continue to talk about the Holocaust and the millions who were murdered. Survivors gave us guidance throughout the museum upgrade and we relished the opportunity to work with them, to create this museum in consultation with them and to have ongoing dialogue with them throughout the project. Many have given us precious items, photographs and documents that fill the walls and cabinets of the museum. The Jewish Holocaust Centre thanks all the donors of memorabilia and all the artists whose work is featured. It was always our aim to fill the space with material and stories of Melbourne Holocaust survivors.

This is what makes our museum truly unique. While we have sourced many photographs for the museum from archives the world over, we are fortunate that so much primary source material, evidence of the Holocaust, is right here in Melbourne and much of it safely stored in our own collection.

This museum is our gift to the survivors who created the Centre and have worked so tirelessly in it for over 26 years. We hope they continue to use it in good health and, taking heed of Simon Schama’s wise words, may we all continue to fight for the truth.