The sculpture of children's shoes at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
The sculpture of children's shoes at the Sydney Jewish Museum. Mark Furler

Jewish museum has powerful message for bigots

THOSE tiny feet. Broken hearts and bones. Malnourished bodies and tortured minds. Abuse beyond belief.

As I walk through the Children's Memorial in the Sydney Jewish Museum, a sculpture of children's shoes brings me to a jarring halt.

How could anyone be so cruel to a child? How could government and army officials plot the destruction of an entire race?

As a father, photos of just a fraction of the 1.5 million children lost in the Nazi holocaust scream out at me.

Girls with blue eyes and blonde hair, sad-looking brown-eyed boys.

There's a sculpture filled with water - 1.5 million drops for each one of them lost.

On the wall, Treblinka (an extermination camp) survivor Yankel Wiernik's words are powerfully poignant.

"All through that winter small children, stark naked and barefooted, had to stand out in the open for hours on end, awaiting their turn in the increasingly busy gas chambers.

"The soles of their feet froze and stuck to the icy ground.

The faces of just some of the Jewish children lost in the Holocaust.
The faces of just some of the Jewish children lost in the Holocaust. Mark Furler

"They stood and cried; some of them froze to death. In the meantime, Germans and Ukrainians walked up and down the ranks, beating and kicking them.

"One of the Germans, a man named Sepp, was a vile and savage beast who took special delight in torturing children.

"When he pushed women around and they begged him to stop because they had children with them, he would frequently snatch a child from the woman's arms and either tear the child in half or grab it by the legs, smash its head against a wall and throw the body away."

The newly renovated museum, which first opened in 1992, uses every means to convey stories of those lost and the survivors who somehow managed to escape it all.

As you walk around, you can hear audio of people featured in displays via an app, while powerful portraits of survivors speak of their resilience.

Each week, schoolchildren hear from volunteers who are determined to ensure the horror of the Holocaust is not forgotten.

The opening statement of the Children's Memorial is not lost on them.

"For children everywhere in the hope they will live in a world of peace and love.

"In memory of the children who found neither."

Sydney Jewish Museum
Sydney Jewish Museum Mark Furler

The museum records the fact that 90% of Jewish children perished in death camps.

Too young to work, they were among the first to be moved to the camps because they were considered of no value.

The white walls of the museum bear Jewish surnames - family after family affected forever.

"As you make your way through the museum, the names will accompany you.''

They do - and long after you leave.

Watching archival footage taken by US Army photographers reveals the sick scenes of the death camps.

Jews were identified with uniform and tattoos.
Jews were identified with uniform and tattoos. Mark Furler

"We could smell burning human bodies,'' Lotte Weiss says in a Jewish Museum video.

"And we looked up to heaven and my sister Erica said 'today is the end of the world'."

That was around the end of May, 1942. Lotte was 18 and, with her sisters, Lilly, 23, and Erika, 21, a prisoner at Auschwitz.

David Benedikt tells of another horror.

"In the middle of the camp there was a heap of women's and children's shoes eight feet high,'' he says.

"And on the edge of the camp, fixed on the ground, a gas chamber pretending to be a shower room and next to it a tall chimney spewing this stench of burning human flesh, 24 hours a day."

Some of the final phases of the Nazi genocide included death marches.

More than 720,000, one third of whom were Jewish, were still in concentration camps in January 1945. The marches lasted from days to weeks.

Exhausted or emaciated prisoners who could not keep up were shot or beaten.

In some places, the local population even participated, killing prisoners. Some 250,000 died on the marches.

Despite the Jews' immense suffering, Australia was reluctant to help these refugees after the First World War, the museum records.

"As we have no racial problem we are not desirous of importing one,'' TM White told the Evian conference in France in 1938.

Only 9000 Jewish people initially found safe haven here.

 

Sydney Jewish Museum
Sydney Jewish Museum Mark Furler

During the Second World War, Jews were considered "enemy aliens" in Australia and weapons were confiscated, along with binoculars and maps. Their mail was intercepted and censored.

Some were even incarcerated with former German soldiers. But many of these migrant families went on to make great contributions to Australian life.

Among them are Frank Lowy, founder of The Westfield Group, Sir Peter Abeles, former chairman of Ansett, education guru David Gonski, Sidney Myer, founder of Myer department store, architect Harry Seidler, and property developer Harry Triguboff, to name a few in the business world.

The new Holocaust display was officially opened by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in March this year.

Jewish News reports that Mr Turnbull mentioned a display that featured Wannsee House, where plans were drawn up for the Final Solution.

Inside that house in 1942, around a table, "sat not just slabbering fanatics, but the leaders of the civil service - bureaucrats - who calmly and methodically worked out how best and most efficiently to kill six million people".

"We are capable of the greatest love, us - humans ... but we are capable of the most terrible crimes, and that is why we must never forget the Holocaust,'' Mr Turnbull said.

"And that is why this museum, this memorial is so important. It reminds us what can happen when respect is gone, when hatred takes its place."

Dr Avril Alba, project director and consulting curator, said that in every aspect of the new exhibition first-hand accounts were integral.

There are more than 100 new artefacts and hundreds of images and footage never seen in Australia.

"The survivor founders (30 of whom still regularly share their stories with museum visitors) will remain at the centre of an institution that is dedicated to history and memory while also encouraging contemporary reflection and debate," Dr Alba said.

"Studying the Holocaust is essential in terms of understanding the history of the twentieth century.

"But perhaps more importantly, it is essential to our humanity, sensitising us to the consequences of discrimination and strengthening our resolve to build and maintain communities free of racism and bigotry."

One of the most powerful displays is Closer: Portraits of Survival by award-winning photographer Katherine Griffiths. She has photographed 44 Holocaust survivors with the photos, letters and objects that are emblematic of their survival.

Sydney Jewish Museum
Sydney Jewish Museum Mark Furler

The ultimate message of the Sydney Jewish Museum is not one of revenge but of tolerance and the need to stand up against those who would single out a community based on their race or religion.

"Revenge is self-destructive. Life has got to go on,'' Kuba Enoch says. "I think you have to be positive. Hatred creates hatred. It just breathes you in and eats you up.''

George Grojnowski put it this way. "I believe that every human being has a value to humanity, we need to learn that. Stand up and object when you see someone mistreated.''

But there's also the realisation that such atrocities can never be forgotten, as Olga Horak points out in one of the moving final messages.

"People say, 'Live for the future, don't live in the past.' But I don't live in the past; the past lives in me.''

Sydney Jewish Museum
Sydney Jewish Museum Mark Furler

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