“In a world where acts of genocide still occur, the holocaust is an important reminder of our need to be vigilant”.
Giving back to the community has become somewhat of a cliché, a good one but nevertheless often overused. However, Down Under in Sydney Australia, the late John Saunders, during the latter part of his life, gave back multi fold in the form of Sydney Jewish Museum, which he conceived and personally funded. Now soon to celebrate its tenth anniversary, the museum is a monument to his life and to the remembrance of the millions who died just for being Jewish. (For the first time, this community-funded museum will have a fundraiser) Saunders’ mandate was dedicated to teaching and documenting the history of the Holocaust and Australian Jewish history.
As a concentration camp survivor, Saunders never forgot his good fortune after the horrific times. After emigrating to Australia, a country that offered him safe haven and choices, he eventually became a self made millionaire in this far off country originally built by convicts.
In 1788 among the 751 convicts who arrived on these then distant shores ,were 14 Jews who had committed petty crimes. They were sentenced to this distant, difficult penal colony in New South Wales to a most uncertain life. Little could they have conceived that this continent would one day become “the lucky country”, rich, cultured, sophisticated and with heart and soul.
It wasn’t until 1837 that the first Jewish congregation had services which were actually conducted. As early as 1817, they had formed a Chevra Kadisha – a Holy Brotherhood, which would perform burials and record Jewish life. By 1797 a Christian cemetery had donated a small plot which became the first Jewish cemetery. Finally when the community grew to 900, Sydney had its first synagogue. Today there are 100,000 Jews in Australia with about 40,000 living in Sydney. As the years progressed the Jewish population grew as did the esteem of the Jewish community. I had lived there over 15 years ago and the Jewish community then, was quiet, observant and tightly woven with very little “cross over”. Mixed marriages were rare.
Recently, on a warm Sunday in their late summer, our winter, I visited Sydney Jewish Museum. Much to my amazement, this well located museum wasn’t merely a small endeavor but a five storey building which had been well thought out and informative. The queue to get in was a strong indication that many things had changed.
Among those in the line, were two Japanese guests and a woman wearing a crucifix around her neck and a few very obvious non Jews. This seemed like an oddity until my guide Marika Weinberger, vice president of the Sydney Jewish Museum, an Auschwitz survivor and a volunteer, explained that “this museum isn’t for Jews. We know our history. This museum is a place to educate those who aren’t totally aware of our history and what happened .”
Before entering, security politely relieved me of my cameras. Adam, a young man in his twenties, quietly explained this was policy. Needless to add, I’m always grateful for security measures. Before stepping too far away from the entrance, I couldn’t miss the white marble floor with a significant large black marble inlaid, Star of David.
Over to one side was a map which skillfully described the various areas of permanent exhibitions of the culture, continuity of Jewish life and the Holocaust. Every artifact in the museum is a donation from Jewish Sydneysiders.
Glass cases were filled with memorabilia..a velvet torah cover from the late 1800s, 20th century Torah finials, a silver yad. the larger exhibits featured items from the various holidays like Chanukah, Sukkoth, Passover with explanations. Shabbat is table set as though a family was about to sit down and enjoy the Friday night celebration.
Perhaps one of the most pleasant and unique displays is a replica of what is now downtown, George Street in 1840 where 70 Jewish merchants had businesses including an auctioneer, a stationer, a fashion house and a theatre.
Another attention grabber is the wedding and chupah. Over the years I’ve heard dozens of reasons for the breaking of the glass. Here the tradition reads that it represents the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem.
All this section had been light and educational until Marika , took me to the second floor- The Beginning of The End. What surprised and brought tears to my eyes, was the fact that every volunteer here in the Holocaust section, are all survivors. They speak openly with the guests and answer their questions.
“It must be very difficult for them”, I said to Marika. “What happened to the wall of silence?” “We survivors are getting older and know it’s time to finally talk frankly about what it was like to be in concentration camp,” she told me. “What better way of teaching then learning first hand.” A narrow entrance leads to a Polish Ghetto Street. No matter how often I have seen such photos, here blown up poster size, they still haunt and send shudders down my spine.
Another section is dedicated to Janusz Korazah, a man who went to his death with the children he had saved. A life-size bronze statue stands out in an open area for all to see a hero. Eyewitness videos are placed strategically throughout the areas. One horror that stands out in my mind is an innocuous looking blanket in a case. It was donated by a Sydney resident and Auschwitz survivor. It was made from human hair and it had kept him warm during the icy winters during the war and his incarceration.
The first postwar flow of European Jews to Sydney was in the early 1950. During the 1980s there were major changes within the community with the influx of immigrants from Russia and South Africa. Technology also has its place and several people were at the single computer while others were carefully flipping through old books…perhaps looking for relatives with their surnames.
Before leaving, I visited the special exhibition. I had just seen a similar exhibit in Toronto about the Jews of Shanghai. Only then did I learn of the dynamic history, especially of Dr. Ho, who had been the Chinese Ambassador in Vienna and saved thousands of Jews by obtaining visas for them to China, in particular Shanghai. Although comparatively small, this Sydney exhibition- China and the Jews- is noteworthy.
I said my good-byes to Marika outside where the sun was shining. Breathing the good crisp air of this magnificent city of beaches and blue ocean, made me realize that the Jews of Sydney helped make this city into a cosmopolitan place to live. Remembering and honoring are the backbone of any good and trustworthy society.
The Sydney Jewish Museum
148 Darlinghurst Rd. Darlinghurst
Open Sunday 11-3, Monday –Thursday 10-4, Friday 10-2
Entrance fee for adults. Australian $10