37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Wednesday 21 November 2018
These days I seem to spend a lot of my time visiting museums and memorials to tragedy. I have visited memorial complexes at some of the most notorious locations in the world, and it fascinates me to see the approaches that different cultures take when they attempt to describe the indescribable. When people ask me which place had the most powerful effect on me, however, my answer often surprises them: it was the Melbourne Holocaust Museum, in Australia.
This memorial museum is not particularly large. It sits on a small street in the Elsternwick district of Melbourne, not much more than a series of rooms inside an unremarkable townhouse and an adjacent cube of somewhat bland modern architecture. It is unremarkable, that is, save for the decorative metal panels attached to the front wall, from which emerge the forms of grasping hands and twisted strands of barbed wire.
The Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre was founded in 1984, by Jewish refugees who settled in Australia after the war. Maybe you don’t know this – I didn’t, either – but after Israel, Australia apparently took in more Jewish refugees than any other country. This museum in Melbourne was created by Holocaust survivors, every artefact inside was carried to this continent by Holocaust survivors, and – the real stand-out feature here – it is staffed entirely by Holocaust survivors.
I wasn’t actually aware of that last detail before my visit. Instead, it came as rather a surprise. After paying my ticket fee I was stood inside, reading a wall-mounted panel about Kristallnacht: the 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom in Nazi Germany, when almost 100 people were killed and the indifferent response of the German authorities in many ways marked the beginning of state-endorsed public violence against the Jews.
“Ahhh, I remember that night,” said a voice at my shoulder. I turned to find a little old man stood by my side, his eyes bright and dewy with distant sadness. “That was when we knew how bad things had got,” he said.
However, this man then confessed that he hadn’t paid all that much attention at the time. While most people were focussed on the action in the streets, he had taken the opportunity to go somewhere quiet with the girl he liked. Kristallnacht had been his first kiss, he told me, with a cheeky nudge and a grin; it was only in the days and weeks to come that these lovebirds realised how much their world was changing.
As he talked about the things that happened next, his story hit me harder than any newsreel version of the events. It wasn’t a date-by-date recounting of the facts, so much as a very youthful, human and relatable account of a world plunging inevitably into horror. I had two grandfathers who served in the war, but they never talked about it much – this perspective though, a child’s account of the changing mood within the Nazi empire, got under my skin more than any war story I’d heard before.
“You’re Jewish?” he asked after a while, and I told him No. “Okay,” he answered, then gave me a sad, quizzical sort of smile, patted me on the shoulder and shuffled away.
Ten minutes later another guide approached me. There seemed to be maybe half a dozen of them, both men and women, who floated about the museum, approaching anyone stood on their own to share some stories, add some humanity to the information panels, and then move on to the next visitor after that.
This next guide was taller than me, with kind eyes in a long face framed by whiskers and a pair of unusually large ears. He introduced himself as a Slovene, and I told him that I lived not far (at least, by Australian standards) from Slovenia: in Bulgaria. His response took me by surprise. Suddenly the man embraced me, then shook my hand vigorously while saying, “Thank you – Bulgaria is a true friend to the Jews.”
I knew what he was talking about, of course. During WWII, Bulgaria was the only Nazi-occupied country in Europe that refused to send any of its Jewish population to the camps; and when, after the tsar died and a new government considered making some small offer to satisfy Hitler’s requests, it was the Orthodox Church who led the protests, with one bishop even lying across the train tracks so that the transport wagons couldn’t leave the station.
This Slovenian Holocaust survivor had clearly heard the same stories, and though I was touched by his gesture of gratitude I did try explaining to him that I wasn’t actually Bulgarian – I only lived there. He either didn’t hear, or didn’t care though.
After that he offered me a book that he had been carrying tucked under his arm. A photograph album. The man flicked through to find a yellowed photo of a family. There were several adult couples, a row of grandparents, and children surrounding all of them – almost every other adult seemed to be holding a baby. It was a big family.
“That’s me,” he said, pointing to a chubby baby in a white gown, held in its mother’s arms. Next to that, his finger tapped another baby: “My sister.”
“Me and my sister, we survived,” he said, his voice breaking a little. “Everyone else in this picture was murdered within a year.”
By the time I left the museum I was emotionally exhausted. I walked to Saint Kilda, and sat with a coffee – just looking out at the ocean, for what must have been hours. The horrors of the Holocaust are staggering to read about, but as I’ve argued so many times before, in so many articles, sometimes the numbers involved are simply beyond human comprehension. I couldn’t possibly imagine what 6 million people looks like… but one boy’s smiling family, there one day and brutally murdered the next: for me, at least, such images hit home harder.
It has been five years since my visit to Australia. I wonder how many of the original guides still work at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum. Some day, I imagine the museum will be taken over entirely by their descendants – the inheritors of these incredible personal stories. The experience I had there myself, being taught about the Holocaust by people who survived it, is an opportunity as fleeting as the passing seasons and it fades into history as surely as do the events of the Holocaust themselves. We can only hope that the lessons the era left behind outlast the people who lived it.
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