The facade of the new Melbourne Holocaust Museum

Courtesy John Gollings AM

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The Holocaust Museums Down Under

With government backing, Australia is opening and renovating museums about the Shoah in every state and territory

by
Nomi Kaltmann
August 10, 2023
The facade of the new Melbourne Holocaust Museum

Courtesy John Gollings AM

Australia’s newly refurbished Melbourne Holocaust Museum has already won a prestigious award for its architectural excellence in the public architecture category—and it hasn’t even opened yet.

Scheduled to reopen this month after a two-year renovation, the museum is set to become a hub for education. It will feature a multisensory experience for visitors, including a high-tech virtual reality experience, the stories of child survivors, a library, and new classrooms for students.

“We hope that those who visit to the museum will help have their minds opened and ask questions: How on earth did this happen in full view of other people?” said Melbourne Holocaust Museum CEO Jayne Josem. “We have deliberately selected photos that really illustrate this. We want to be a site of really good conversations, which is a safe space for difficult conversations around the Holocaust and challenging topics.”

The extensive renovations to the museum were part of an extraordinary funding promise in 2019 by the right-wing Liberal-National coalition government in power at the time. The policy was championed by Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s former treasurer and a descendant of Holocaust survivors. During his time in office, the administration he was part of promised millions of dollars to help fund Holocaust museums in every Australian state and territory, as well as building upgrades for existing museums.

As a result, Australia may soon be one of the only places in the world that has Holocaust museums in every state and territory, no matter how small or large the local Jewish community is. This includes new museums in Tasmania (Jewish population: 376) and the Northern Territory (estimated Jewish population: under 100), as well as funding for upgrades to existing museums in larger cities such as Melbourne, Adelaide, and Sydney. In June, Queensland opened its first Holocaust museum, and planning for upgrades to the Western Australian museum is ongoing. While construction on the museums in Tasmania and the Northern Territory have not yet begun, government funding has been allocated with hopes that they should be built in the next few years.

In an interview with a local Jewish newspaper, Frydenberg remarked, “I don’t think you can overestimate what a significant development this will be for Holocaust education in Australia—for continuity of memory, to honor the victims, and to ensure that we uphold our collective duty to say ‘Never Again.’”

In the aftermath of WWII, Australia was a popular destination for Holocaust survivors whose families had been murdered and were seeking to get as far away as possible from the atrocities in Europe.

Although the Melbourne Holocaust Museum was already slated for renovations prior to the funding promise, the additional government-promised funding allowed the museum to plan for a larger scope of renovations than originally imagined. “We had an urgent need [to renovate]. In 2016 and 2017 we were already at capacity and turning schools away,” Josem said. Now, with the new building, the museum expects to increase the number of students who visit each year from an estimated 23,000 to 35,000. “I want the kids to go home and say, ‘I had an amazing excursion,’ and we want the parents and the families to come and have a really powerful experience,” she said.

However, government funding for Holocaust museums in even Australia’s tiniest states and territories is not without some criticism. “The government seemed to have this idea to fund museums, and when you’ve got an idea, you should speak to the main people involved in the space. Or do a feasibility study. But that didn’t happen,” said someone involved with Holocaust museums in Australia who asked not to be named. “As an institution, it takes a lot of energy to run a museum. You need people on the ground with the skills. There are ways to do something really powerful that doesn’t involve people having to show up every day. And who is going to come to volunteer at these museums [in smaller states]?!”

Despite the criticism, the plan is moving at full steam ahead, with Holocaust museums currently being renovated or planned in every state and territory across Australia.

Preserving the memory of the Shoah is entrenched in the Australian Jewish community’s consciousness. Many synagogues were built in the aftermath of the war by survivors, and include permanent memorials of the deceased on the walls. Annual Yom Hashoah ceremonies in major Australian cities can easily attract more than 1,000 attendees. With the Jewish community numbering an estimated 120,000 people, among a population of 25 million, much effort is focused on how to transmit memory of those who were murdered.

In addition to Australia’s government, instrumental in providing funding for Holocaust museums is one of Australia’s wealthiest families: the Gandels, who have a formidable reputation for philanthropic and charitable giving. Holocaust museums in Australia have received significant funding from the family’s foundation.

“Gandel Foundation and Gandel family are in this for the long haul, and we know that having a Holocaust museum in each capital city in Australia is only the start,” said Nicole Brittain, the grant manager of the Gandel Foundation. “Importantly, while the physical structures are vital to strengthening Holocaust education of the general public … school engagement is the most important and critical way in which people learn about the Holocaust.”

In 2021, the Gandel Foundation funded a survey that set out to understand Holocaust literacy in Australia. The survey, the largest of its kind in Australia, asked over 3,500 Australians across all states and territories to answer 70 individual questions about their thoughts, experiences, and understanding on everything from Australia’s connections to the Holocaust to the importance of Holocaust museums and memorials.

Professor Steven Cooke was the lead researcher on the survey. “The levels of Holocaust literacy were comparable to other countries where similar research has been undertaken,” he said. “What was perhaps surprising was the lower levels of knowledge of Australia’s connections to the Holocaust. For example, the protest by Indigenous leader and human rights activist William Cooper against the Nazis’ Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938 as well as Australia’s stand at the Evian Conference—a prewar meeting to decide what to do about Jews displaced by the Nazis—where Australia was one of several countries that refused to offer refuge.”

Cooke also found that one thing in particular correlated with increased levels of literacy around the Holocaust: “The survey found that on average, people who have received specific Holocaust education in schools or visited a Holocaust museum have a comparatively higher level of Holocaust awareness and also have warmer feelings toward religious and cultural minorities or disadvantaged groups, as well as asylum seekers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

Currently, there are Holocaust museums in Victoria (where Melbourne is located), New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, and Western Australia. Over time, in addition to state and federal governments, Gandel Foundation has provided support to some of the existing or new museums for their development, such as the museums in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia, and continue to actively talk to many of the remaining Holocaust museums about their future needs.

“A very troubling recent trend in a steep increase in the number of antisemitic and extremist activity, both overseas as well as in Australia, highlights the urgent need to expand the education of our young people, and the whole community, about the Holocaust and ensure this important part of history is never forgotten,” said Brittain. “We have a collective duty to ensure we live up to the call of ‘Never Again.’”

In smaller Jewish communities like Adelaide, South Australia, having a place to offer Holocaust education has been groundbreaking for the community. “The foundations for Holocaust education [in Adelaide] were laid by survivors such as Fred Steiner [and] Regina Zelinski, who visited schools and shared their stories with school students in South Australia, and the community in the past had also held two exhibitions to educate the public,” said Kathy Baykitch, the CEO of the Adelaide Holocaust Museum.

“In 2019, the Adelaide Holocaust Museum secured funding to develop a pilot Holocaust education program for school students which has informed the current in-museum program,” she said. “The museum now offers an in-museum program to school students and also facilitates a range of public programs for the wider community.”

In 2023, the Adelaide Holocaust Museum expects to engage with 8,000 to 10,000 non-Jewish people as they expand their operations to educate the wider community about the Holocaust.

Baykitch has no doubt that funding received from Australia’s government is important to the success of the museum. “The announcement of capital federal government funding was made one month prior to the scheduled launch and opening of the Adelaide Holocaust Museum. The museum would not be in a position to undertake the current capital expansion without [this] funding,” she said. “The museum provides a public presence for the community, and it plays an important role in educating the wider community. Our museum and its educating program play an important part in educating the wider community, given that you can’t really educate about the Holocaust without educating about Jewish people and Jewish life. Given that a number of our volunteers are Jewish community members, [the museum] provides opportunities to engage and be connected.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.

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