The End of Memory
WORDS BY JOSHUA WOOLLER
The End of Memory
In 1992 the Sydney Jewish Museum was opened as a memorial to the Holocaust. Over 100 of Australia’s Holocaust survivors, supporters of the founding of the Museum enabled the public to hear the voices of those who had experienced the worst atrocities in human history.
72 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, only 10 Holocaust survivors remain at the Sydney Jewish Museum actively involved in volunteer work. I spoke with Olga Horak, a survivor of the Holocaust and volunteer at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
Olga was transported with her mother to Auschwitz in 1944. From there she was ordered on an infamous ‘death march’ to Dresden. Upon arrival, she and her mother were transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she stayed until April 1945 when she was liberated by the British. On their day of liberation, Olga’s mother collapsed and died.
Olga told me that, “whatever we suffered for, it shouldn’t be forgotten”. Now 91, she is one of the last of a generation capable of giving first hand testimony about the horrors of the Holocaust. All Australian students are taught about Holocaust during their schooling. But while textbooks and documentaries are able to detail the facts of the concentration camps, it is impossible to fully understand the depths of human depravity until one speaks to an actual survivor. No textbook can truly convey the horror of the gas chambers, or the smell from the crematorium or the hopelessness of perpetual starvation.
Though, with the passing of time, the Holocaust will be purely an academic endeavour. As Olga herself told me it’s impossible for many Australians to ever understand as “we all live in a paradise”.
How will it be possible to remember the largest crime in mankind’s history, to pay proper respect to the murdered as the Holocaust seeps further and further into the past?
For Olga, the Sydney Jewish Museum provides the opportunity to tell her story “so that future generations will not forget it.” But the survivors are now a “decimated group”. The Museum, which annually receives over 25,000 visitors from schools alone, faces a crisis as it must reconstruct itself for future generations without the first hand testimony of survivors.
As Olga told me, it would be an “insult to the memory of the victims” if the Holocaust was forgotten. Remembering the tragedy, however, was not always at the forefront of many survivors’ minds when they emigrated to Australia.
“When I had to bring up my children we didn’t talk about the Holocaust. Once they started school, they started to ask questions. Where are our grandparents? Where are our aunts and uncles?”
Olga felt it her duty to tell her story to younger generations of Australians, including her own children to ensure that the memory of her family was never forgotten.
The Holocaust still has a very really impact on Olga, but she does not live in the past.
“The past lives in me. You can never get rid of that.”
However, the question that remains is whether future generations of Australians detached from any personal experience of the Holocaust, and living in comparative “paradise” would be able to conceptualise the horrific nature of what happened.
Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has said, “It is inevitable with every event that the eyewitnesses eventually pass on. It changes the tenor of the conversation, but the conversation continues if it is a worthy one. And that is certainly the case in this regard.”
As the Holocaust recedes into distant memory, it would be easy for young Australians to leave the past behind. For many Jewish Australians, the most significant connection to their religion is family experience with survival and World War II in Europe. Many of these young people continue to return to Auschwitz and Belsen. They continue to research the fate of their family members, they continue read the testimony of survivors and they continue to seek to understand the terrible events that befell the victims of the Holocaust. Many see it as their duty to do so.
Olga told me that her grandson, a literary scholar studying in York had travelled to all the places where she had been, including Auschwitz and Belsen to ultimately write his thesis on the Holocaust, although Olga had never encouraged him to do so.
As Olga reminded me the most important generation to continue observance of the Holocaust is the generation that has no obvious connection to 1940s Europe. And this applies not only to Australians with family connections to Judaism and the Holocaust but to all young Australians.
“The legacy we leave is you”