Wellington Holocaust Centre opens
The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand has been opened in Wellington, the nation’s capital…on the solemn day of Yom Hashoah when we remember the millions who perished in the Holocaust.
There was a hush in Wellington’s Orthodox Shul as 88-year-old Auschwitz survivor Clare Galambos-Winter lit the first of six candles for Yom Hashoah, assisted by a young Moriah College [Wellington’s Jewish Day School] pupil. Subsequent candle lighters included another elderly Auschwitz and other camps survivor, Paul Seideman, and Vera Egermayer, who was held in Theresienstadt as a young girl.
The commemoration was moved to the Shul because of the large attendance of about 350 – too many for the Jewish community hall. Many came from outside the Wellington Jewish community, including interfaith representatives.
The Yizkor was read by Israeli ambassador Shemi Tzur, and the El Male Rachamim and Kaddish offered by Wellington’s Orthodox and Progressive rabbis.
Music composed in Theresienstadt by Hans Krasa played while two young people, Sam Hart and Kessem Goldberg, read a list of concentration and extermination camps.
The Yom Hashoah commemoration led into the official opening of the new premises for the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand – part of the Wellington Jewish Community centre complex.
The Centre’s opening exhibition deals with the “Deckston children,” 20 Polish orphans brought from Europe in the mid-1930s by Annie and Max Deckston.
The exhibition was curated by Lisa Silestean, daughter of one of the orphans, Eileen Silestean, who now lives in Australia. Other descendants were present, all having become established New Zealanders or Australians, while their families mostly perished in the Shoah.
Speakers for the opening included the founding director of the Holocaust Centre, Mrs Inge Woolf QSM, who has been the inspiration and driving force behind the Centre achieving its present status.
The ribbon to officially open the centre was cut by New Zealand’s Chief Human Rights Commissioner, David Rutherford. Speaking to the large audience, Mr Rutherford made a link between Yom Hashoah and Anzac Day observances, saying: “It is right that New Zealanders should remember how the world allowed the dignity and rights of the Jewish people to be stripped bare. It appropriate that we should do that so close to the day in which we remember the sacrifice that our forebears made for freedom and for human dignity and rights.”
The widespread anti-Semitism in Europe leading up to the Shoah could have been stopped if enough non-Jewish people had stood with the Jewish people early on, and said “not in my town, my community or my country,” Mr Rutherford said.
Referring to the new Holocaust Centre, he concluded: “Never forget the Holocaust, when the savage few were allowed a free hand by the many that enabled the savagery. Be so grateful that there are places like this to help us remember.”
After the official opening, the ambassadors of Germany and Israel were the first to place stones for a memorial wall.
The new Centre has large display spaces and facilities for teaching the many school classes which come seeking instruction about the Shoah.
Dignitaries including the city’s mayor Celia Wade-Brown, the Attorney General the Hon Chris Finlayson, the Minister of Culture and Heritage and Treaty Settlements, Grant Robertson MP, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford attended the function which marked three years of planning and hard work
In her speech Centre director Inge Wolff said:
“That bitter-sweet mixture of emotions typifies the Jewish experience of life over so many centuries as we have fought anti Semitism, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, sometimes accepted by our fellow countrymen and sometimes not but never did we sink lower than we did during the Holocaust when Hitler’s racist policies sought to exterminate us. So we who survived, have a duty to those that did not, to make sure, that in this wonderful country of ours, every single person is taught what can happen in even the most civilised society, when Governments not only do not protect all their citizens regardless of colour or creed but allow discrimination and intolerance to flourish.
This Holocaust Centre of New Zealand is dedicated to the memory of George and Hanka Pressburg who put up the first small display of Holocaust memorabilia in the back of our small synagogue in 1990. There Hanka, a survivor of Auschwitz,Bergen-Belsen and Theresianstad used to talk to school children and other visiting groups. Our first steering committee was formed, as they were in their eighties, to carry on their work. Unfortunately George died a few months before we opened our first Wellington Holocaust Research and Education Centre exactly five years ago and Hanka died four months ago and so never saw this wonderful Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, but we feel them with us now and their daughter Carol carries on their work as our Director of Education. Carol, Susi, they would be so proud.
Preparing for this refurbishment we had done our research and been to Holocaust Centres in Australia and to the great Holocaust Museums Yad Vashem in Israel and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and although we knew we could not in any way match them ,they did inspire our vision and our dreams.
The man who has given this vision depth is our Director of Research Steven Sedley. I want us all to recognise his wisdom, his scholarly approach and quiet pursuit of the truth as he led his team to supply the content of the exhibitions to our designers.
–and then there is Lisa who spent three years of her life curating the “Deckston Children” as she has told you. Take another bow Lisa.
I was privileged to lead what I call the best committee in New Zealand, all of them totally focussed, totally dedicated, respectful of each other and as Az our design team leader said totally passionate about the project. So, please committee, I want you all to stand and take a bow too (applause)
There are so many people to thank tonight and most importantly Az, Scott and the team from Workshop E who created and installed the exhibition. Az leads the team –Az - Always efficient, always professional and always smiling. Stand up Az (Applause)
and then there is Scott our talented designer.
At the beginning we said to him” This is a dark subject but we don’t want people to be depressed or daunted walking into the room. We want it to be a positive experience” and you will see that he has delivered on this and more “It is truly inspiring!
We are also grateful to the other people who put their all into making the Centre so wonderful. Shaun Chait , Clint and the team from Pure painting, Mike from Slater Electrical ,ABC Heating,Tony from Circuit Systems and Terry from the Wellington Carpet Specialists. Thankyou all.
None of this could have been achieved without our partners and sponsors. We had no money at all when we started out five years ago and we are grateful to the Wellington Jewish Community Centre who gave us space to start our small Wellington Holocaust Research and Education Centre and the Wellington City Council, the Deckston Hebrew Trust, and the Jewish Care of the Aged who gave us our first seeding funds. If you turn to the back of your programmes you will see how our list of sponsors and partners have grown – far too many for me to read through but our gratitude goes to you all. We have had grants and donations from around the country, from Australia and even one from Las Vegas. Thanks to their generosity we have come out of this project debt free-Just!!!
So now the hard work begins as we hope to work with your Council Celia, who I know has plans to bring every school child in New Zealand to visit the Capital to see the Beehive, Te Papa and the Olympic Museum. We trust the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand can be added to that list. We also want to be on the Tourist trail and work with Wellington Tourism to attract visitors to this unique New Zealand Holocaust Centre. There is not another one in the country.
Up to now the Holocaust Centre has been wholly supported by a band of wonderful volunteers but as our work extends to cover the whole country it is important we start to employ at least a National Director of Education and one or two administration staff to carry on the work when I and the rest of the Committee have got past their use by date! Minister, You are always so supportive of us. I hope that you can get me a date with the Minister of Education so I can put our case for the Government’s support.
The exhibitions you see in the Centre do not represent the last word about the New Zealand experience of the Holocaust. We will continue to collect stories that have been hidden up till now and add them to our collections and make special exhibits of them from time to time. When we first advertised this event I called for “Opening Gifts “ of memorabilia, documents or photographs. In response to that we have already received several interesting gifts which will all add depth to what we already know.
The items on the stage for instance, these two suitcases, stored in someone’s garage for so many years have a very moving story to tell of a family torn apart by the terror of the Nazi regime. They tell of some who perished and some who survived and lived right here amongst us, never forgetting but also not able to share their grief until now. We sincerely thank the donors for trusting us with these moving artefacts.
And now I am going to show you another treasure that we have just found out about. I am going to ask Rabbi Alima to bring out of the Ark a very special Torah Scroll and I am going to ask you all to stand as a mark of respect while it is out of the Ark.
This Torah scroll which came with a family from a small town in Poland, stands as testimony to a community that was completely obliterated and is largely forgotten except for the family of the man who brought it here – and that family is now on a journey to make sure that the memory of the synagogue from whence it came and the Jewish people who prayed there are remembered. I hope that this Holocaust Centre in faraway New Zealand can help the family with their research and one day enable them to place a memorial there.
It is an ethic of the Jewish people to always contribute to the society in which they live. My late husband Ronald always said” You have to give something back” and so we of the Jewish community here in New Zealand are proud to present to our fellow citizens a place where everyone can learn good lessons from the history of a dark past, lessons of tolerance, respect for difference and the resilience of the human spirit.
The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. We trust that you will all be as proud of it as we are.”