Sydney Jewish Museum celebrates its 20th anniversary

February 17, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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The Governor of New South Wales, Professor Marie Bashir has launched the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Marika Weinberger, Monica Saunders-Weinberg and Professor Gus Lehrer

Governor Professor Marie Bashir under a relief of John Saunders

In his opening remarks, SJM CEO Norman Seligman acknowledged the contribution its founder, the late John Saunders, had made to the project.

Before introducing the Governor, museum president Professor Gus Lehrer said that the university had become part of the “colorful tapestry of Sydney life” adding that anniversaries are occasions when we assess where we come from, where we are and where we are heading.

He said learning about the past and using that learning to enhance the future is what the museum is about. He said that Australia has more Holocaust survivors per capita than any other country in the world outside of Israel. Those survivors had “an awakened desire to tell their story”.

Professor Lehrer said that, like his own parents, in the survivors’ early years in Sydney, they were too busy building new lives to attest to the past.

In the 1980s “there was an awakening” and a groundswell of support developed for the establishment of a museum in which the Holocaust would be remembered and studied. The Australia Association of Survivors and their Descendents, the Australian Institute of Holocaust Studies and the John Saunders Group formed an alliance which resulted in the opening of the Museum in 1982.

John Saunders, who co-founded Westfield the international shopping centre group, was involved from the beginning and “although everyone agreed that part of the the museum should be devoted to Jewish life and Australian Jewry it was John who had the clearest vision of this.” He added that John Saunders was almost the “sole funder” of the museum and its “driving force”. He acknowledged that the late John Saunders’ daughter, Monica Saunders-Weinberg was present at the function.

Professor Lehrer said the the Sydney Jewish Museum had become an educational centre with a resident historian and a resident education officer. He told his audience that last year almost 17,000 school pupils had visited the Sydney Jewish Museum. All non-Jewish, they had visited the museum to learn about Jews and the Holocaust. He added that only 10% of what it has within its storeroom are on show at anyone time. Following praise for the 200 volunteers and workers at the Museum, Professor Lehrer announced that a Capital Appeal would take place later this year to finance

Roma Schell, Marika Weinberger Governor Marie Bashir and Professor Gus Lehrer

the the redesigning of the Holocaust section. He announced that the Museum would be expanded to include a new section on human rights, particularly the lack of human rights demonstrated by the Holocaust. A new education centre is also on the drawing board.

In launching the anniversary, Governor Marie Bashir said: “This museum is certainly part of the very heart of Sydney and one which I cherish.” She spoke about those “terrible, shameful episodes in history which we must never forget”. She made mention of “the great riches you brought from your tradition and the strength of your commitment to humanity”. The Governor said that she had among her “dearest and closest friends” at school many Holocaust survivors. These memories stayed with the Governor and Professor Bashir said that she “made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz ” by herself. She spoke about the displays at former concentration camp and remarked that she identified personally with one of the children portrayed graphically. She spoke of one of her Jewish class mates who topped the school in mathematics and English and became a teacher. Governor Bashir, herself a Professor of Medicine, said that she had asked her recently why she had not become a doctor to which her friend replied that at that time she had considered herself an outcast and “someone no-one wanted”.

Professor Bashir said she had been invited to a project at Hadassah in Jerusalem focused on dealing with sensitive and vulnerable children at risk…not only in Israel but also in Jordan and the West Bank. She said: “There is hope for Mankind. It will flourish as long as we have a wonderful centre like this. But evil lies dormant. We must be forever vigilant.”

Governor Marie Bashir and Professor Gus Lehrer

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