Sydney remembers Auschwitz

January 28, 2015 by Roz Tarszisz
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Around 350 members of the community including diplomats from many countries, gathered at the Sydney Jewish Museum (SJM) to commemorate 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz survivors and their descendants: Eddie Jaku with son Michael, Ruth Shell with son Allan and Lotte Weiss with son John     Photo: Henry Benjamin

Auschwitz survivors and their descendants: Eddie Jaku with son Michael, Ruth Shell with son Allan and Lotte Weiss with son John                                                                                                                                                                                                              Photo: Henry Benjamin

Relatives of Aboriginal activist, William Cooper who, after Kristallnacht in 1938, protested at the German Embassy, also attended.

Gus Lehrer, SJM President, said “this was both a solemn and uplifting occasion” and that this year’s theme of Liberty, Life and the Legacy of the Holocaust was a fitting one.

Gus Lehrer

Gus Lehrer

Six candles each representing one million of the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust were lit by three Auschwitz survivors and one of their children. Ruth Shell and her son Allan, Lotte Weiss and her son John and Eddie Jaku and son Michael brought wet eyes to a silent audience in a remarkably poignant moment.

Olga Horak

Olga Horak

Auschwitz survivor, Olga Horak, said the immediate reactions of survivors to liberation varied from hysterical laughter to tears.

“We were liberated but we were not free” she said. “ But we had no choice but to maintain our dignity and get on with life.”

“We are here to remember the past, however painful” she said.

United Nations (UN) Director of Information for Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, Christopher Woodthorpe said “today is an important anniversary for all of us”.

It is ten years since the UN passed a resolution to promote Holocaust education programs to ensure that survivors’ stories are heard and to stop future acts of genocide. Woodthorpe delivered a message from the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon.

Keynote speaker, Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of Australian War Memorial (AWM) believes that the AWM is not just about the past, but about the future.

He stressed the importance of education and imbuing future generations with ethical and responsible citizenship values.

Peter Wayne

Peter Wayne

“To know the difference between what is right and what is wrong and then to have the courage to stand up for that is, in the end, what defines us and gives us our freedoms” said Nelson. Talking about Nazi Germany he remarked on “the indifference of the majority to the minority”…a clear indication that Hitler and his henchmen were given a clear track to run their hate-filled campaign.

Peter Wayne, President of the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants spoke about growing up as a child of survivors.    In a symbolic passing of survivors’ legacy to the third generation, he introduced his son Robert who described his recent experience of visiting Auschwitz to see “what made me who I really am”.

“The Holocaust has had a residual impact on subsequent generations” said Robert.

Israeli Ambassador Shmuel Ben-Shmuel with Aviva Wolff

Israeli Ambassador Shmuel Ben-Shmuel with Aviva Wolff

The event was attended by Israel’s ambassador to Australia Shmuel Ben-Shmuel.

The address by Brendan Nelson:

It is a humbling privilege for me to address you here at the Sydney Jewish Museum on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Soviet forces from the 60th army of the First Ukrainian Front at Auschwitz. This was a place where as many as 1.5 million people – mainly Jews, had been murdered.

The liberators would find some 7,650 barely living survivors, hundreds of thousands of personal effects and items of clothing, including shoes and 700 tonnes of human hair.

Tonight’s theme is – Liberty, Life and the Legacy of Holocaust survivors.

Having successfully applied for the position of Director of the Australian War Memorial but before it was announced, I confided in three close friends. One said to me, “I can’t believe you are doing that. You’re wasting your life. You have much more important things to do for Australia than rearrange its history”. I replied in part that this had much more to do with Australia’s future – the people we are and want to become, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world, than it does our past.

Brendan Nelson

Brendan Nelson

Prime Minister Abbott late last year nominated 1788 as being the defining event in Australia’s history. The arrival of the First Fleet, its devastating impact on indigenous Australians but the origins nonetheless of the Australia we now know.

In my opinion, the next most important year was 1942. Australia’s vital interests were at stake – the fall of Singapore, bombs fell on Darwin, Townsville and Broome; the gripping struggle along Kokoda, Isuarva and the repulsion of the Japanese at Milne Bay; Guadalcanal, the Coral Sea, Midway and Japanese midget submarines in Sydney Harbour.

But the Wannsee meeting in January, 1942 would also mark the darkest moment in the events that would see the murder of 6 million Jews and events beyond our modern comprehension of our comfortable lives

It was in 1942 that TS Eliot wrote prophetic words in relation to history:

A people without history is not redeemed from time
For history is a pattern of endless moments.

A people which does not know – nor understand its history, is dangerous.

The events were recount tonight and upon which we reflect, have everything to do with our future and the people we strive to be.

Nations like people, face ‘moments of truth’. These are periods in our lives and in history that challenge our survival and redefine our values. Well led – from within ourselves or by leaders in the case of the nation-state, we emerge stronger and more resilient. But if not, they are events and periods that may do us lasting damage.

It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for the broad brushstrokes of history – six million Jews murdered in an act of despicable genocide, perhaps. It is easy to forget individual acts of courage, moral and physical and sacrifices made in the name of all that is good.

I first visited Washington in 1999.  I went to the Holocaust Museum and have visited on every occasion during my subsequent trips to the American capital in whatever capacity I have been serving. Indeed I was there again only last week.

Some exhibits in particular stand out, such as the thousands of shoes – like the children’s shoes here at the Sydney Jewish Museum. The other for me is the photographs. The hundreds and hundreds of black and white photographs of men, women, adolescents and children looking out into lives never lived.

On the second floor, just one of those photos is of Rosa Goldenzeil.  A Hungarian woman of advancing years, Rosa arrived with her daughters at Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. She quickly grasped the situation on the rail platform as selection commenced and turned to her daughter holding the baby – “they are saving any women with children, give me the baby”.

Rosa knew by her own age that she was already dead as would be the baby. What moral courage did she draw upon to make the decision to save her own daughter and in doing so her lose her own life and that of her grandchild? Rosa was like so many others.

A year ago I had one of many extraordinary experiences I have had in the two years I have been Director of the Australian War Memorial.

Alan Moore was commissioned as an official Australian War artist and deployed first to the South West Pacific in 1944 and then on to Europe. We assembled a number of his artworks for exhibition and to my delight Alan, at the age of 99, was able to leave his Victorian nursing home and come to the Memorial to view works that had not been exhibited together for sixty years. He arrived wearing the beret he had worn through his work of 1944 and 1945.

Alan was with the British when they liberated the Bergen Belsen death camp in April 1945. As I pushed him in his wheel chair along his works in the south west Pacific, to northern Africa and London, we stopped at three confronting works.

He pointed to the first – SS guards removing the dead women and children from the railway carriage. “The Welsh guard, the Welsh guard”, he whispered. “As I was drawing this, the Welsh guard told me no one will believe it. He was right, so I went and got my camera to take photos”.

The second was clearly of some non-descript buildings and a perimeter fence. There were objects of some sort on the ground and a person standing in their midst. Alan said, “The blind man….the blind man with the stick. He was walking amongst the dead and did not know”.

Jewish identity in my opinion as a non-Jew has been shaped largely by three things:

  • Anti-Semitism which remains a repugnant, ugly force in far too many people and many parts of the world
  • The Holocaust or ‘Shoah’
  • The embattled nature of the State of Israel and its constant struggle to exist in a region characterised by theocracies and autocracies

Anti-Semitism is far from a feature of modern history.

The Roman Empire embraced Christianity. In doing so, antisemitism played a catalytic role in building the foundations of the religion that would supersede Judaism. European and western civilization was largely defined by Christianity which at various times used antisemitism to meet its political and theological objectives. Anti-Semitism it seems, at different times has been seemingly ubiquitous,  found in major religions, the political left and the political right, educated classes and amongst the illiterate poor.

It was into this context that the 19th century arrived. Scientists drove a fascinated culture of order and control. Race emerged as a feature of the nation state with nationalism driven populist perceptions rooted in race running in parallel with social Darwinism and eugenics. The First World War would herald the introduction of industrialised killing on a scale never before seen.

Finally, the bitter hardships experienced by Germans following the First World War radicalised antisemitism as the Weimar Republic from 1919 to 1933 legitimised violence as a form of control. The latter was acceptable to the educated, upper classes.

Hitler was able to take advantage of two key things.

The first was that the majority were indifferent to the plight of the minority.

The second was that in Germany – as in other parts of Europe, antisemitism was deeply rooted – religious, secular and racial.

Anti-Semitism did not end with the Liberation of the death camps, nor with the end of the war, the Nuremberg trials and nor even formation of the United Nations.  Anti-Zionism, Holocaust denial, distortion of truths, glorification of Nazism have all featured at different times in the world since. As we gather here today, thousands of troops are deployed across Europe protecting synagogues and Jewish places of congregation in response to fire bombings, desecration of cemeteries and other violations of freedom.

Crowds in some circumstances have even chanted ‘Gas the Jews’ and ‘Death to the Jews’.

Only last week the United Nations General Assembly debated antisemitism.

In 400 BC, Socrates in Plato’s republic concluded that the root of all evil is – ignorance.

In a similar vein, Thomas Jefferson – third president of the United States, when asked toward the end of his life to nominate his greatest achievement, named three things.

The first was co-authoring the American Declaration of Independence.

The second, he said, was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

But the third, he said was his most significant legacy. That was co-founding the University of Virginia. When he was asked why, after all he had achieved, he replied, “Because education is the defense of the nation”.

But is it education alone that most protects us from attitudes and ideas deeply rooted in ignorance and prejudice?

When Reinhard Heydrich convened the meeting in the Berlin lakeside suburb of Wannsee in January 1942 at which they would resolve the ‘Final Solution’, nine of the thirteen German ministers and public servants had the best education Europe had to offer. PhDs and master’s degrees in a wide variety of fields.

The minutes would record their decision to ‘cleanse the German living space of Jews in a legal manner’.

Adolf Eichmann – Heydrich’s henchman in charge of implementing all this, said at his trial that Heydrich had expected opposition to the plan from the bureaucrats. Not only did they not resist, they embraced the heinous idea with enthusiasm.

In my opinion, ethical and responsible citizenship relies on three things.

First, there is a minimum level of education – including scientific literacy, required for people to understand and be resilient to change in society, including the technologies upon which it increasingly is built.

Second, we all need to be imbued with what Professor Graeme Davison described in The Uses and Abuses of Australian History as, the imaginative capacity to see the world through the eyes of others. Almost all of life’s pain, suffering and misery in my experience comes from people and nations making themselves the centre of their own world.

Third, people need to be imbued with a deep value system that informs character. As both Benjamin Franklin and Edmund Burke observed, ‘Men must be virtuous and have strength of character to enjoy freedom’.

A decade ago as Education minister, I oversaw the introduction of Values Education into Australian schools. Teachers would not only teach a set of values derived from wide, national consultation, they would also act them out. At the end of the initial trial in twelve schools, one teenaged girl remarked as a result of the programme, “We now have more freedom”.

One secondary teacher not impressed with the initiative said to me, “You don’t understand. My job is not to tell these kids what to do or not do. My job is to present them with choices and allow them to make their own decisions”. My response was in part to say that in the end, we have to tell them what is the right thing to do.

Young and not so young people need to be reminded of the words of the great 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant:

“Every human being is an end unto to himself and not a means to be used by others. Respect for one’s own humanity will be found in respect for the humanity of others – and morality is freedom”.

That is, doing what you know to be right on the basis of respect for others will make you truly free.

Imagine being a teenager growing up in western society today, including Australia. It must be very tempting to embrace values for the world you think you are going to get – impatience, materialism, detachment, cynicism and mistrust, as distinct from the one you want. The stories of these survivors, the qualities embodied in their humanity and spirit are surely one powerful values guide to the future.

Paradoxically, the most powerful yet fragile of human emotions is – hope.

Israel is not a perfect country, none is. But in my opinion it is the repository of that most fragile yet powerful of human emotions – hopeful belief in the freedom of man.

Israel is a nation built on the belief in political, religious and economic freedoms; the equal treatment of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is, Arabs and all peoples; the coexistence of faith and reason; education for its own sake; free academic enquiry; a free press and independent judiciary. And yet every single day, Israel has to justify its very existence.

We live it seems, in a world of fundamentalist intolerance and moral relativism. My grandparents fought and defeated fascism in the 1930s and 40s, my parents’ generation stared down communism. We now face a resurgent totalitarianism in the form Islamic extremism, disparate groups having hijacked the good name of Islam to build a violent political utopia. We live in vast ignorance of the decisions we make and that are made for us, facing extraordinary global economic uncertainty and immense technological change.

What we need most in this world, is one another.

No human being, no Australian who believes in the dignity of man, of freedom and democratic principles, should ever allow through neglectful indifference these events, these people, their lives and stories, to become a distant stranger.

These survivors teach us many things. It the importance of commitment to one another and to belief in what is right; of conscience and knowing the right thing to do and when to do it; compassion in feeling the pain of others and seeing the world through their eyes and perhaps most importantly the moral courage irrespective of personal consequences, to act on what is right.

To lose sight of this will be to be blind to injustice, deaf to despair and indifferent to the future.


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