Wellington loses Holocaust educator

January 3, 2012 by J-Wire Staff
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The Wellington Jewish community has lost one of its tireless workers in the field of Holocaust education…Hanka Pressburg.

At her funeral last week, Director at the Wellington-based Holocaust Centre of New Zealand Inge Woolf delivered the following eulogy…

Today we mourn the passing of our dear friend and colleague Hanka Pressburg,
She was an outstanding woman, a Survivor of the Holocaust, a prisoner in
camps whose very names symbolise the terror and evil of the Nazi regime
Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. Hanka lived through the darkest time in recent history and came through as a caring, intelligent, principled, strong woman who was loved by her family and friends and respected by all.

I sincerely thank her family for giving me the privilege and honour of
celebrating her life and her life’s work of Holocaust Education

I was volunteering for the Arthritis Foundation when I first knew Hanka as a concerned grandmother, when she sought me out to confide in me her worries over her granddaughter Daniella who had Juvenile arthritis.

Our friendship grew over the dinner table at Sefton St, where her food reminded me so much of my mother’s and her dear husband George reminded me of my father who was also from Czechoslovakia. The company was always interesting, the conversation varied and stimulating and gradually I became aware of the great work that Hanka, ably supported by George, was doing in the area of Holocaust Education.

And look where it led…

Those who know me know that I am now Director of the Holocaust Centre.

Hanka will always be my role model in the work that I do.

Now Hanka was a modest woman, who was always mindful of the work and experiences of other Survivors and she would want me to acknowledge that hers was not the only contribution to holocaust education in Wellington- but I am sorry Hanka, today we are going to talk about you and acknowledge your personal commitment to making sure that what you and others had witnessed and lived through did not fade from the world’s collective memory. I am sure your fellow Survivors will understand.

Hanka was a courageous woman. Talking about such a dark past is not easy. It is physically and emotionally draining and few Survivors are able to confront those memories every day and who can blame them.

It took some years after the war ended for Survivors to be able to speak out at all. Hanka was one of the first. She and her friend Roma Herrman talked to visitors to the Wellington Jewish Community Centre in programmes organised by the Israel Office of Information in the early 80s.

Then came the 40th Anniversary commemorations where she and other Survivors were interviewed by Ian Fraser in front of a packed audience in the Michael Fowler Centre. Around that time she also testified on video and for the Shoah Foundation.

In 1990 Hanka, and George financed and set up the first small display of Holocaust Memorabilia at the back of the Van Staveren Room in the Wellington Jewish Community Centre (not without some controversy as she always reminded me) Hanka used this resource to highlight her talks to the school groups who came through the Centre, always making the talk age appropriate and laced with her own brand of humour. “I didn’t get this tattoo in Cuba St.,” she would say rolling up her sleeve and showing them the gradually fading numbers on her arm. The children were always engaged.

From that time on she must have talked to millions of people. She was interviewed many times in the newspapers. She gave talks to students of the Holocaust at Victoria University, to school groups and to interfaith communities and to Rotary and Probus groups. She was always well prepared and she always had a relevant message.


Hanka Pressburg shows her concentration camp tatoo

The National Council of Jewish Women raised funds and organised the National Film Unit to make a video of Survivor stories with Kim Hill as the interviewer. Hanka was one of those taking part and it is still a valid educational resource for us now.

In 1996 she was nominated by the Council of Jewish Women and awarded the Queens Service Medal for contributions to Holocaust Education.

Together with George, one of Hanka’s major undertakings was the organization of an exhibition at the Dowse Gallery of the Terezin Drawings. This was a hugely important event

As George and Hanka went into their 80’s a group of us got together and decided we needed to make sure that the work to which they were so dedicated continued and so the Holocaust Research and Education Centre was born. It was opened at Yom Hashoah 2006   but unfortunately George had died a few short months before. Now we are about to open its successor “the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand” on Yom Hashoah 2012 (19th April) and there we will miss Hanka.

They were both on our steering committee and Hanka attended every committee meeting until she started to suffer ill health a few short months ago. She didn’t just attend, she gave wise and practical advice and although hampered by her hearing loss she could always add an item to the agenda, prefacing her remarks with  “Well you could put it this way….”She often rang me pointing out an item in the paper that I may have missed which was of significance to our work. -And every time I visited her in hospital, however ill, she would always ask for an update on progress and was so pleased to hear that the negotiations for the new room had been finally sorted and that a starting date was reached.

During the five years that the Holocaust Centre was operational Hanka was a regular speaker to our visiting school groups and I know she was so proud of her daughter Carol who runs and organises our Education programmes so efficiently and carries on her mothers work with such dedication.

As recently as last June on our Open Day Hanka was there at the Centre on duty. There she was, smartly dressed, bright eyed and purposeful, to talk to the people of Wellington about her own personal experiences.

But Hanka’s reach as a Holocaust Educator extends far across the world. In 2008 Hanka organized a plaque to be placed in Rakovnik, her hometown, to remember the Rakovnik Jews that perished in the Holocaust. Present at the unveiling was a teacher and a group of her students from the local school, who were researching the Holocaust.

From Slovakia the students interviewed Hanka and she sent them photos and copies of documents as the students focused their project on Hanka’s story.

This project was selected by the Jewish Museum of Prague for their “Neighbours who Disappeared” exhibition. It has since received a prestigious award from the European Community. Hanka’s story now travels around the world.

A few years ago on Human Rights Day Hanka went to Old St Pails where the Commemoration was held and in a declaration that summed up her life’s work said  ….This is her paper.

Rest well Hanka. Your legacy lives on.

Hanka Pressburger’s daughter Carol Calkoen told the story her late mother’s experienced and pledged to continue her educational work.

Calkoen said: “This is an end of an era!! For our family and the wider community, mum was an amazing person.

So many times Mum you and I have stood alongside each other in front of a group of students with my supporting you as you relate your Holocaust experience. You were matter of fact in your delivery and unemotional. Something I could never understand. You would reduce students and adults to tears including myself. I had to be strong because that’s what you were. a survivor.

Today is the last day I will be beside you. It is your legacy to educate NZers about the Holocaust…that I promise to continue.”


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