Thirty years ago my mother, Mira Unreich, a Holocaust survivor, gave the first of two testimonies to the Melbourne Holocaust Museum. It had been nearly half a century since she was liberated from the last of four concentration camps, including Auschwitz, spending much of her 17th year in them collectively. But time had not dimmed her memories, and her words were precise and clear.
Each testimony took several hours, but the most stunning thing occurred at the end of one of those interviews. After describing a litany of horrors that she had witnessed, including the callous murder of family members, she left the interviewer with one final thought, later expanded on throughout both of our lives. “In the Holocaust, I learned about the goodness of people,” she always said.
It would be the starting point for my memoir, A Brilliant Life: My Mother’s Inspiring Story of Surviving the Holocaust. How was it that she had lived through such terrible times and still managed to focus on the inherent humanity in people? The Melbourne Holocaust Museum hadn’t just given me a documentation of my mother’s wartime experiences. It had uncovered an essential part of who she was as a person – which helped me later, when I decided to write about her for the world. Without those records, so much would have been lost forever.
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Last week, the 39-year-old Melbourne Holocaust Museum reopened its doors after a three-year rebuild and redevelopment period, gaining recognition at the Victorian Architecture Awards for its design by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Now, visitors can not only view its permanent exhibition, Everybody Had a Name – which starts at life for Jewish people before World War II, moving through to the Holocaust and its aftermath – but they can also don virtual-reality headsets and be immersed in the story of a survivor via the film Walk With Me.
For the young – between 10 and 14 – there is Hidden: Seven Children Saved, where child survivors introduce the notion of prejudice and the importance of standing up for other people. Each survivor represented in this latter space, like my mother, Mira, believed they were saved due to the kindness of others.
It might sound strange to call the new building a soothing place, with its use of warm woods and clean lines, but that’s just the effect CEO Jayne Josem hopes it has. “I say it’s a comfortable space in which to encounter uncomfortable subjects. People think they know [the story of the Holocaust], but there’s always something else to find out and discover that provokes you in a way that you wouldn’t imagine. It’s quite a revelation. It forces you to consider your place in the world today.
“We really set up Jewish life before the war, so that you encounter the diversity of Jewish life before you learn about how rights were taken away gradually through a considered effort by the Nazis – a deliberate effort to dehumanise this group of people. And as you go through the exhibition, you see how that unfolds. It’s important to learn it, because we need to recognise when things are happening in the world today – what could we do? What should we be doing to prevent that?”
Also in the museum is the Memorial Room, designed by Stephen Jolson, in which visitors can honour and remember Holocaust victims and survivors, as well as a memorial garden featuring Andrew Rogers’ sculpture, Pillars of Witness.
MHM feels personal to Melbourne: it was founded by Holocaust survivors who had moved there – Australia has the largest percentage of such survivors in the world, per capita, outside of Israel – and who played an integral role in a number of the displays and stories told. For instance, there’s a miniature model of Treblinka death camp, constructed by Treblinka escapee Chaim Sztajer.
Says Josem: “These survivors came together in a grassroots way to create a museum where they could share their stories in order to make the world a better place. The last part of the exhibition looks at survivors who made a mark on Melbourne – it’s how they’ve given back. What finer way to give back than to educate the next generation to learn these lessons and be better people?”
Twenty-five thousand students go through the museum annually, although that number is projected to increase. Behind the scenes, MHM holds regular public cultural programs including film screenings, musical events and lectures. It also still conducts survivor interviews and has an extensive research library.
Recently, when my own book launch took place there, I was interviewed onstage by Dr Simon Holloway, the museum’s manager of adult education and academic engagement. He says that it’s important for visitors to realise that “these crimes were committed by regular people; there was nothing peculiar about them or anything that was fundamentally different to their victims … the Holocaust began with words – verbally expressed discrimination, and a tolerance and acceptance of that.”
The point being that its lessons are more important today than ever.
Rachelle Unreich is the author of A Brilliant Life: My Mother’s Inspiring Story of Surviving the Holocaust, $34.99, published by Hachette.