Book of Life Stories

The Power of History – Viv Szekeres

Viv Szekeres

Presented at Yom Ha’shoa commemmoration, 22 April 1998

Recently I attended a public meeting about Aboriginal reconciliation and shortly afterwards I was at a launch of the work of some Aboriginal artists. During the formal proceedings all the Aboriginal speakers began by way of introduction to say on whose authority they are given permission to speak. They each began by talking about their lineage and to acknowledge where they came from. It occurred to me that like many indigenous customs this was one from which I had much to learn, for it seemed to be about respect. Respect not only for one\’s cultural origins, but for the history of one\’s people, the voices of the past. It seemed also to be an acknowledgment of the collective wisdom held by others, especially the listeners, the audience. I would like to begin this evening by adopting this custom and by saying where I come from, and let you be the judge of whether I could have permission to speak about a subject so immense and so significant as the Holocaust.

I am a Jew. The daughter of Cora Davis and Ivan Lieberman. I was born in England in 1939 just after the start of the Second World War. By 1941, when bombing raids became more frequent in our home town of Birmingham, I was sent to live with my grandparents in the Staffordshire market town of Tamworth. Two other children, 5 year old Ruthie and 15 year old Walter, who were Jewish refugees from Germany, also came to live with us. In 1943 my father, who was in the British Air Force, was killed in North Africa.

When I try and remember that childhood, my strongest memories are the family stories told to me by my grandparents and my mother. All the stories which were about border guards, and hiding, and journeys, seemed to be about escape. Escape from some unspecified but palpable danger. It was only when I was older that I could make sense of this fear and work out that the ever present feeling of danger was racism, it was anti-Semitism. For my grandparents it had forced them to leave Lithuania and Russia at the turn of the century, for Ruthie and Walter it was Nazism and the Holocaust.

It was years later that I began to understand what had happened during the Holocaust. And I think it was the searching for why it had happened and why it had happened to Jews that took me to Israel as a volunteer for a year at Kibbutz Ein Geddi. I didn\’t find the answer to any of my questions but the experience confirmed my Jewish identity.

Perhaps I should qualify this by saying that it is not religious observance that binds me to my roots, to Judaism, but it is our history. And I have wondered from time to time from where does this history, our history, derive its power. One explanation, which I read recently in Anne Michaels\’s most beautiful book Fugitive Pieces, is that \’it\’s a Hebrew tradition that forefathers are referred to as \’we\’ not \’they\’. When \’we were delivered from Egypt\’. This encourages empathy and a responsibility to the past but more important, it collapses time. The Jew is forever leaving Egypt.\’

So our history is much more than the discipline that some of us were fortunate enough to be taught in school or university. It goes beyond the historian\’s trade which is the act of recording it, documenting it or the process of analyzing the documents and records. Our history provides us with an important part of our cultural identity. I feel that who we claim to be derives largely from what has happened to us both as individuals and as a group. Perhaps the power of our history has been reinforced by the fact that many events experienced by Jews, especially the Holocaust, have been terrible beyond imagination. Suffering has caused our history to become imbedded into memory and burned into our collective unconscious, but the burden of this history as well as the pain and grief is that I believe we also carry with us the responsibility never to forget it. That our past and in particular the Holocaust be consciously remembered and commemorated in order for us to live in the present and to be ready for whatever the future may bring.

If history is important to the Jews and the Holocaust is particularly significant, then what about non-Jews? What do non-Jews know or think or feel about the Holocaust? This was a question put to me by Tom Blumenthal when he asked me to speak tonight. He asked if I could talk about responses to the Holocaust from the Australian public. And although I feel my experience is very limited, I can talk a little about the public with whom I come into contact through my work at the Migration Museum. In so doing I must generalize, partly because only two of our programs since we opened in 1986 have dealt exclusively and explicitly with the Holocaust. But having said that, I should add that the subject of the Holocaust is raised often during the day-to-day work of the Museum because many of our exhibitions and programs deal with the loss of human rights and the plight of refugees.

So, what do we hear at the Museum from our visitors or community groups about the Holocaust? You will, perhaps, not be surprised, although I have to say I am often both surprised and shocked at how little is known. This is particularly true for people under 30 years of age. And of this group the ignorance is most marked amongst secondary and tertiary students. In the school curriculum there has been what is called an amalgamation of history with other subjects such as social studies. This has effectively removed the teaching of history as a discrete discipline from schools. There are fortunately some dedicated teachers and parents who make a point of ensuring that some history, for example the subjects of the Second World War and its aftermath are taught as a basis for understanding the late 20th century. But for the rest of this group, any knowledge of the Holocaust comes primarily through Hollywood\’s portrayal in films and on television.

Only a few weeks ago when talking to some TAFE students about our current program called \’A Twist of Fate\’, which explores the idea that anyone, anywhere and at any time can become a refugee, a very well meaning student in making the point that it was the denial of human rights which led directly to Jews being sent to concentration camps, added by way of emphasizing her point for her fellow students and I quote \’you know, like we saw in Schindler\’s List\’. This is not an isolated incident. Increasingly it would appear for this group that only when Hollywood legitimizes an experience can it have been said to have actually happened.

Another group of the public with whom I regularly have contact are those who came from Eastern Europe, who were themselves victims of the Second World War, either directly as a result of Nazi Fascism, or as a result of Stalinist communism. Many of these communities have their own long histories of anti-Semitism. Their knowledge of the Holocaust is of course filtered through their own prejudices and interpretations of the past and when the subject of the Jews and the Holocaust is raised they remind us that the Jews were not the only ones to suffer. Or they distance themselves from the event completely. There are of course even more extreme attitudes in these communities of denial or invention. To quote again from Anne Michaels: \’History is a moral event: events occurred. But memory is moral, what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers.\’ I must also add that there are many individuals from the non-Jewish Eastern European communities who do remember and who have a very accurate knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust and its implications and express sincere compassion and support the Museum in its role to make events such as the Holocaust as widely known as possible.

The third group I would like to mention are the children of refugees who frequently know nothing of their parents\’ history and trauma. The example I give comes again from our current program \’A Twist of Fate\’. In discussion with some students about the difference between being a migrant and being a refugee, a young Asian woman said tentatively that she thought that her parents might have been refugees. When she told us that they came from Cambodia, we confirmed her suspicions. \’My parents won\’t talk about it,\’ she said \’All my mother says is that they were running with bombs dropping just like in the films\’. This student\’s experience is common and we have encountered it many times whilst undertaking oral history research particularly amongst refugees. The more traumatic the event, the less the victim can speak about it. I find this of course to be especially so when we talk about the Holocaust. For many children of Holocaust survivors grew up surrounded by only the gaps and silences, the relatives who are not there, the things that are never said, the horror that is never spoken about. It is part of that burden that I mentioned earlier where a history is pervasively ever present.

The last group I want to talk about is the generation who lived through the events of the Holocaust, whilst not actually experiencing it. Here we encounter people who do know what happened and in many cases, whose lives were touched by war and experienced trauma and loss of a different kind. Just one example that comes quickly to mind is the other day I found an American tourist who had just finished going through \’A Twist of Fate\’. One of the stories we tell in this program is about a Vietnamese boy who one night is put on a boat by his father as the only hope for survival for his family. The American tourist, a man in his early 60s was crying. When we talked he just kept repeating over and over again \’I was there. I was there in Vietnam. We must never forget. It must never happen again.\’ And pointing to some school students who were in the exhibition he said: \’These are the ones we must tell.\’

In answer to Tom\’s question on whether the Australian public know about the Holocaust, I can as you have heard only give you indications of some of the attitudes that I have come across. For me and my colleagues at the Museum we are not waiting to find out the answer. We work with a commitment of urgency to make known all the histories of oppression, of racism, intolerance and genocide. Our job is to demonstrate the power of history, the role of memory, to emphasise that we all have an obligation to know and to never forget. This of course begs the question of whether we should forgive. A discussion for another time, perhaps. I would like to end with another quotation from Fugitive Pieces because Ann Michales expresses this so much more eloquently that I could ever hope to do. \’If an act could be forgiven, no one could bear the responsibility of forgiveness on behalf of the dead. No act of violence is ever resolved. When the one who can forgive can no longer speak, there is only silence.\’ At another point in the book she says: \’History is the poisoned well, seeping into the groundwater. Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected. Out of the fertile ground, the compost of history.\’

This I would argue is the power of history. A power that can be harnessed in our work towards a more compassionate Australia and in the struggle against all oppression and racism.

Viv Szekeres
Director, Migration Museum

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