Visit our archive

Newsletter of the Adelaide Jewish Museum – September 2003

Adam Lewinski

Documenting Jewish Adelaide

In July I attended a workshop at the Sydney Jewish Museum on contemporary issues related to Jewish and Holocaust Museums in Australia. It was a forum where museum professionals exchanged experiences and discussed perceptions about the topic. There were some interesting views about the uniqueness and universality of the Holocaust and how it relates to genocide studies. Particularly interesting was a talk about institutionalised memory of the Holocaust and the differences between museum exhibits of remembrance in Australia, Israel and the United States.

There was some surprise about the existence of the Adelaide Jewish Museum, until it was explained that the Museum exists, but only in virtual reality. Or, as my husband refers to it, we are a Ghetto in Cyberspace. The ongoing generosity of Allen Bolaffi, the Adelaide Jewish Museums benefactor, afforded me the opportunity to attend this conference.

Melbourne’s Holocaust Centre has 1,200 video testimonies documenting the stories of Melbourne’s survivors. The Adelaide Jewish Museum is pursuing the goal of documenting the stories of our Holocaust survivors, and given the scale of our community, this task is somewhat more manageable. I am still relying on community members to make them known to me so that I can continue to record experiences and eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. Undocumented oral testimonies would otherwise be lost in the face of natural attrition.

There are varied ways to approach the process of interviewing a Holocaust survivor. Having first researched the topic, an interviewer could go prepared with a list of questions to which responses are sought. One could adapt, or follow standard questionnaires that have already been drawn up by oral historians for just this purpose. In these questionnaires, names, places and dates are as important as the anecdotes of the person’s experiences. If you’ve listened to a typical four-hour Shoah Foundation testimony you will know what I mean. They want to know everything, from Where was your father born to What was your relationship with him like, to Describe your house and Describe your school. Sometimes interviewers will prod for information, asking personal and intimate questions.

The approach that feels appropriate for me at this point is to assume the role of passive listener, with occasional prompts for clarification where necessary. I prefer to allow the speaker to talk freely, uninterrupted, and express the story of his or her life in the way they wish to see it recorded. I am mindful that asking questions, which require the recollection of painful memories, might induce distress.

This more informal and anecdotal approach is the one I opted for when meeting with Adam Lewin in May 2003. I am indebted to Joan and Ivor Lee for arranging this meeting and accompanying me to it. Later, while transcribing the recorded interview, I discovered that my methodology was faulty, and I had to make numerous phone calls to clarify points and to check details. I’ll be reviewing my modus operandi for future interviews.

Whereas some are more outspoken about their experiences, Adam Lewin’s story has not yet been told publicly. He and his brother were amongst the first Holocaust survivors to come to Adelaide, and right from the beginning, in this country where he found freedom from persecution, he felt it was necessary to put the past behind him and to focus on the future.

He has, however, two visible reminders that surviving the Holocaust is still a reality. The numbers 179192 are tattooed on his left arm, the notorious dehumanising numbering system used in Auschwitz, and, on the same hand, his baby finger is permanently pulled inwards, distorted from an accident while working as a forced labourer. This is the physical evidence of the hardships he suffered during the war; other scars run deeper, less visibly.

When he immigrated to Australia, doctors said that he could easily have his finger straightened, but he chose to leave it as it is, a visible reminder of what he had been through.

Adam Lewinski was born in Bendzin, Poland, in 1918. He was 21 years old when he was sent to a transit camp in Poland. From there he was sent to 5 or 6 different concentration camps. He remembers Auschwitz, Blechhammer, Gross-Rosen and Dachau, miraculously surviving these camps as a forced labourer.

“Hard work, that’s how I survived”. Three Lewinski brothers survived the war, but his sister Regina, brother Nathan, and his mother and father perished. You will soon be able to read more about his story when it is loaded onto the Adelaide Jewish Museum website.

I’ll end this newsletter as I have many others: please contact me with any information that you think will be of interest to the Museum in its aim of documenting Jewish Adelaide, now and in the past.

Roslyn Sugarman, Curator Adelaide Jewish Museum