Increasingly within Holocaust museum studies, scholars are suggesting that Jewish museums and memorials around the world are seeking to imbed Holocaust memories beyond the margins of the Jewish community in order to preserve Holocaust memory in the face of a dwindling survivor generation.
It might sound uncanny that a museum would want to ‘imbed’ a foreign memory of what it was like to experience the Holocaust within its visitors, but I am going to lay out three primary ways in which Sydney Jewish Museum (SJM) actively seeks to mildly condition its visitors memory and experience of past events.
Before I do that, it is important to hear from the SJM itself.
Avril Alba, the former education manager of the SJM, and now museum consultant, stated in 2005 that the museum was a “site for conveying Jewish memory” which sought to “imbed Holocaust memory with both integrity and relevance into Australian public life”. Even, one of the museums Holocaust survivor guides, George Sternfeld, who as a child escaped from Poland to Siberia following Nazi invasion, stated on Trip Advisor in 2012:
“When talking to visitors I feel connected to humanity. They empathise with the stories from survivors of the Holocaust. In turn, I feel I am planting seed in the young minds for better humanity into the future [sic].”
As a site of Holocaust memorialization, it is clear that the SJM holds a strong intention to transmit a memory of Holocaust experience into the minds of those who were not there, but how, in reality, is this actually attempted?
The SJM is intentional in creating memory transferal, so here are three primary means through which a memory transfer from museum to museum visitor can occur:
1) Sensual Engagement with Physical Experience
At the SJM the visitor is sensuously engaged with the memory of physical Holocaust experience most clearly in ‘Mezzanine 2- Ghettos’ where the visitors movement is disconcertingly restricted and directed. Through a claustrophobic, low lit space, you are herded with your vision obstructed by a series of false walls with window holes. Through these windows you view blown up photographs of “Jews on their way to the ghetto”, as though observing the event from the safety of your Warsaw apartment window. Around the final corner a rupture in the walls that restrict you presents a small nook in which you can see a lifesized photograph of a street scene: “child begging for food”. Here it is as if you have opened your door to the street only to view a starving Jewish child, gazing intensely and reaching for your help. Here the SJM creates an experience of what it may have ‘felt like’ to observe the Jews enter the ghettos, inviting the viewer to form a memory of the self as other.
2) Association with Tangible Objects
As Alba notes, donated objects are designed to engender a “human connection” to the survivor experience, each accompanying a human narrative or testimony. The mundanity of the objects, such as Victor Schwartz’s slightly warn red toy car and school satchel, are so familiar they could easily be your own. Victor was told he was to be “taken on a journey” one day after school, so he quickly ran to his neighbours asking them to take care of his prized possessions. Yet, Victor never returned from his ‘journey’, being killed along with his family at Auschwitz on 31 May 1944. The familiarity of the object and the human connection it provides to a first hand Holocaust experience, bring the accompanying narrative to life in the viewers mind, calling on the viewer to imagine themselves in Victors shoes. A memory of what it was like for Victor is then transferred to the visitor through their imaginative and empathetic engagement.
3) Adoption of a Bone Fide Survivor’s Memory
The first hand interaction with holocaust survivors at the SJM is central to the museum ability to imbed Holocaust memory beyond the margins of the Jewish community. Holocaust survivor lead tours occur on several days of the week, and “Remember Me” lectures are presented by survivors one Sunday a month. Through the unique provision of direct oral survivor testimony the museum-goer is exposed to personal and relatable Holocaust experiences with powerful emotive proximity. When I was taken around the exhibits by a survivor guide, I could not help but imagine myself into the vivid memories related to me, with anecdotal descriptions of sight, sound and smell granting a detail and emotional connection to the Holocaust experience that no other experience could provide. Viewers are encouraged to empathetically engage with the survivors memories in such a way that they adopt the survivors memory of the Holocaust, as their own ‘memory’ of what occurred.
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The real question is, does any of it actually work? Do visitors really walk away with a memory of Holocaust experience, or is all this talk of ‘memory transfer’ just a floating theory?
This is what some visitors (via TripAdvisor) had to say…
I walked away from the SJM holding a memory, albeit an imagined one, of how I felt towards to begging Child, of what it was like for the Victor I imagined, and the survivors I met.
What memories will you form when you go to visit?