A Memory That is Not Your Own – The Transmission of Holocaust Memory at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

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.

*        *        *

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…

“When we visited, the guide was a survivor of a camp which brought the horror of it all so close.

“re-telling makes the horrors almost come to life.”

“It is very daunting to relive what was like for all those folk brought misery from the war [sic]”

“As you finish reading and experiencing one section and move to the next, you encounter personal stories and timelines that cement the story in a way that is experiential.”

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?

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7 comments on “A Memory That is Not Your Own – The Transmission of Holocaust Memory at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

  1. clairemcmullen42467888 says:

    Hi Nathan,

    Your research sounds really interesting and I especially like the argument you make about Jewish Museums implanting memories in their visitors. As a Museum Studies major, I find this concept very interesting, and I think it could, and indeed, should, be applied to many different cultural memorials.
    I thought your discussion of tangible objects was especially interesting. In a traditional museum sense, I was taught that tangible objects and artefacts are what make a museum. This school of thought is rapidly changing however, with more emphasis being placed on the notion of memory, so to see you discuss both, and how they can work together to impact upon an audience was really insightful. Modern Museum scholars are now teaching an approach that centres on how memory and historical or cultural interpretations by people who were alive in the period, or belong to a certain culture can influence its meaning and its message, and I think you’ve really tapped into this.
    I’m not sure if you would have come across the academic Elaine Heumann Gurian in your research, but I think you would find her really interesting. Elaine writes about the museum and the place of object and memory within these institutions. The articles that I really like, (and I believe she may discuss Jewish Museums within the article) is called “What Is The Object Of This Exercise? A meandering exploration of the many meanings of objects in museums” (2001) and in it she states: “We need museums and their siblings because we need collective history set in congregant locations in order to remain civilised. Societies build these institutions because they authenticate the social contract. They are collective evidence we were here.” I think your discussion of the Sydney Jewish Museum and the notions of memory and the continuation of these memories really embodies this idea of museums being collective evidence of humanity.

  2. mattclarke2 says:

    Nathan,
    Truly a fascinating article. It must have been a hugely visceral experience to go to the museum and really embrace the Jewish culture, particularly from such a difficult era of Jewish history. I find it quite interesting the ways in which the museum intends to embed memories into people who have no direct connection to the events. I’m intrigued how many times you visited the museum to gather all the information that you needed for the essay and then this article? You present the exchange of Jewish memories to be such an in depth experience that it really makes for great reading, and probably something that anyone studying the Holocaust should participate in.

  3. nathanfallon says:

    Thanks for the reference Claire, I will look that up, surprisingly I haven’t come across it yet! I think you are absolutely right, personal objects need to be studied with reference to their memory contexts! In response to your question Matt, I went four times in total for this work, however I had been many years ago, I really recommend going, you will surely learn something, and they have a nice cafe!

  4. libbyadams29 says:

    Hi Nathan
    I am very interested in your work and blog regarding the transmission of memory at the Sydney Jewish Museum. I read an article in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik beautifully titled “Stones & Bones” earlier this year. It definitely sparked an interest for me in museum studies and I thought I would share some of the interesting points from the article.

    Gopnik’s reflections on the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York and his experiences there provides a great comparison with your work. Particularly in regard to the association with tangible objects that you speak about and Claire also refers to in her comments. For 9/11, of course, the distinctive feature of the event was the lack of tangible objects remaining, including human remains, which is a cause of much distress for victim’s relatives. Gopnik talks about one installation which is the remains of two floors of the World Trade Centre packed together following the collapse of the building. The display clearly states that no human remains are part of the installation, yet as Gopnik remarks, it is virtually impossible for the museum curators to ever truly know what forms part of the rubble displayed.

    The director of the 9/11 Museum is Alice M. Greenwald, who previously ran the Holocaust museum in Washington. Gopnik makes some interesting comparisons between the purposes of a Holocaust museum in making the story of the crime of the Holocaust public and imbedding memories for generations to come as opposed to remembering 9/11 The extensive documentation, photo imagery and video footage makes it one of the most documented events in history, a crime that unfolded as a “nightmarish publicity stunt.” Remembering 9/11 means reliving the horrific events of that day, images that have been played over and over on our television and computer screens.

    The contradictions unresolved in the 9/11 Museum, for Gopnik, include installations of images of people leaping to their death with a warning displayed for viewers, as if you are invited to look and discouraged to look away at the same time. The letter left by the terrorists is displayed, but not translated into English, so museum visitors receive no education or learning as to their stated intentions in undertaking the terrorist act. Gopnik goes on to claim that he believes “memorials don’t live easily in liberal cities.” I understand the memorial and museum have caused a great deal of debate in NYC and many friends and family of the victims have refused to attend.

    Just some more food for thought. I will definitely visit the SJM one day soon, but not so sure I would feel the same about the 9/11 Museum.

  5. kartiazappavigna says:

    Just commenting out of my own interest for this one, so no one assess me on these remarks.

    Hey Nathan.

    I found your topic is really intriguing. I went to Yad Vashem in the summer, and it was a traumatic experience. There were piles of shoes from little girls who had died at Auschwitz, and testimonies from those who had seen their friends assaulted to death and the street. Worst of all was the layout. It was one giant concrete hall with rooms attached on either side, but with fences in between so that to get from the entry to the exit you had to go through every single room. You could not escape. No matter how depressing or distressing you had no option but to pass through every room, with the faces and voices or those who had died all around you. It seems melodramatic now, but at the time all I wanted to do was jumped the fences and make a run for it.

    In light of your essay though, I think I understand better the purpose of structure and what the curators of that museum were trying to achieve. I definitely think they succeed in embedding in me some prosthetic memory of the holocaust. Now that I understand this, I can think back on my experience at Yad Vashem in a different light. So thanks.

  6. hayden699 says:

    Hi Nathan,

    This was quite an interesting read, and made me reflect on some of the museum spaces that i have visited and the sensory experiences that i had with them. Like the history that we read, museums also work from an angle that one should explore. I think asking questions like what are the sensory experiences? and, how are they conveyed?, when i enter a museum space are relevant and insightful. I think its a great research topic.

    I know that America has quite a few Jewish museums and have spent huge amounts of money on them. Historians: Hilene Flanzbaum and Tim Cole both have interesting articles on the Americanization of the holocaust and how these spaces were developed. It would be interesting to apply some of your research questions and ideas to those museums, and see if the same notions of memory transferal through sensory experiences correlates with that of the Sydney Jewish Museum.

    I think the ideas in this post are extremely interesting and creative. It’s a unique angle to evaluate how information and history is being viewed and represented. Reading this has made me curious, and want to see the Sydney Jewish Museum.

    well done on a creative, insightful and thought provoking research topic,

    Hayden

  7. cassandraegger says:

    Having visited multiple holocaust museums and memorials around Europe I would say that is article is spot on. Holocaust museums present their artefacts with personal stories reminiscent of how a survivor would relate their experiences. Many personal objects were in these museums similar to that of possessions belonging to Victor Schwartz. There is no dry unattached presentation of facts and figures.

    As you have noted the Sydney Jewish Museum as well as the museums in Europe are designed to mimic the experience of victims. Perhaps because we still have survivors to relay their memories that Holocaust museums unique in this way. The experience of the visitor mimics the living witnesses. It is important to note that the histories presented in these museums have a very clear motive.

    Oren Baruch Stier’s book Committed to Memory: Cultural meditations of the holocaust as well as the documentary Memory After Belsen which deals with the question of what will happen when the last survivors are gone and why their memory is so important to preserve. The Nazi party wanted to not only remove Jews from Europe by any means but to literally eliminate the memory of Jews from the world by destroying all their personal possessions and works. Have you ever wondered why we have preserved sites such as Auschwitz? There is a need to have people living the world who know what the holocaust was like. There has been a collective decision on the fact that the holocaust needs to be remembered for its place in human experiences rather than fad to merely an event which we can discuss with pure objectivity.

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