Sydney Jewish Museum a ‘Must See’ For Any Visitor to Australia

by Jeff Fleischer

(JUF News, November 2005)


In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Australia accepted more immigrating Jews per capita than any nation but Israel, welcoming about 30,000 survivors. This year, the Sydney Jewish Museum is commemorating the 60th anniversary of liberation and immigration with lectures, benefit concerts, and events recognizing Aussies who came to the aid of Jewish survivors.

But even without those special events, the museum is a must-visit stop for anyone traveling to Sydney. Located in suburban Darlinghurst, about 20 minutes’ walk from downtown Sydney and housed on a residential street, the museum features a narrative approach to history, most importantly through the many Holocaust survivors who volunteer at the museum. Survivors guide visitors through the exhibits, telling their own stories and giving a personal context to the events they describe.

Entering the museum, visitors start out in a small forecourt featuring a wall engraved with the names of Jewish residents of New South Wales who fought in the two world wars. A door then leads to the main museum, a brightly lit and carpeted hall with the look of a very nice library.

While such museums typically focus solely on the Holocaust, here the first floor features exhibits on Jewish history in Australia, starting with profiles of the 16 Jewish convicts who traveled from Great Britain as part of the First Fleet–the settlers who founded the New South Wales colony at Botany Bay. Other displays cover the first Australian congregation in 1837, the postwar immigration boom, and a crash course on Jewish history and religion (services, holidays, languages) that includes discussion of historic anti-Semitism.

From there, six mezzanines in a spiral formation take visitors on a chronological journey through the Holocaust. The walls of each mezzanine (labeled, in order, “Hitler’s Rise to Power,” “The Ghettos,” “Transportation to the Camps,” “The Camps,” “Liberation and After,” and “Reflection and Remembrance”) are full of black-and-white images from the period, with written explanations and displays full of artifacts.

Five televisions throughout the exhibit play interviews with survivors, filmed around the museum’s opening in 1992. Also, laminated editions of leading world newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s are available, so visitors can read the same reports people had at the time. One wall displays a giant map of Europe, with red lights showing the locations of the 150 largest among the roughly 5,000 concentration camps; green lights marking the six most destructive; and yellows representing the advance of the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units as they moved through Poland and occupied parts of Russia.

Throughout these displays, survivor guides share their stories. On my first visit, our guide was David, a short Czech with a strong voice and expressive gestures. He and his family were deported several times and, by the time he was eventually sent to the Riga ghetto in Lithuania, he was the only survivor. After telling his story, he led us to a separate room that serves as a children’s memorial, with toys belonging to young victims and a wall of colored glass plates with their names inscribed.

The last mezzanine houses a large time capsule, which rotates photographs images of Jewish victims. If all photos were watched for the handful of seconds each is displayed on the rounded monitor, curators say it would take three years of continuous viewing.

In the eternally optimistic spirit that drives the Australian character, even this museum ends on a positive note, with its final display of 37 posters. Some feature survivors and their lives since moving Down Under, while others single out non-Jewish men and women honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” for their courage in helping others survive. To that end, the display is flanked by statues of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who issued emergency passports and built safehouses for hundreds, and Janusz Korczak, who established an orphanage for Jewish children, then voluntarily accompanied his orphans to Treblinka rather than abandon them.

But the best part of the Sydney Jewish Museum is the staff of survivor volunteers. One woman who lost her entire family in Poland told me that many visitors she’s spoken to knew almost nothing about the Holocaust going in, and I heard a few visitors comment that they never realized the scale of the brutality.

It’s been 60 years now since Australia opened its arms to survivors, and the Sydney Jewish Museum continues the important mission of sharing the Holocaust experience. Any trip to Sydney should include a visit.

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist. He has worked as an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald, and the national op/ed and politics editor for U-Wire, as well as freelancing for numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad.

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