Holocaust memorial, Berlin.

What to make of the legacy of Holocaust survivors

18 October 2021
In memory of Eddie Jaku and his lessons of love and light
Few Holocaust survivors remain, and soon there will be none. Dr Avril Alba writes that it is up to us to continue their legacy of remembrance and education: the continued dangers of racism, antisemitism and political and social inequalities underscore this.

Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku died last week aged 101. His death marks a profound loss but also provokes a lingering question: what will happen to our knowledge of the Holocaust – and the lessons learned as a result – once all its survivors have perished?

Over the course of his life, it is no exaggeration to say that Eddie touched the lives of thousands. A guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum since its inception, he told his story to countless school students and general visitors and, most recently, published a memoir that became a best seller. He remained active to the end, mastering Zoom, and continuing to tell his story throughout lockdown.

Eddie’s story epitomises that of so many survivors who migrated to Australia after the war. Despite discriminatory migration policies, Australia became home to the second greatest number of Holocaust survivors per capita after Israel. The desire of Australian survivors to have a place to honour the memory of those who perished, and to educate the Jewish and wider community about the Holocaust resulted in their initiation and creation of the Holocaust museums in Sydney and Melbourne—private museums that were conceived, funded, built and in their early years, largely staffed by survivors.

They had witnessed too much horror to be Pollyannas but even still, their belief in the transformative power of their stories was unshakable
Dr Avril Alba

What always struck me about the survivors I knew and worked with at the Sydney Jewish Museum was how they made meaning of their stories of pain and suffering. They had witnessed too much horror to be Pollyannas but even still, their belief in the transformative power of their stories was unshakable. For them, this history held meaning in and for the present. And in the face of their loss, we are left to ponder what can replace the visceral and powerful effect of these first-hand accounts.

There is a truth to this loss. There is nothing that quite replaces hearing someone say, “I was there. I experienced this. This is why it matters” Ultimately, it was the meaning that survivors made of their experiences that compelled them to speak.

The Holocaust is possibly the most extensively documented event in recorded history. The number of studies on the topic is such that no single researcher can possibly hope to keep abreast of every development. Collections of testimony also abound in number and form. We have written, audio, video and now even holographic collections of testimony. There is, indeed, no lack of history. The question is what we learn from this history and how we relate to it in the present.

These meanings are not self-evident. Whether reflection on the history of the Holocaust and other mass atrocities can ensure ethical action in the present remains open for debate. Yet that such histories should be studied to shake our ethical convictions to their foundations and demand that we consider them anew, is surely undeniable. If we can engage the stories of survivors to unsettle rather than simply affirm our worldviews, this history will continue to reverberate in the present.

Australia can seem so distant from such events and facile comparisons do nobody any good. We are not Nazi Germany, but nor are we a society free of racism, antisemitism, and profound structural inequalities. We need to learn about the Holocaust not because we fear its repetition, but because political and social forces that fuel inequity and discord remain with us today.

The survivor generation have given us their stories. What will we make of them?

Dr Avil Alba is a Senior Lecturer in Holocaust Studies and Jewish Civilisation and Chair of the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney. She was a personal friend of Mr Jaku and worked at the Sydney Jewish Museum as Education Director from 2002-2012 and Project Director/Consulting Curator for several major exhibitions.

Hero image: The Holocaust memorial in Berlin, credit Michael Fousert on Unsplash.

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities & Science)

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