Judith Berman, ‘Holocaust Remembrance in Australian Jewish Communities, 1945-2000’

Reviewed by Freda Freiberg

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This book fits into the category of Australian studies rather than Holocaust studies. Its central focus is not on the Holocaust itself but on the ceremonial, educational and institutional forms devised by Australian Jews to perpetuate its memory. It thus belongs alongside studies of other Australian ceremonies and institutions that perpetuate memory of atrocities, war and suffering and enable survivors to mourn the victims – Anzac Day ceremonies and war memorials, Sorry Day marches and museums documenting the dispossession and suffering of the Aboriginal peoples.

Berman is an historian who has taught at both secondary and tertiary levels. She has made a comprehensive study of the history of the ways in which the three largest Australian Jewish communities (in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth) have institutionalised memory of the Holocaust. She concentrates on three forms of Holocaust remembrance: annual memorial ceremonies, museums, and Holocaust education in Jewish schools. She describes their uneven evolution over the past fifty-five years, analysing the problems and issues that arose in the course of their institutionalisation. It is a comparative study, which identifies the similarities and differences in the evolution and forms of Holocaust remembrance between the three Australian communities; and between Australia, the United States and Israel.

In her detailed history of the uneven growth of the three central forms whereby the Jewish communities of Melbourne, Perth and Sydney remember the Holocaust, she demonstrates the differences between the three communities. Melbourne has the largest concentration of Polish Jews and Holocaust survivors, and the greatest number of Jewish institutions, including seven schools. The city houses both a Jewish Museum and a Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre. Perth has a small community with far fewer Holocaust survivors and very limited resources; its efforts are therefore more modest. It has a small Holocaust Institute but no Jewish Museum. Sydney’s Anglo-Jewish community leaders were not supportive of Holocaust remembrance activities and developments were also hampered there by orthodox religious intolerance (boycotting events where Liberal/Reformed Jewish ministers officiated or participated) and by lack of cooperation between benefactors. Finally opened in 1992, the Sydney Jewish Museum is a triple-focus museum, combining the functions of a museum of Australian Jewish history, a museum of Judaica, and a Holocaust museum, all under one roof.

Berman documents the expansion of Holocaust memorial activity in the last two decades of the 20th century. It was then, not earlier, that Holocaust museums were built, educational units or courses on the Holocaust were incorporated into senior secondary and tertiary education, documentary films produced, survivors’ testimonies recorded, memoirs and autobiographies published. Berman offers several explanations for the lateness of the boom in Holocaust-related activities. In the early post-war period, Holocaust survivors were preoccupied with rebuilding their lives in a new country; they tried to put their traumatic experiences out of their minds, because they couldn’t deal with them or felt Australians couldn’t understand. With the passing of time and the aging of the survivors, they have experienced a pressing need to tell their stories before it is too late, to pass on their experiences to the younger generation. Another strong motivation to testify was their felt need to counter the rise of Holocaust denial and revisionism, to put on record their personal experience of loss and suffering during the Holocaust. Their children and grandchildren have also felt a personal obligation to undertake research, and conduct memorial and educational activities around the issue of the Holocaust.

Berman is critical of the almost exclusive focus on Jewish experience and Jewish issues at Holocaust memorial services and in Holocaust education in Jewish high schools. She has analysed the `lessons’ of the speeches delivered at the annual commemorations and the responses to a questionnaire she sent to teachers (her findings are tabulated in the appendices) and found that very little attention is given to other victims of Nazism and to other genocides before and after the Holocaust. The guides and exhibits at the Holocaust museums are more inclined to convey `universal’ or humanist messages about the dangers of racism and totalitarianism.

However, the lessons of Jewish history do make Jewish youth, and the community generally, sensitive to other peoples’ experience of racism and oppression, and empathetic with the plight of refugees, whatever their religion or nationality. This is evident in the strong support for aboriginal rights and restitution, and the protests against the treatment of recent refugees, voiced by organized Jewish community groups as well as individual Jews.

One of the strengths of this book is its exposition of Jewish community dynamics in post-WW2 Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Berman gives us a richly complex, and finely nuanced, sociological and historical account of the slow progress to the present situation. Despite apparent consensus on the issues of both the Holocaust and the state of Israel, all three communities have been riven by internal dissension – between left and right, secularists and religious, liberal and orthodox believers. This book accurately portrays the prevalence of dissension and debate within the Jewish community. There is a wide spectrum of beliefs among Jews, and the larger communities include a plethora of political and religious factions, who are quick to criticise each other in the pages of the Jewish press. There is a tendency among non-Jews to believe that all Jews think alike, unaware of the rabid factionalism and fractious level of debate within the community on all manner of issues.

Another strength of this book is its thorough and systematic research. Berman has conducted extensive and intensive archival research, in the archives of the Jewish community newspapers in all three states, in the archives of Jewish community organizations and museum publications. She has devised and conducted detailed oral interviews (see Appendix B) with teachers, past and present, of Holocaust courses in Jewish high schools; and canvassed the views of museum guides and curators, institutional staff, teachers, community leaders, and historians in all three states. She has also engaged in extensive academic research, citing a large number of articles and books on the subject of Holocaust history, remembrance and education by Australian, American and Israeli academics.

In the course of the book, Berman airs many issues of debate, in regard to the teaching, visual presentation and meanings of the Holocaust. She gives them all due attention, gives them balanced presentation, and makes extensive use of the existing academic literature on the subject to illustrate the varying points of view and ideological differences.

This is a timely book, which constitutes the first systematic national survey of Holocaust remembrance and education in post-WW2 Australia. It is an impressive work of research and analysis. It would be interesting to pursue the matter further, and examine Holocaust education in state and other denominational schools, and in Australian universities, to see how it is taught in other contexts, outside the Jewish community.
Freda Freiberg is a film historian, lecturer and critic. She has contributed numerous articles, essays and reviews on Japanese cinema, Australian film and photography, to a wide variety of publications, academic and journalistic, over the past 25 years. At Monash University, where she was formerly a lecturer in the Visual Arts Department, she contributed a course of lectures on the representation of the Holocaust in film to the Holocaust course run by the History Department.

Judith Berman, Holocaust Remembrance in Australian Jewish Communities, 1945-2000 was published by UWA Press in 2001.

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