Last November the newly rebuilt and refurbished Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick opened its doors. It is an extraordinary building, stunning in its simplicity and remarkable in the light and air it brings into the dark history it commemorates. It’s also a great tribute to our Melbourne survivors, to their stories of bravery, endurance, ingenuity and the audacity of their hopefulness. This rebuilding and renewal is in itself a reflection of these survivors and their sheer awesome courage to renew their lives and build a future out of tragedy and trauma; their capacity to bring light into a world that had been so darkened by human brutality and hatred.
As we mark International Holocaust Day on January 27 we affirm that this is a place not only of memory and history, but also one of meaning and legacy – now more than ever we need to affirm its message for humanity. Now, when the world is faltering and moral clarity and courage are in short supply, we need to be sure to find the strength and hope that feed and nourish the human spirit. And not to despair, for despair only saps us. Above the entrance to the Bratzlaver shtibel in the Warsaw ghetto was an inscription, Elie Wiesel calls it an outcry: ‘For heaven’s sake, Jews, do not despair’. This was the motto of the great Hassidic Rebbe, Nachman of Bratslav, when confronted by the stories of the persecution of Jews in the Ukraine, by reports of slaughtered families, women abused, and children burned alive. He turned to his followers and said ‘I will not weep and let pain overwhelm me, Gewalt Yiden, Jews, do not despair!’.
After October 7, this imperative motto of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav takes on a new urgency. Our people have again met the savage merchants of death, the naked face of evil. We have lost so many of our people, we are losing so many of our young men as they battle a cynical enemy who, like its Amalekite and Nazi predecessors, delights in its own savagery, proudly declaring ‘Mum, be proud of me, today I murdered Jews!’. And on the streets of Melbourne, London and New York there’s a ‘righteous’, shameless mediaeval Jew-hatred hardly disguised any longer as anti-Israelism. Jake Simpson, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, calls this newest version of the world’s oldest hatred Israelophobia.
There is a paradoxical danger in the building of any new Holocaust Museum, in that it can easily become a place not so much about the genocide of our people, but primarily a place of universal tolerance and resilience of the human spirit. In universalising the message of the Shoah, there is the danger that we will rob it of its unique significance; namely that it was about the hatred and destruction of Jews. Sorrowfully, the Palestinians and their shameful proxy, South Africa, in their cavalier accusation of genocide against Israel, ignore the fact that we know too well what genocide actually is. The losses in Gaza may be a tragedy; but they are no genocide.
This danger is reflected in what has happened to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where a new young Jewish employee was initially forbidden to wear his kippah because it would infringe on the policy of neutrality. In other words, he was discouraged from wearing it as he may give the impression that this story of Anne, if not the Shoah itself, was too Jewish. The twenty five year old, Barry Vingerling, said: ’I work in the House of Anne Frank, who had to hide because of her identity. In that same house I should have to hide my own identity?. Of course, even as we celebrate our survivors remarkable resilience, we dare not minimise just what unfathomable horrors they suffered because they were Jews. To do so is to sanitise evil and to leave ourselves vulnerable to the dark unrelenting savage impulse of humanity. The Holocaust, as American writer Dara Horn reminds us, was not a morality play – the horrors were real, cruel, sadistic and sickening.
I am confident, given the superb leadership team of the Melbourne Holocaust Museum and the inspiring creativity of the various displays, that they will avoid this vexing pitfall. This Museum (which rightly focuses on the uniqueness of the Shoah) will continue its critical work of educating Australians, and especially young Australians, about the virus of antisemitism, how it mutates and metastasizes, how the Shoah is a warning to all humanity about the dark heart of humanity and, yes, also about the remarkable resilience and courage of the survivors.
I wrote a poem for the opening of the Museum which reflects some of these themes:
We remember the darkness
Today we remember the darkness.
Today we reach back into the long black nights
(Ha Laylot Halalu Koolo Choshech)
No light in this cattle carriage Mama
No light in this barren barrack Papa.
Oh my people – you who filled this planet with so much colour and light –
Too many a dark night
(Vechoshech Al pnei te hom).
Skewered by crucifixes
Carved by cutting crescents
Burnt by heils and heps
Trampled by jackboots
And just yesterday
Plowed by unholy Allah Akhbars.
Today in this loving light place of shade
Today we remember not to forget
And today we remember to forget.
Not to forget the casual calloused heart of humankind
But to forget those who would carelessly incinerate our fiery bushes.
Don’t they know the more you burn us the more you ignite us?
That we may be wounded, our flesh charred
But our spirit burns, oh how it burns.
Oh my Lord
Tattie daddy abba Avinu
Don’t forsake me
just hold me for a little longer.
Hold me like you hold the stars
Name me like you name the stars
Let the new sparks grow out of the black earth, out of the charred ovens.
Today we will climb the beams of light
Even as dark rockets pound the fields of Zion
Even as serpentine shadows surround our serene suburbs
We will declare Eden in Elsternwick
We are here to stay and ride our wild lions of Judah into the future
To join the ancient dreamers of this crusty continent.
We will not cease our dreaming …
Rabbi Ralph Genende OAM