Integrity and Relevance: Shaping Holocaust Memory at the Sydney Jewish Museum

Article excerpt

Memory ... is socially constructed.
Its base is much more in the present than in the past. (1)

Turn it over and over for everything is contained within it
Mishnah Avot 5:26

An Historical Overview

The Sydney Jewish Museum (SJM) provides a physical and cultural meeting place where Holocaust history and Australian Jewish history is preserved, displayed and conveyed to the broader Australian public. As an "official" site for displaying Jewish history, it also becomes a de facto site for conveying Jewish memory. In claiming this public space the SJM becomes, necessarily, a place of struggle--where competing claims to Jewish history and memory are constantly re-evaluated.

In this process, questions of both an internal and external nature arise that every community based museum must confront: Who are we? What do we deem important in our history? And why would, or should, others find this history compelling? These are largely internal institutional questions that pertain to the self perception and understanding of the museum's stakeholders. Yet for a museum to remain a vital institution it must also address the key issue of contemporary relevance and in doing so it must confront external questions such as; how does our history relate to current social and political realities? Does it relate only to our community or does it have relevance to other communities as well?

In addressing these questions, Holocaust museums such as the SJM must eventually grapple with the vexed issue of "Holocaust uniqueness." (2) The current manifestation of the uniqueness debate at the SJM is evidenced primarily in its striving to reach consensus on the import and meaning of Holocaust memory in the Australian setting--a conundrum that inevitably affects all aspects of museum display and programming. This challenge is the result of a historical "crossroads" at which the SJM currently stands. Unlike Holocaust museums in the US and Israel, Holocaust museums in Australia were from the outset initiated, funded and staffed by Survivors. Built by Survivors and in the memory of those who did not survive, the initial memorial intent of the SJM was clearly defined. As the survivor generation grows older and their involvement and influence within the institution wanes the question now becomes one of "ownership" of Holocaust memory. Will Zachor remain an exclusively Jewish imperative or should its powerful message resonate beyond the borders of the Sydney Jewish community? (3)

To address this challenge adequately, it is necessary to recognise the historical experience that has shaped the largely particularistic outlook of the Sydney Jewish community, while reconceptualizing this internal focus through a reassessment of the particular/universal dialectic that informs the Jewish memorial tradition. Such a conceptual shift, I argue, will facilitate the creation of a range of educational and commemorative strategies that will enable the SJM to continue to imbed Holocaust memory with both integrity and relevance into Australian public life.

Creating Holocaust Memory in Sydney (4)

James E. Young suggests that Holocaust museums and memorials are "shaped" by the respective communal and national narratives within which they are formed. (5) Generally, the shape of a museum's memory can be ascertained through a consideration of its distinct social history coupled with a careful examination of its exhibitions and programs. Judith Berman argues that within the Australian setting, Holocaust museums and memorials were created in a Jewish community that has been historically non-universalistic in its outlook. (6) A brief review of the creation, history and display of the SJM supports this claim.

The SJM is housed in the Maccabean Hall, known colloquially as the Macc. The building, opened formally on Armistice Day 1923 by the Australian Jewish war hero Sir John Monash, also houses the New South Wales Jewish War Memorial. …