“I am here as a result of a series of miracles. I am here to tell the tale. This is why we speak.”
And so begins my tour of the Sydney Jewish Museum. Along with a group of high school students, I am listening to Holocaust survivor David Benedikt tell a horror story that only those who have experienced the most prolific tale of Innocence Lost can relay. It is an understanding that people are fortuitously unable to fathom unless they have gone through it themselves, which is why hearing it come from the mouth of someone who has tends to arouse feelings of shock, disgust and disbelief – both in the human capability of evil and the ability of those who endured it to retain their faith in humanity.
After a short video on Jewish culture and history, David leads us through the top floor of the museum, the one dedicated to telling the story of the Holocaust. It begins with the background language to Jewish hardship – Anti-Semitism – which of course started with the death of Jesus. In Germany, this hatred was cultivated and nurtured until it became part of the country’s mass culture. The breeding of the “Master Race” was at the top of Hitler’s to-do list when he came into power, and despite his losses in war, exterminating those who he did not think would fit his vision of Utopia was something he by and large succeeded in doing in the areas he occupied. During the Holocaust, 11 million people were killed, six million of whom were Jewish. Of those who endured life in camps and ghettos, a mere five per cent made it out alive. As David puts it, his life is indeed nothing short of a miracle.
He moves on to describe how immigration quotas were introduced at a critical time – right when World War II broke out. As a result, the Jewish people were effectively trapped. He still has a copy of the notification from the American Consulate informing his family that their application had been received, but that the quota was full and that they would have to wait for additional permits in the calendar year. This was in 1939.
David was thrown out of his first year of university and his father was kicked out of his job soon after.
Once an upper middle-class family, they were soon transported to a ghetto as part of a selection of 1000 people, and they spent six weeks there. David describes this period as “the beginning of hunger.”
“Prior to the selection I was a spoilt only-child – then we were told we were only allowed to bring one portable suitcase of ‘essentials,’” he says.
“We started to get an idea of the conditions ahead of us – overcrowding, lack of hygiene and isolation.”
The place where his tale of survival begins is known as Theresienstadt, a once-military estate where he and his parents were stuffed into a small room of four walls and a roof. Not kitchen, no toilet – just dirt and rats. Eventually, they were put on a train for five days and nights to Latvia, where they were lined up in the snow. David was one of 80 young men selected and put aside. The rest of the people were sent away on windowless busses. It was the last time he saw his parents.
“We were eventually told the busses were mobile gas chambers, created by the Nazis to improve efficiency,” he says.
“The bus would travel for a calculated distance and the victims would arrive dead at mass graves, where they were tipped in at arrival. This is how my parents perished at 49 years old.”
For the next few years, David would suffer through ghettos, three concentration camps and a 10-day death march before he would be one of the very few who lived to tell the tale. He would freeze, starve, suffer dehydration, be put to work in slave conditions and forever be haunted with images of a “heap of women’s and children’s shoes” and the scent of a “chimney of flesh.” Ten days before the liberation, Russian guards took him and a few others to an isolated farmhouse, where he was finally offered food for his severely malnourished body. He lost consciousness while he was eating, and remained that way for two days until someone woke him to watch the liberation. He then slipped back out of consciousness, and by the time he awoke he was brought medical units and food. The terror was over, but the nightmares were only just beginning.
“It took me 15 years before I could talk about it, and even now I don’t go into the gruesome details,” he says.
“Every time I speak of it, there are emotions.”
As much as I think I know about the subject – I studied it in university, I devoured novels devoted to it and I believe I have adequately continued to educate myself on the Holocaust long after it was required for me to do so – there is always something to learn. Be it from the Nazi occupation to the world’s listings of continued genocide long after the regime’s demise, history is largely untouched by modern thinking, and it is only with active seeking that we can remind ourselves of the lessons that horrors past and present are able to bestow. Although I have heard many stories before, no individual experience matches another. Needless to say, I recall with distinct clarity my first impression of the Holocaust permeated through the words of Anne Frank, so I wanted to revisit what such a revelation was like for school students years later. Even for me, the effect of hearing the tale out of a living witness instead of through a movie screen or the pages of a book was unequivocally confronting, and when I looked at the young adults, there was an overall silence, the kind that only speechless information can inflict. As education director Avril Alba says, she doesn’t expect the tour to give them an epiphany, but rather, an increase in awareness.
“As a minimum, I hope they leave thinking and asking questions,” she says.
The museum opened in 1992, but had been a Jewish building since 1923. While there were Jewish people in Australia as far back as when the first fleet arrived, the population expanded after WWII. Ironically, Australia took the most Holocaust survivors per capita. In the direct aftermath of the war there was a “period of silence” amongst Holocaust survivors, who needed time out of the trauma and, like David, a spoken absence from their history. In the 1970’s, the community began to organise more formally and developed a strong identity, and ultimately the idea for the museum came to fruition. Its aims today are to tell the story of Jewish culture and the Holocaust, to honour its survivors and act as a memorial, and to serve as a vehicle for education. After all, Avril says that when students hear the survivor guides speak, the forged personal connection makes history come alive for them – and, inevitably, forces them to reflect back on the present.
“The other day a group came in and the teacher pulled me aside to tell me that I should know some of the students were victims of ethnic massacres,” she says.
“It reminded me just how crucial this work is for Australia – we have people living through genocide and we have an obligation to them.”
I couldn’t help but ask, then, what she thought of the current situation and Australia’s rather formidable stance on refugees?
“It makes me really angry. The Government has a responsibility – if people are desperate enough to get on a boat and risk their lives, we need to take the situation seriously,” she says.
“It is naïve to say the world has learned – nations continue to look after their own interests.”
Her own father a Holocaust survivor, Avril was acutely aware of his gratitude towards life when she was growing up. She did research in Jerusalem for her Honours, and then completed her Masters in Comparative Religion at Harvard University. Her job now entails directing the education program for the museum and fitting it into the national school curriculum. She isn’t hesitant to say it is tough material to work with – devastating, in fact – and it is easy to get burnt out and become jaded and cynical. Nonetheless, she says it is the kind of work that might not change much, but is worth spending her life doing. She quotes Mishna: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work; yet, you are not free to desist from it.”
When I ask David why he decided to be a survivor guide, he puts it simply:
“I want to give kids an idea of what social prejudice can do,” he says.
“All evil needs is for people to follow instructions.”
“All evil needs is for people to follow instructions.”
The Sydney Jewish Museum is open to the community Sunday to Thursday from 10am to 4pm and on Fridays from 10am to 2pm. For more information, visit its website.
words: Seema Duggal