Holocaust Museums Keep The Horror From Fading

Visitors at the Sydney Jewish Museum express the effect this kind of memorial has on them

STEVEN SPIELBERG'S film, ``Schindler's List'' has sparked a wave of interest in the Holocaust. And the Sydney Jewish Museum is doing a brisk business explaining what happened and why.

In the museum, Margaret Tasker, a former Canadian now living in Sydney, and her friend, Gillian Lee, are watching a videotape of a Holocaust survivor talk about her experience.

``I came because I'm going to see [``Schindler's List''] over the weekend and I wanted to put it into context,'' Ms. Tasker says.

``It's very moving,'' says Ms. Lee of the museum. She stops, shakes her head, searching for words. ``It's good there's more publicity for the Holocaust. I was much more aware of it growing up in Britain; lately it seems to have dropped out of my life.''

The barest facts of the Holocaust are known to most people. If nothing else, the number of Jews killed during World War II - 6 million - is one that occupies a unique place in our collective memory.

But who were the 6 million? What were they like? How did they live?

Holocaust and Jewish museums have been created around the world to answer those questions; major ones opened in Washington and Los Angeles in the last two years alone.

The Sydney Jewish Museum, which opened November 18, 1992, was designed to serve as a memorial to those who perished, to honor the courage of those who helped, and to appreciate the importance of religious tolerance so that these events won't be repeated.

A more `gentle' museum

The idea for the museum came in 1982 with the world gathering of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem.

In 1985 a similar gathering was held in Australia and an association formed with the idea of opening a Jewish museum. Survivor John Saunders, a man who hadn't been able to talk about his experiences until he saw the film, ``Sophie's Choice,'' became a major benefactor.

``This museum differs from the ones in Washington and Los Angeles in that it does not try to re-create the oppressive atmosphere of the camps in the architecture,'' museum director Alan Jacobs says. ``In Australia we tend to understate; this is more of a gentle walk through those times.''

Another difference is that the guides are actual survivors. (See accompanying story, right.) Australia took in the second- largest number of survivors by population after Israel. About 800 are alive here today.

The museum flows through several levels; the ground floor having general information about Jewish life. Upstairs, the impact of Hitler's ``Final Solution'' unfolds incrementally, as it might have for Jews living then. Blurry, blown-up, black-and-white photographs reveal the cramming of Jews into ghettos and the deterioration of life there, and the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto.

Photos show people being rounded up, sorting through their belongings, being herded onto cattle trains.

World was unaware

Around a corner are photos of the camps, gas chambers, and crematoria. Newspaper articles show that the rest of the world was scarcely aware of what was happening.

Computer images of 240 of the dead are projected on a screen, along with their names. The picture changes every 10 seconds. It is said that if it were possible to show photos of all 6 million Jews killed, it would take about three years.

One of the most moving sections is a sculpture of a jumble of children shown in a darkened room. It was created by a Holocaust survivor. One hundred and fifty red lights glare out from a huge wall map of Europe indicating the sites of concentration and death camps - only a small fraction of the 5,000 that existed.

Even for those who think they know the history of the Holocaust, there's more to learn about the immensity of the attempt to wipe out the Jews.

For example, Auchwitz, in Poland, had 45 sub-camps; Gross-Rosen, in Lower Silesia, where guide Harry Fransman was sent, had more than 50.

If, after all that, some still doubt the existence of the Holocaust, displays of special Jewish currency, badges worn by German guards, food-ration cards, and a striped uniform might change some minds.

The museum is designed in an upward circular pattern. As you reach the top, the last few exhibits are hopeful. Those who provided aid are honored: Senpo Sugihara, a Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania, made 6,000 visas for Jews in 19 days; Swedish attache Raoul Wallenberg whose phony passports helped save thousands in Hungary; the now-famous Oskar Schindler, on whom Spielberg's based his film, a German industrialist who spent and bribed away a fortune to save the 1,100 Jews who worked in his factory.

The last stop is the Gallery of Courage, where a traveling exhibit depicts the rescue of 90 percent of Denmark's Jews by a determined and crafty populace who hid them and sent them by small boats to Sweden.

Museum Director Jacobs, who doubles as the education officer, feels the positive ending is important. ``We don't want to destroy the faith of the kids. We want to show how the human spirit can triumph over adversity. Jewish kids already know the story,'' he says.

``The Asian kids really respond to the racism aspects - that's why racial tolerance is an important part of the museum. Non-Jewish kids, the Catholic kids really respond, especially the girls. Sometimes they break down and hug the guides.

``Even tough `surfies' [surfers] from Cronulla [a Sydney suburb], they tear up, too,'' Jacobs says.

After the war, Australia doubled its Jewish population. There are some 800 survivors of the Holocaust now living here. Ironically, there are also an estimated 800 former Nazis here as well.

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