Meet living history at the Sydney Jewish Museum

Sydney Jewish Museum

Teaching our younger generations the real lessons of the past.

A 98-year-old man giving regular talks about his experience living through the Holocaust may be asking too much from a living treasure. But, for Eddie Jaku, recounting his experiences with the Nazis is something he feels passionately about retelling. “When I was in Germany it was a civilised country, there was a community – and I want to tell everyone, that if something like the Holocaust happened there it could happen anywhere,” he says.

“I cannot change the past, the past is history. I will try with all my strength and all my knowledge to change the future.”

Jaku is one of the greatest exhibits of the Sydney Jewish Museum found in Darlinghurst. At the age of 98, he and his fellow survivors are becoming rarer. The museum is, and has for some time, been recording the history of its greatest assets so they will be able to continue to teach their experiences to children and other visitors. The aim is not to recount the horrors of the Holocaust, but more strongly to teach the message that was so well articulated by British parliamentarian Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Eddie Jaku. Image via The Wellness Couch

Eddie Jaku. Image via The Wellness Couch

This message is especially pertinent for school groups who need to understand that it is not enough not to do wrong, but it is also wrong to condone bad behaviour whether it is bullying, violence, or any other harmful actions.

Now across Europe, anti-Semitism is again raising its head, and it’s important to understand the position the vital role the Jewish community play in Australia as a part of our multicultural society.

The museum recently celebrated its 25 year anniversary. I visited it for the first time more than 20 years ago and it took some time to return because I had expected it to be gloomy and depressing; I never seemed to be in the mood. When I finally did visit I was surprised by the positivity of the guides – most of whom were Holocaust survivors. I feel incredibly privileged to be in close connection with witnesses to such a momentous piece of history, which until then I had only seen through books and films. This was living history and I was hearing first hand of real people’s experiences. In my first visit I thought it was the best kind of history, and I continue to think so now. I was uplifted through hearing the people tell of their experiences and their strong belief that they had a responsibility to stop it happening again. I have returned several times since.

The museum is, of course, a special place for Jews. But for everyone else it is also an important part of our collective history, and while the focus is on the WWII experience, it must be seen to be an important teaching to all of us in relation to hate crimes, “ethnic cleansing” and racism worldwide.

My most recent guide was a South African Jew and he said that looking through the museum’s Holocaust history and finding the dehumanising behaviour of the Nazis in taking away people’s names, their property, their rights to attend public places, and their segregation from society was something he saw replicated in the apartheid era.

In other countries around the world, similar behaviours are occurring. As humans, we need to be eternally vigilant.  We must be allowed to be different, we must be allowed free speech, free rights to worship and think.

The world today is very frightening – there is an increase in bullying but particularly among those in positions of power. There is a belittling of journalism and truth. These activities are alarming. We must be able to learn from history.

“For those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana.

Currently, there is a special exhibition at the Museum Jukebox Jewkbox! celebrating the evolution of music since shellac and vinyl. Visitors to the museum will be taken on a visual and aural journey through early Broadway musicals to punk genres and there are hundreds of record covers marking that journey. There is a book accompanying the exhibition which reveals the Jewish heritage of musicians including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond,  Barbra Streisand,  Kiss and the Beastie Boys  – going back to George Gershwin, Rogers & Hart and Al Jolson.

Where: 148 Darlinghurst Rd, Darlinghurst NSW
For more information: Sydney Jewish Museum