Category Archives: News

Holocaust survivor, society darling and acclaimed portrait artist

‘’I always say God paints the last brushstroke on my portraits, because I leave them to mature for a few weeks after I’ve finished them and when I come back to them, they seem to look different’’

The Museum recently received five paintings from the estate of acclaimed artist, Judy Cassab (1920-2015). Her work, represented in galleries and museums within Australia and internationally, is testament to the pioneering craft of a woman who defied the confines of gender and status, to reshape the art world in Australia.

Born Judit Kaszab in 1920 in Vienna, Austria, Judy was raised by her mother and grandmother in Beregszász, Hungary, where she studied art. She painted her first portrait at the age of 12 and went on to study art in Prague and at the Budapest Academy. Her studies were disrupted by Nazi occupation and her subsequent time in hiding, “…it was the first time in my life that I was not a girl, not a woman, not a human being, but a Jew”. Most of Judy’s immediate family was murdered in the Holocaust. In 1951, she migrated to Australia with her husband and two young sons.

Her first solo exhibition held at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in 1953 was the beginning of a long and celebrated career. Judy went on to win the Archibald twice, first in 1960 with a portrait of Stanislaus Rapotec and later in 1967 with the portrait of Margo Lewers. The awards and accolades continued into her later life.

Of the five pieces donated to the museum, four are portraits painted and drawn prior to the outbreak of World War II. Even in these formative years, Judy’s technical capabilities and her ability to capture the sitter’s ‘inner person’ as well as their likeness are evident.

Judy would go on to refine her portraiture into her early nineties. Painting for pleasure, her work was rendered complete, but not overworked or ‘finished’; she often added last minute touches described as the ‘vital marks which somehow pin one’s soul to the canvas’. Imbuing her portraits with an interpretive dimension, a specific element of her paintings were the subject’s eyes, which were always her starting point. She referenced this in her diaries, noting, “Whereas I probably wouldn’t place a highlight on a china cup, I mostly paint one in the eyes. It’s a magic moment when the eyes come alive and look back at me.” Both portraits of her parents seem to speak with their eyes, conveying the complexity of the relationship between parent and child.

Drawing of Anyu (Judy’s Mother)

‘The Morning Paper’, which features the artist’s husband, Jancsi Kampfner does not appear contrived or set up. There is something deeply personal in the work, capturing her subject in an ordinary, quiet moment at home; for a brief second the viewer is privy to the private world of the artist and perhaps the inner character of the sitter himself. Jancsi, a survivor of the Hungarian labour camps, encouraged Judy to embrace her work and channel her experience through her brush. Together they endured the hardships of war, migration and the inevitable ups and downs of marriage. Their love was enduring. Jancsi died in 2001.

Jancsi The Morning Paper

Judy was a pioneer; she balanced a family life and the demands of a public career, forging her place in a domain often reserved for men, casting aside her status as a migrant and the obvious deterrents in her path.

Author: Rachel Mensforth, Curator.

Holocaust objects and images

Save our history

When the Museum opened nearly 25 years ago, the Holocaust Survivors initiated a collection of Holocaust related material by donating precious objects and images. These personal belongings provide the narrative of experience and witness accounts that pave the journey through the Museum’s exhibits. It was in the community’s best interest that we safeguard these items and their cultural heritage as they are a valuable resource to academics, historians and students. Objects are touchstones to personal stories and much is lost when the story comes second-hand. History should be preserved for future generations, once lost it cannot be recovered.

The Sydney Jewish Museum is now embarking on another collection drive to rescue Holocaust related material in the community. There is urgency to this collection as we want to speak to the original owner and record their experience first-hand.

A concern voiced is that people don’t want to donate items to have them ‘sit in a storeroom’. Museums generally only exhibit between 1-9% of their collection at any time. We endeavour to make our collection available to researchers and we are always using items from our collection for the numerous temporary exhibitions we curate.

You may think that you do not have anything of value or that your story is not interesting, but every piece of evidence is a crucial part of the historical record. Please don’t hesitate to contact Shannon in the Sydney Jewish Museum Curatorial Department on (02) 9360-7999 and help us save our history.

Holocaust objects and images

‘You have nothing to lose but your cultural cringe’

The Museum has recently acquired the first ever issue of POL, a cutting edge magazine which expressed the preoccupations of a generation of Australians. The acquisition is part of a concerted effort by Museum staff to preserve and recount the new lives forged by Holocaust survivors and the contribution they have made to the rich and multicultural fabric of Australian life.

For many Jewish immigrants, the fashion industry offered accessible opportunities for realising a new life, particularly if they were prepared to work hard, innovate and adapt. In addition, it was often easy to operate in the rag trade where language barriers were less acute. In the climate of a post-war Australia, the European influence of new immigrants was well received, shifting the country’s collective sensibilities and the cultural landscape of fashion.

POL Magazine. Museum Collection.

POL Magazine. Museum Collection.

In line with this maturing Australian awareness of style and expression, POL magazine emerged. Established by the controversial entrepreneur, Gareth Powell in 1969, the publication tapped into the radical spirit of its time. Adopting high production values and edgy editorial design, its fresh approach attracted an influx of progressive photographers and contributors.

Featured among the pages of the first issue is the Hibodress blouse factory, accompanied by an article which touts the rise of the see-through blouse. The article itself is a testament to the brand’s position at the fore of Australian fashion and the ingenuity of its founders.

POL Editorial. Courtesy Sydney Jewish Museum Collection

POL Editorial.  Museum Collection

The success of Hibodress, which was established two weeks after founders John and Olga Horak arrived in Australia, was multifaceted. John – a qualified textile engineer from the Czech Republic – worked alongside Olga who, despite no formal training, had an innate eye for fashion resulting in a bold line of wash-and-wear blouses.

Blouses from the Hibodress Factory. Museum Collection

Blouses from the Hibodress Factory. Museum Collection

While the Magazine was discontinued in 1986, its legacy is evident in both its experimental photography and challenging features.

During his tenure as the magazine’s editor, Don Dustan had this to say: ‘Pol delights in excellence, individuality, creativity and zest for life. We chronicle Australia’s maturity. We pursue the causes of the good. Australians of the world unite and read POL – you have nothing to lose but your cultural cringe’.

Authors: Rachael Mensforth, Curator and Natalia Thomas, Marketing Manager.

In love and Auschwitz

This is an intriguing story of resistance and survival. Born in 1914 in a small Polish village, Salem Schott moved with his family to Berlin after the First World War.

After finishing primary school he completed an apprenticeship as a metal worker and electrician. Aged 16, he embarked on a boxing career with the Jewish Makkabi sports club, quickly earning the reputation as a tough fighter, a champion in his light-middle weight class, nick-named “Bully”. In 1937 he met his future wife Gerda Lewinek in the Jewish Youth movement.

Gerda Lewinek and Salem Schott.

Gerda Lewinek and Salem Schott. Image: SJM Collection

As a German Jew of Polish descent ‘Bully’ was taken hostage in September 1939.  Physical strength helped him in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen to adjust to brutal treatment and harsh labour. His boxing skills also proved valuable, earning him status and extra food rations when participating in boxing matches. Highly beneficial was his friendly relationship with inmates who stood at the top of the camp hierarchy.

‘Bully’ was deported to Auschwitz on October 6 1942.  Here too, his skills as an electrician and welder were in high demand, earning him special privileges and the ability to move freely around the camp. He again befriended Gerda and as well as a civilian worker who would later help him escape.

On August 16 1944, ‘Bully’ was locked inside a workshop, and after dark he changed his clothes, cut through the wire fence and made his way to the train station. The journey to Berlin lasted several weeks. Upon arrival, he disappeared into the underground with the help of Berliners who provided false papers, ration cards and accommodation. Whilst his escape was discovered on August 17, the Gestapo never found him. All together 667 escapees were recorded; 270 escapees were caught and executed. ‘Bully’ is one of only 76 Jews who successfully escaped from Auschwitz.

After liberation in June 1945, Gerda and Bully were married. It was one of the first Jewish weddings in Berlin after the Holocaust. Both hastened to trace Nazi killers and to bring them to justice. After their son Martin was born the family migrated to Australia arriving in November 1950. They found a new and permanent home the suburb of Maroubra.

Bully and Gerda Schott: SJM Collection

Bully and Gerda Schott: SJM Collection

A pair of pants from Auschwitz

It is amazing what treasures can be found sitting in the back shed or the garage*.

Today we received an extraordinary donation of an Auschwitz concentration camp jacket and pair of trousers – the latter represents the only camp trousers in our collection. They belonged to Wladzimierz Klunicki, a Polish man who fought with the partisans but was captured and sent to Auschwitz. He died in 1974 from kidney failure and other health problems resulting from his time in Auschwitz. He seldom spoke about his experiences.

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After arrival in the camp, those selected for work underwent the humiliating process of having their heads and bodies shaved. They were issued ill-fitting uniforms, registered and sent to the barracks.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners were also tattooed with a number. The donor, daughter of Wladzimierz Klunicki, recalls her father’s tattoo (which he later tattooed over with a heart) but does not remember the number.

While it may take some time to undertake further research about the man to whom the ‘uniform’ belonged, we can look to the artefact itself to discover its stories and secrets. The jacket is made of coarse cloth and consists of striped pants and plain, grey jacket. Not all prisoners received a striped uniform. Early prisoners in Auschwitz were given the tattered, unwashed military uniforms of murdered Soviet POWs, often encrusted with blood.

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Prisoners were stripped of their individual identities and referred to only by their registration number. This number, stencilled or drawn onto a strip of cloth, was attached to their clothing with a colour-coded triangle so the reason for incarceration was immediately recognisable. Remnants of the hand-stitching that held his registration number are still evident. The number however, is lost for now. On the inside of the jacket the wearer has crudely stitched a piece of fabric which has an opening at the top – clearly a resourceful way of adding an invisible pocket, in an otherwise pocket-less jacket. The camp trousers made of coarse grey and blue striped fabric, have been altered with a rough hem.

As custodians of this remarkable object, we will endeavour to research further and share its unfolding story.

(*Note to reader: shed or garage is not an ideal place to store precious memorabilia)

Author: Roslyn Sugarman, Head Curator

I need a hero…

“If a person destroys one life, it is as if they have destroyed the entire world. And if a person saves one life, it is as if they have saved an entire world.” – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

All too often in times of change, anxiety and uncertainty humanity will give in to a base desire to find someone else, someone different to blame for our struggles. It is a phenomenon that finds root across cultures, faiths and generations.

The actions of the Righteous Among the Nations forces the question: under the same circumstances, how would we act? Would you risk death to shelter a child? Would you put the life of you and your family at risk to save, ten, one hundred, one thousand? If the world you knew crumbled around you, would you stay true to your faith? Would you waver from your moral compass?

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The Righteous Among the Nations are a testament to humanity. Atypical individuals who did not stand idly by in a time of fear, deprivation and destruction. Instead they nourished, sheltered and saved Jews in peril, because they deemed it right.

The bravery of the Righteous offers us a glimmer of hope. Through their deeds we see that we are not powerless in the face of ignorance and indifference. We do not have to be complicit in actions that defy our moral compass.

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The preservation of human life, human dignity and human rights is sacred. And by remembering their legacy and listening to their stories, we begin a journey that helps us to find our own voice.

Learn more about the Righteous Among the Nations here. Watch the exhibition trailer.

What a lot of nonsense

Speakers of Yiddish will be well familiar with the term bobba mayseh. Often mistranslated as “an old wife’s tale” (from bobba = “grandmother” and mayseh = “story”), bobba mayseh a lighthearted, semi-humorous way of saying that something is a lot of nonsense. Researching the origins of various artefacts, one often encounters bobba maysehs of various types, but where does the term itself really come from?

It turns out that the origin of this expression lies in a 13th century Anglo-Norman epic, written in verse and detailing the exploits of Sir Bevis of Hampton. There are lots of similarities between this text and Beowulf, and it was also thought to have served as part of the inspiration for Hamlet. Sir Bevis’ father was a murdered count, whose murderer then went and married his widow. Sir Bevis himself, who was in love with an Egyptian princess, is exiled from his land and is sworn to avenge his father’s death. At one point, he defeats a giant named Ascaparte and makes him his squire.

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Sir Bevis leading the giant Ascaparte.

The work was translated into a number of languages (including English in the 14th century), but the most popular one was the Italian (Buovo d’Antona). It was in this form that the work came to the attention of an Italian Jew in the 15th century named Elia Levita, who decided to translate it into Yiddish. His version was enormously popular, and came to be known as Bobba Bukh (“the Bobba Book”). It was the first non-religious text ever written in the Yiddish language, preceding the first Hebrew novel by almost 300 years.

In Levita’s version of the story, in which he supplanted various Christian references for subject matter that would have resonated with a Jewish audience, it is the princess of Flanders with whom the exiled Bobba falls in love and the wicked king of Babylonia who constitutes his nemesis. The Babylonian prince, Lucifer, is promised the beautiful princess, the King of Flanders is taken into Babylonian captivity, Bobba rescues him with the assistance of a magic horse, and the wicked Lucifer is put to death. Twice in the story do Bobba and his lover think the other dead, twice is she almost married to another, and in the midst of all of this excitement he finds the time to return to Antona, banish his mother to a nunnery, kill her murderous husband and become the new king. It’s a real page turner, I am sure.

But already by the 17th century, these stories of mythic tales were ripe for ridicule, and since the epic of Bobba was so well known to Yiddish speakers it came to typify all that was foolish about the genre. A sort of Yiddish Don Quixote, Bobba came to be looked upon as naïve and overly romantic, and started to be used him as a symbol of all that was foolish or unbelievable. Hence, to describe something as a Bobba story (a bobba mayseh) was to say that it was complete nonsense, and this expression is still in use today. That people think it has something to do with grandmothers is perhaps the greatest bobba mayseh of them all.

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Author: Education Officer, Simon Holloway.

Graphic Art and the Struggle to Represent the Holocaust

Graphic Art and the Struggle to Represent the Holocaust: Wenona High Students create a Holocaust themed Graphic Novel

One of the most rewarding experiences for members of the education department is the opportunity to work closely with teachers in developing programs that challenge and deepen their students’ understanding of the Holocaust.

In October of this year, three staff members from Wenona High School came to the Museum to work with us on developing a unique program that would use the graphic novel as the educational tool to teach their students about the Holocaust.

The program that we developed with the Wenona staff was called ‘Graphic Art and the Struggle to Represent the Holocaust.’  Luke Simkins, Acting Head of Teaching and Learning, was the driving force behind the program. He is a history teacher with extensive experience in Holocaust education and has worked closely with the Museum staff in the past. Colleagues from the English department and Art department were also excited by the educational opportunities and had limited experience in Holocaust education.

Our interactive seminar with Wenona staff (Luke Simkins, Kim Marcovitch, Noosha Jalili  and Kerry Swain) moved through a history of the graphic novel and explored the connections between visual art and the Holocaust. Jewish artists created art while experiencing the Nazi occupation as well as in the years after war.  By visually depicting their experiences the artists created works that bore witness to all that they endured during the Holocaust.  Art was also the medium that some survivors used to express their anguish and pain.  Their drawings and paintings became a very personal expression of their will to survive, as well as their ongoing struggle with traumatic memories.

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The history of the graphic novel is intimately tied to the history of the Holocaust.  The creators of Superman (Jerome “Jerry” Siegel and Joseph “Joe” Shuster) were both first generation American Jews whose families had come to the United States from Europe. When Siegel himself reflection on why he created Superman he acknowledged the impact that the persecution of European Jewry had on their creation:

“What led me into creating Superman in the early thirties? … Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany … seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden … I  had the great urge to help… help the downtrodden masses, somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.”

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Siegel quoted in Mel Gordon’s Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman

Captain America was created by Joseph Henry “Joe” Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) also as a direct response to the persecution of Jews in Europe. The first Captain America story every published depicted their superhero punching Hitler in the face. The story was published in March 1941, several months before the United States had joined the War. Captain America’s first story was an overt political statement supporting American military involvement in World War II.

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As we discussed the significant connections between the Holocaust and the graphic novel it was exciting to see the teachers from Wenona realise the educational opportunities the graphic novel opened up for them and their students. Graphic novels would offer a unique, challenging and confronting way to study and think about the enduring importance of the Holocaust.

The students from Wenona had already met with Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku earlier in the year, so the decision was made that they would create pages from a graphic novel depicting aspects of his testimony.  This decision was also made because they had access to his testimony via the Museum’s YouTube channel so they could re-watch parts of his story to ensure they quoted Eddie accurately and remembered the details of his story.

Eddie never wrote down his testimony, so their graphic depictions would be the only literary mediums depicting his personal story. Students understood that they were being entrusted with not only a special task but also had to make important and sensitive considerations.

Utilising the graphic novel as an entry point raised important questions for students to consider: What were the limits of representation? What role can art play in enriching our understanding of events like the Holocaust? By creating graphic novels dedicated to Eddie’s individual story, how would it enable to students to understand both the importance of the individual experience as well the wider context of the Holocaust?

One of the questions we constantly re-evaluate as Holocaust educators is how to teach about this difficult subject in ways that allow students to deepen their historical understanding of the event while also making their own connections and meanings. We are particularly aware that one of the most important aspects of our jobs is ensuring that students understand that the legacy of the Holocaust remains with us today.

After spending two sessions with the Year 10 girls at Wenona School, we were astonished by how deeply, fully, thoughtfully and sensitively they considered Eddie’s testimony and their approaches to depicting it.  In chatting with each group of girls they had clear ideas and could articulate the value of not only learning about the Holocaust, but also to hear survivor testimony and respond to it.

Authors: Marie Bonardelli and Dr Ari Lander

The art of interpretation

For this year’s Design Thinking day, the Museum commissioned Year 10 students from the Wenona School to create a graphic novel strip based on the testimony of Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku.

They have written about their experiences and shared some of their work below. With thanks to girls and their teacher Luke Simkins for these incredible renderings of a very special life.

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Rebecca Karnani

On the 14th and 15th of November Year 10 of Wenona had the honor to hear and interpret Eddie Jaku’s story and recreate it through a graphic novel. We firstly were fortunate enough to hear the history of graphic novels and their connection to the Holocaust. We were given a brief to create a short graphic novel to depict Eddie’s story. To help with this, we watched Eddie’s testimony to inspire our creations. We were then given time to collate and create our graphics. This was a very meaningful experience for me as I both love modern history and I have family connections to the Holocaust. This activity motivated me to read more about my family’s past and to learn what my ancestors had to endure during the Holocaust. I think that it is important to make survivors testimony available for a range of age groups in a range of mediums. I believe that by making these testimonies accessible it teaches people the wrongs that have been committed in the past which hopefully prevents them happening again in the future. Overall, this was an eye opening experience and we all hope Eddie will enjoy our creations.

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Rose Bauer

Throughout 2016, Year 10 have visited the Sydney Jewish Museum and met a couple of Holocaust survivors, namely Eddie Jaku. Eddie has recounted his harrowing history of surviving Auschwitz, the loss of his parents and the brutalities that he faced whilst under the oppressive Nazi Regime during the 1930s and 40s. However, he has never formally written down his testimony or put it on the record books for many different reasons.

In light of this, on Year 10’s Design Thinking Days, we were tasked with depicting certain aspects of Eddie’s story in the mode of a Graphic Novel. We had to be mindful of how we were representing Eddie’s story and how best to do that in this medium, as it was such a powerful source of hope for those during WWII with publications of superheroes such as Superman and Captain America.

Year 10 spent two days creating these novels, attempting to adequately convey Eddie’s story so that it may be carried on for generations. His messages of never hating, but never forgiving or forgetting have had a resounding impact on Year 10. We will never forget him.

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‘Jewish Wizards’ and where to find them

Throughout pre-modern history, death was a familiar visitor in the home. Even as late as the 18th century, poorer families in Europe could expect that at least half of their children would not survive childhood. Accustomed to loss, religious Jews developed a range of beliefs that explained the tragic onset of illness or the sudden death of one’s loved ones, and many of these had to do with fears of witchcraft.

While foreign concepts to Jews today, our medieval ancestors believed in a host of supernatural forces both malignant and benign. Legions of angels fought against armies of demons for the possession of every person, and between our world and the other stood practitioners of magic who could intercede. Where many saw the sages of our tradition as the mystical representatives of God, through whom divine beneficence flowed to earth, they also recognised the existence of wizards and witches who intervened for the forces of evil.

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Tina and Queenie Goldstein, from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

The Talmud and the midrashim are saturated with references to such sorcery: how it was performed, who was responsible for it, and what the pious Jew might do to protect herself from its curse. Our literature speaks of mind-readers and necromancers, people who converse with animals and people who predict the future from innards and dreams. It speaks of incantations, amulets, potions and magical rites, all designed to ameliorate the ill effects of the satan’s power and of his wicked emissaries on earth.

We are told of how to prepare mystical ointments that might be rubbed on the eyes to reveal the presence of demons. We are informed of how to properly write an amulet that we may protect ourselves from the mumbled curses of a nearby witch. We are warned, on frequent occasions, of where we should and should not travel in the evenings, and we are enjoined to place certain biblical verses beneath the pillow of a woman in labour.

People might shrug such passages off as idle superstition, but they were as present a part of pre-modern Jewish life as any other, and their reverberations are felt even today. The mezuzot that we fix upon our doorposts have their origins as amulets. The prayers that we recite before going to bed were originally meant to protect us from the power of demons. The shofar that we blow in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah was intended to confound the satan, the constant study of Torah was supposed to forestall death and the song that we sing on Friday evening (Shalom Aleykhem) was to ensure the continued company of ministering angels.

In the 12th century, Maimonides courted controversy with his conservative contemporaries by disparaging such beliefs as illogical and absurd, and by providing more “rational” reasons for Jewish custom and law than those that are presented in the Talmud. But one need not be a mystic to feel moved by stories of the supernatural, nor to find wisdom in such tales. However rational or scientific we may be, we should be careful not to forget the colourful origins of so many of our traditions. Fairy tales, after all, are some of the most pregnant vehicles of cultural truths.

Author: Education Officer, Dr Simon Holloway.

 

The League of Nations

The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child, and at the SJM it has taken a league of nations to build our new exhibition.

From Australia, Canada, China, Chile, England, Germany, Ireland, Korea and Scotland, a team of tradies (and Museum ladies) have been frenetically sanding, drilling, cutting, refining, polishing, painting and positioning.

This photo blog offers you a glimpse of the faces, spaces and (places) behind the new exhibition.

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Tom (with Jerry) is a carpenter, from Scotland “I’m a Scotsman but I’ve never worn a kilt” he tells us. “I like the security at the Museum. Sometimes on a building site you have to pack away your tools at lunch time; here you can be gone all weekend and leave your tools they will still be here.”

Stefan - carpenter from Germany

Stefan – a carpenter from Germany. 

Ming - Painter from China

Ming – a painter from China

Rodrigo Ibarra – SJM building manager, from Chile

Rodrigo Ibarra – the SJM building manager, from Chile.

Grant - the electrician, fondly referred to as ‘Sparky’ (Australian born of Italian heritage)

Grant – the electrician, fondly referred to as ‘Sparky’ (Australian born of Italian heritage)

Greg from Lamond Building – specialist in museum fitouts

Greg from Lamond Building – specialist in museum fit outs. Basically the most Australian bloke you’ll ever come across. 

Philip – made all the custom made elements for the installation of objects

Philip – who custom made elements for the installation of objects

Matt – from the Signage company installing the graphics (“it’s been an intricate, complicated job”). Matt started as a screen printer in England, came backpacking to Australia and never left

Matt – from the Signage company installing the graphics. Matt started as a screen printer in England, came backpacking to Australia and never left. 

No job is too big or too small for Marie and Sarah - our highly qualified researcher and educator, helping out with the cleaning

No job is too big or too small for Marie and Sarah – ( an educator and human rights lawyer respectively). Here they are helping to clean the dust from display cabinets before objects are installed. 

Tess – the conservator, has prepared around 300 artefacts for display

Conservator Tess, has prepared around 300 artefacts for display – seen here with some you might just recognise. 

Author: Roslyn Sugarman, Head Curator.

Still too busy to blog…

It’s not unusual these days to see our curators caked in dust, ferrying wads of paper around and consulting with construction workers.

In lieu of a written update, Head Curator Roslyn  has been busy photojournaling on behalf of the upgrade team.

Designer Jisuk Han in her makeshift Museum office.

Designer Jisuk Han in her makeshift Museum office.

Exhibition signage

Exhibition signage

Painters adding a fresh coat of paint.

Painters apply a fresh coat of paint.

The first test-run of the new showcase.

The first test-run of the new showcase.

Designer Haimeng testing fonts and sizes for Museum signage.

Designer Haimeng testing fonts and sizes for Museum signage.

Designer Jisuk consults her plan for the Sirniki section.

Designer Jisuk consults her plan for the Serniki section.

Flagging imperfections

Flagging imperfections

Builders hard at work

Builders hard at work

Vale Edith Szanto

I met Edith more than ten years ago one Sunday morning in shopping centre of all places. There she was, sitting next to me as I had my coffee, this beautiful elderly woman, writing intently. As I left, I asked her if she was writing her story. And so began our friendship with its regular meetings in our coffee shop and over time, Edith entrusted me with her three blue exercise books, handwritten in Hungarian.

At that very first meeting, I asked her what she was writing about that day. She was recalling her father returning to Hungary from the WW1  and how on that day, her life as a six year old changed because her father, whom she could barely remember, moved into her mother’s bed and she was exiled forever from it. It took her years to reconcile with this stranger and her most intimate memory of her father was sharing a cigarette with him in the wagon on the way to Auschwitz.

When I asked her why she was writing her story, she replied so that she would not disappear without a trace and something would be left of what her life meant to her. Edith died on 18th April 2016 at 102 years of age. And she has left a trace of her remarkable life, a life that spanned almost the whole of the 20th century.

At the Sydney Jewish Museum, we decided we would publish Edith’s story Reminiscence and Peter Gyenes translated it. His commitment to her story was so extraordinary that he even bought a Hungarian keyboard so that he could type her story in the language in which it was written.

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It is a story that reaches back into old Hungary and a girl growing up between the wars. She is intelligent and articulate, artistic and sophisticated. It is the story about the closing down of Jewish life and how that impacted on one individual girl, a girl for whom her Jewishness was not a defining feature of her life. Until it was the most important feature. Edith trained as a graphic designer and had some naively happy times designing dresses for fashion boutiques and ‘living as a respected member of society’. Suddenly the veil was torn away and she had to face the reality of German occupation of Hungary.  She had fallen in love with Laszlo Rosenberg, a young composer and discovered a world of music through him. They were married in May 1944 and he was sent off to a labour camp together with her young brother Janos.  At 90 she still remembered the pain she felt waving goodbye to him on the tram. He died at 32 years of age of typhoid.

During these recent years, when for some of them she was lost in the mists of time, she would look constantly at the photo on her wall of her parents, and she would retell the moment of anguish when she saw them and her extended family for the last time. That moment of separation was as they disembarked in Birkenau. It was her mother’s birthday, the 2nd July, 1944.

Her impeccable German and her drawing skills saved her and she was sent to a munitions factory in Haberstadt in what was then Germany. And perhaps it was her beauty too as one of the German officers was sweet on her. Liberated by the Russians in May 1945, she began the dangerous journey home to Budapest, hoping to regain her life. The only family members left were her old aunt Ilonka  and miraculously her much younger brother, Janos. Thirteen years her junior , Janos had survived the labour battalions.  But there was no one else.

Edith writes, ‘We lived in total uncertainty like savages for quite a while, but we were young and compared to past horrors, we were happy to be living at all….  The days passed with the joy of life, laughter, flippant carelessness. Single women and men looked for each other’s company, we wanted to forget the dreadful suffering and totally abandoned ourselves to the free world, devoid of fear. That was what we thought!’

Edith now re-met Istavn Szanto (Pista), who had been a witness at her first marriage. Pista had lost his wife and newborn daughter in Auschwitz. Miraculously they fell in love.  ‘We had to forget our bitter torments if we wanted to live a normal life…. We became younger, our faces lit up , the sad wrinkles disappeared. We held each other’s hands which gave us strength and we believed in a better future.’  They were married on 4th June 1948.

Edith’s ensuing pregnancy was sadly ectopic and she was never able to ‘fulfil her biological destiny ‘as she would tell me. This was a cause of great regret to her in her long life.

Life under the Communist regime in Hungary became increasingly dangerous for them with Pista designated a ‘class enemy’, despite being  reduced to‘ Dr Istvan Szanto, labourer’ on his identity papers because of his association with the Socialist Party. Edith was drawing propaganda posters for the Communist Party, with a good future ahead of her, but life was increasingly fraught. They lived with ‘bell fright’ and the daily fear of being deported. When the Russians troops invaded and her brother, who had been involved in student protests, was in danger of being deported to Russia, the decision was made to leave Hungary immediately. Leaving her little dog Kuksi behind continued to haunt Edith more than 60 years later.

Fleeing as a family group of five (Edith, Pista, her brother Janos and his wife and their three year old daughter, Suzi) they made their way across the border to Austria and then finally to Australia. Edith ends her memoir ten years ago with, ‘On 31st August I will be 92 years old! I’m still walking every day to drink strong coffee in Chatswood Chase, sitting at the same table, thinking about the past.’

Not quite. After the inevitable fall, her niece Suzi had to move Edith from the family home she had shared with her brother and his wife the whole time they lived in Sydney to a nursing home. Pista had died six years earlier and Edith could no longer manage the stairs and caring for herself.  I tried to persuade her to move to Montefiore but she carried with her the fear of being identified as Jewish. When I took her matzah in her Uniting Church nursing home one Pesach, she had me hide it in the cupboard, fearful someone would know she was Jewish.

Our outings became more circumscribed but we still managed visits to the New South Wales Art Gallery coordinated by a friend who works there. We would begin with a coffee in the café and as always, it would not be up to scratch. No coffee was ever good enough to compare to Hungarian coffee. I loved wheeling her through the gallery and hearing her very forthright comments about the paintings. She was not diminished in her critical capacity. But when she saw something she loved, she delighted in its beauty. And then she would return to her room, surrounded by soft animal toys and photographs.

The last long years were very hard for Edith. Suzi was an attentive and caring niece, but Edith could no longer paint and she felt the burden of being ‘useless’ .  This for a woman who had worked her whole life. Her hearing became harder and while she could read, one could communicate with a mixture of writing and talking. Her beloved brother was admitted to the same home with dementia and that was another great sadness for her. He was so much younger than she was but no longer knew her. So when she died on the 18th April 2016 I was very glad that she was buried next to Pista at Macquarie Park and despite the many years of no Jewish connection, that she finally has a Jewish resting place and that there is a place to leave a stone in remembrance.

Author: Lucy Chipkin

Note: Reminiscence is available for purchase at the Museum shop or on the Museum website. 

 

 

 

 

Inside the autograph book

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The autograph book above was donated to the museum by Yola Schneider (nee Rawdin). It was presented to her new, at the school she attended in Piastów, Poland following liberation in 1945.  The book, which records the well wishes of classmates and friends, accompanied Yola to Warsaw, Berlin, Aschau, Munich and later to Australia. It is, in essence, a map of her post-war experience; documenting both the complexity of displacement and the possibilities lay bare by hope and friendship.

Each of the entries is unique and personalised in some way, either in its use of drawing, language, script or the familiarities of Yola’s nicknames.

In May 1945, a fellow classmate in Piastów wrote:

For Remembrance,

Love is a wonderful flower. Envy is poisoned plant.

Beware, girl like fire; it should not creep into your heart.

For the chatterbox,

Tysia G. 

The reference to ‘chatterbox’ acknowledges Yola’s propensity to talk. In hiding for two years, she was often left for the entire day alone in a room, waiting for her Mother to return from working as a housemaid. The loneliness, curtailed somewhat by her library books, found its eventual outlet:

“I was very talkative when I started to go to school. I never stopped talking because I was sitting by myself for two years with nobody to talk to, no children to play with. So when I started to talk…I never stopped; I was forever getting into trouble” (Shoah Foundation Testimony).

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The messages vary in sentiment; some remind Yola to be wary of the new and alien world, yet most are optimistic and convey wisdom of experience far beyond that expected of children. These children however, were survivors of extraordinary times; each with their own story, many of which were not yet committed to history at the time they wrote in Yola’s book.

Another entry from Piastów reads:

For Remembrance,

Laugh amongst people; cry only in hiding; be light dancing, but never in life!

For nice, although talkative, Jola

Danka Przybysiu

In this entry, as in many, Yola’s classmate uses illustration to convey memory and embed remembrance. To be remembered is a pervasive theme, particularly amidst the confusion of loss, and struggle to rebuild lives. In many instances, the childlike illustrations juxtapose the gravity of the written message.

Author: Curator, Rachel Mensforth.

A timeless tale of Viennese Cuisine

As a rule, the Sydney Jewish Museum Curators are discerning about books accessioned into the collection.  Most donated texts are redirected to the library, unless they are particularly rare or of interesting provenance. This week however, we accessioned a wonderful object with a history anchored in pre-war Austria; its story sheds a light on the traditions and culinary customs of Viennese cuisine, many of which are cherished and practiced up to this very day.

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This is a cookbook from Vienna called ‘Wiener Küche’, which translates simply to ‘Viennese Cuisine’.  This text, which has endured the test of time and is still considered a foundational example of Viennese cookery, was written by Olga and Adolf Hess and printed in 1935.  It belonged to the late Elsa Philipssohn and was donated by her son Peter Philipssohn. Elsa and her sister, Greta Menkes, brought the book with them from Vienna in 1939.

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Within its 800 pages are written recipes for many of Vienna’s most loved traditional dishes. According to the introductory page, Olga and Adolf wrote the text in association with ‘The State Educational Institution for Cooking and Housekeeping, School Teachers and Cooking School of Restauranteurs in Vienna’.  Along with recipes for strudels and schnitzels, the reader is provided with advice on nutrition, cooking for the sick, preparing a menu and thrifty economy tips for running the home. When first printed in 1916, the book was part of a growing trend across Europe and the United States, whereby writers were contending for the market in an effort to consolidate the national palette. Appealing primarily to the urban housewife, these texts provided a manual for home and cookery, but within a national context.

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Following the incorporation of Austria into Germany, otherwise referred to as ‘Anschluss’, in March 1938, the national identity of Austria shifted. For Jewish people, many of whom were completely assimilated into Austrian society and culture, the exclusion from everyday life and activities was intolerable and increasingly dangerous. Elsa Philipssohn and her sister Greta Menkes arrived to a new life in Australia in early 1939.  They represented the half of the Jewish population in Austria that had escaped the Nazi’s and emigrated by May, 1939. Among their possessions was a 1935 printed copy of ‘Wiener Küche’; a book which up until this day, attempts to embody the national character of pre-war Vienna.

Author, Rachel Mensforth, Curator Collections.

Professor Michael Berenbaum

It’s been wonderful having Professor Michael Berenbaum at the Museum this week.  For those of you who don’t know him, he is a preeminent Holocaust historian maybe best known to people like me as the Project Director who oversaw the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.  There is hardly a Holocaust Museum which he has not consulted.  We were very fortunate to have him peer review the text for the new Holocaust exhibition.

Over the last week he has given us much food for thought.  One area that we regularly debate is how graphic material is shown (if at all) and this has been particularly topical following Professor Berenbaum’s talk on the Sonderkommando. We are constantly discussing how much is too much, particularly when determining what is appropriate for students and younger visitors.

Professor Michael Berenbaum speaking at the Museum.

Professor Michael Berenbaum speaking at the Museum . 

Berenbaum’s main advice for us was that graphic material should not be voyeuristic and should not demean the victim further by showing it. I was most surprised to learn that the advocates for each side were reversed between our institutions.  At the USHMM the survivors wanted graphic content hidden and staff wanted it exhibited while in general staff here are often more cautious and its the survivors who advocate for more graphic material.

No area was more hotly debated than the content and display of the three exhibition films. Some footage will be on small monitors, some will be projected almost two meters high and some will be available in contained spaces.  The display of this material is very important and a key part of what Professor Berenbaum advised.

The film screening in the Ghetto section is almost two meters high and dominates the space.  This film shows war footage as countries are invaded and the persecution of the Jews that followed.  Here we chose not show some of the more graphic footage from The Warsaw Ghetto for example, not because we think it’s inappropriate (there is much worse on display) but because having it projected at such a large scale felt voyeuristic and we felt a duty of care to our younger visitors.

The liberation footage is probably the most confronting, particularly the colour footage from the liberation of Dachau.  This will be screened in the theatrette to the side of the exhibition.  Not particularly hidden or small but avoidable is one so wished.  Surprisingly, the USHMM shows this upon entry to the museum albeit on a significantly smaller screen.  This footage is among the most confrontational I have seen and deciding to include it was difficult but we felt it was necessary.

I think we have struck a good balance.  There is significantly more challenging material on display.  I believe we chose to use it in a way that is educational and furthers our visitors understand this history.  I think we have also been sensitive to the needs of our visitors and mindful that it can be confrontational.

Author: Shannon Biederman, Curator