September 6, 2021
Heinrich and Hermine
By Rosyln Sugarman, Head Curator, Sydney Jewish Museum
Rag dolls are amongst the oldest known children’s toys. Easy to make from scraps of materials – cornhusks, stockings, felt etc – they might be used as an object of comfort, to teach children sewing skills, or to demonstrate and teach nurturing skills. Today, many commercially-made rag dolls are produced to simulate the features of home-made dolls, imitating their simple features, soft cloth bodies, and patchwork clothing.
The rag dolls and teddy bear on display in the Sydney Jewish Museum were made in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Italy by a Jewish refugee who is known only by the name ‘Skalla’ (the name inscribed on the back of the artefacts). Instead of being made as a toy for children, they were made as a substitute for lost children, a way to memorialise and remember her children who did not survive the war.
World War II created a crisis of staggering proportions. At the war’s end in 1945, some 75,000 Jewish survivors of Nazi terror crowded into DP camps that were hastily set up in Germany, Austria, and Italy. By mid-1947, the Jewish DP population had expanded to around 250,000 people housed in hundreds of DP centres: 185,000 of them in Germany, 45,000 in Austria and 20,000 in Italy.
Rahlyn Woolf was a qualified social worker in her early twenties when she was sent by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to assist the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in the DP camps in Italy. She left Johannesburg on 14 August 1946 and stayed until September 1947. She recalls that there were four all-Jewish camps – Santa Maria Di Bagni, Santa Maria di Luca, Santa Croche and Tricase. Many inmates went from there to Palestine illegally but “their places were always taken by the never-ending stream of refugees from Europe and USSR, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.”
Supplementing the relief provided by the U.S. Army, organisations such as UNRRA, the International Refugee Organization and the JDC distributed supplies that nourished both body and soul: food, medicine, clothing, tools, equipment, and educational and religious materials. JDC also provided vocational training programs, occupational therapy, legal representation, and emigration assistance.
Having lived in South Africa, remote from the persecution and murder of the Jews in Europe, meeting survivors for the first time had a lasting impact on Rahlyn. She recalls the “super-human courage of these survivors. Most had lost all the members of their families. Their human endurance and the way they comforted each other really made a lasting impression on me.”
These rag dolls, Heinrich and Hermine – their respective names neatly written on the back of their heads, named after Skalla’s children – were given as a gift to Rahlyn as a token of appreciation for the compassion she showed. They were brought to Australia when she immigrated, and were given to the Sydney Jewish Museum on long-term loan by her daughter, the Rebbetzin Eileen Franklin.