August 29, 2019
The Two of Us: Joe Symon and Juliane Michaels
In time for Father’s Day, we sat down with father and daughter Joe Symon and Juliane Michaels, who both give their time as volunteers at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
Joe is a Holocaust survivor who speaks regularly to student groups, telling his story of survival. Juliane is a volunteer guide, taking school students through the Museum, telling the stories behind the objects on display, and giving them context to a complex historical period.
We asked Joe and Juliane about their shared connections at the Museum and what it means to both tell their shared history…
SJM: How did you come to be involved in the Museum?
Joe: Some friends of mine who were involved with the Sydney Jewish Museum invited me to become involved and share my story. I accepted the invitation, and started guiding groups through the Museum and talking to school students. As of last year, I am just talking to students.
Juliane: My father and his wife have been volunteers at the Museum for many years so when my husband retired and I was semi-retired we decided we wanted to do something together, and given my family’s history in Europe this seemed the perfect volunteer fit. As a child of a Holocaust survivor who lost both grandfathers in the Holocaust and had parents with stories to pass on, I felt it was important to carry it forward to the next generation. My husband and I completed the guide course and then in 2017 went on the Museum’s organised tour to Poland and Germany. After this, my commitment to make sure this history is told through personal connections became even stronger.
SJM: What does it mean to volunteer alongside one another?
Joe: We have different roles within the Museum; I talk to students and my daughter guides groups. But our roles complement one another. I am actually very proud of what Juliane does and how she deals with the subject matter of the Holocaust and our family history.
Juliane: I have immense respect for my father both as a Holocaust survivor in the face of many difficult times and as person of personal strength, conviction and wisdom. To volunteer in the same space as him completes in many ways our commitment, respect and enduring love – it is not ‘I’ or ‘him’ but ‘we’.
SJM: Do you share any messages that you impart on the students you talk to?
Joe: I have two important messages for the students, and I usually start my talk with them. In my opinion, the most dangerous four-letter word is ‘hate’, and I explain the consequences of using this word. My second message, which is my motto, is “It can be done.” I reflect on my life story to make this point. Juliane learned these lessons from me and her mother.
Juliane: I guess the greatest message I have taken from my dad is that hate is not a word that should be used in connection with the Holocaust because Hitler’s hate and his capacity to instill hate in what was otherwise ordinary men and women is what started it all. The message for me is not to forget, or even to forgive, but to make sure we are not indifferent to the past and its injustice and its potential currently and in the future.