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World Refugee Day: Bridging the gap

Today is World Refugee Day: an annual global day of commemoration and a vehicle through which to raise awareness about issues affecting refugees. It is also a time to celebrate  the  positive contributions of refugees to their respective societies. In keeping with this year’s theme, #WithRefugees, we recount an encounter from a recent school visit to the Sydney Jewish Museum that serves as a reminder of the courage and resilience of refugees, and the importance of bridging gaps of experiences through the sharing of stories.

In the last year, primary school students made up ten percent  of the 25,000 students visiting the Sydney Jewish Museum. The Museum’s Education Department gets vicarious pleasure when primary school students eagerly ask questions to Holocaust survivors. Their curiosity is contagious and our survivors feel fulfilled after speaking to these young visitors.

Last month the Museum welcomed Darlinghurst Public School’s Year 6 class; a school from our own neighbourhood. The class listened spellbound as Holocaust child survivor Alice Loeb shared her testimony.

Alice shared the story of her parents’ struggle and her family’s survival in Switzerland as stateless Jews during WWII. After the war, Alice’s parents, both from the same neighbourhood in Vienna, Austria, tried to gain Swiss citizenship. This, however, was denied to them, and as refugees in Switzerland, they were obliged to report weekly to the police station. At  the age of three, Alice came with her parents and baby brother as refugees to Sydney, Australia, on the Dutch liner, Johan de Witt. Alice’s family moved into a tiny apartment on William Street in Kings Cross, where Alice attended Woolloomooloo Preschool. There she has an early memory of a girl calling her a “dirty Jew”; something she did not comprehend at the time but has never forgotten.

The next turn of Alice’s story delighted the Year 6 class: she revealed that, at the age of 5, she started primary school at Darlinghurst Public School. The students were palpably overjoyed to claim Alice as one of their own, and proceeded to probe her with questions about what their school was like all those years ago. They commiserated on hearing about her scratchy serge tunic and were amazed that boys and girls were separated in class and on the playground. The students found it hard to believe that this feisty Holocaust survivor, who had them eating out of the palm of her hand, was once a timid pupil at their school.

Alice’s story, and the diverse stories that Holocaust survivors deliver daily in the Museum, are constant reminders of the dignity and hope that lay within people who are forced to seek refuge from persecution. This is a universal lesson that we find in experiences of the Holocaust and continue to see beyond barriers of time and geography, more than 80 years after the rise of Nazism.

Image: Holocaust child survivor Alice Loeb (Second row, first on the right) at Darlinghurst Public School, 1951, SJM Collection.

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