"Does the Shoah have a future?"
How academics, authors and historians might view the Shoah in the 21st century.
Our first meeting for 1999, a lovely, balmy summer evening on Valentine's Day, was very well attended. A big welcome to our new members; seven people joined on the night which is very pleasing. It was an enlightening evening of discussion with our panel of three writers. They talked about how the Shoah might be perceived in the 21st century, particularly with reference to literature, history and film.
Our guest speakers were three Melbournians who have written extensively in styles of fiction, history, anthropology and journalism.
Stan Marks, well-known Melbourne journalist and author, was the moderator for the evening and spoke first. He began by commenting that for 20 years the Holocaust was almost a secret and a forbidden subject for fiction and film. He wrote the first Australian novel with a Holocaust theme, in the 1960s - G-d Gave You One Face. It dealt with morality and legality, and is about a Melbourne woman who meets the guard who, in front of her, shot dead her parents in a concentration camp. A film-maker told him it was too early to make the story into a film; the subject was still taboo and the public wasn't ready for it.
In the 1980s Stan wrote a sequel to this story, about the woman's daughter, who befriends the son of a Nazi. In both stories Stan believes he understated the horror his characters endured in the concentration camps.
In the 1970s there was a proliferation of writing, including those who said it was a hoax. Stan did a newspaper story on a Melbourne man, a guide at the Holocaust Centre, who went back to Germany to give evidence about a suspected Nazi.
Survivors began to tell their stories; there were articles, books, plays, films and many personal stories, autobiographies and biographies from survivors' families.
In the early 1990s, Paul Valent, a Melbourne psychiatrist, wrote a book about child survivors of the Holocaust, a group often neglected in writings about the survivors. It contained a series of interviews with child survivors living in Melbourne. Eva, Stan's wife, is one of the interviewees featured in the book.
In 1984 the Melbourne Holocaust Museum and Research Centre opened, to ensure the Holocaust would not be forgotten. It was one of the world's first such centres. In 15 years, 180,000 students have visited the Centre. They receive a guided tour of the Museum and hear survivors tell their personal stories. The students write to the Centre and their letters are published in Centre News, the Museum's quarterly newsletter. These letters give an insight into young people's views about racism, tolerance and suffering and many are very moved and overwhelmed by their visits.
The Holocaust Centre has an education department, headed by Ilona Oppenheimer. It has a committee to carry out the education policy and is looking at how to make sure Holocaust education is relevant to students in the 21st century. The committee, chaired by Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University, is also concerned with what the Centre will do when there are no survivors left to tell their stories; and how to continue to inspire people to stand up against racism and prejudice.
Inga Clendinnen spoke next. She is an acclaimed scholar of Mayan and Aztec culture at LaTrobe University Inga began by stating that she is an outsider who was moved to write her book, called reading the Holocaust. She was trying to understand and comprehend the Holocaust and was not satisfied by what she read. She emphasised that her understanding came out of reading and talking to survivors, not out of direct experience. As Elie Wiesel has written: " No one who has not experienced the event will ever be able to understand it."
In terms of Holocaust literature, we are in a period of transition. The Holocaust is no longer in the custody of the witnesses and the testifiers. It is passing into the hands of the historians and the museum keepers. This means that the types of documents will change. W e will never have any better mode than the writing and testimonies of those who suffered; theirs are authentic voices from the camps, the ghettos and the places of hiding.
Historians are concerned with comprehending, which is not the same as understanding. Comprehending means getting your mind around something. Inga said she could not comprehend the Holocaust in terms of the perpetrators' sustained endeavours to eliminate the Jews and the ideological fervour that went along with it.
How is the Holocaust going to be represented in the 21st century? The truth is recorded in the witnesses' testimonies. That is the most important material. Now the Holocaust is moving into the popular consciousness, via fiction writers and filmmakers. Some will get it right, some will get it wrong, some will vulgarise it. Inga believes that the best film made on the subject is Claude Landsman's Shoah, even though only a small number of people saw it compared with the millions who saw Schindler's List.
It is most important to focus on individuals in books and film. In too much material, the victims are not seen with any individual clarity but as an anonymous mass. That is why Paul Valent's book is so astonishing; it is about individuals and shows how these traumatised children survived and continue to live productive and fulfilling lives.
Inga concluded by saying that the experience of the children of survivors needs to be recorded, to show what happened beyond the catastrophe of the Holocaust. The children of survivors have a personal need to understand the Holocaust. They need to go beyond the whispered names, the genealogy of ghosts, the smoky mirror of their parents' words and silence.
Peter Kohn, author of two novels and a journalist spoke last. He explained how he relates to the Holocaust. His parents were brushed by the Holocaust and heavily affected by their experience. He feels humility for survivors and their descendants.
Peter's parents escaped from Vienna and went to Shanghai, where there was a community of 18,000 Jews. It was like the end of the earth, but was the last option. They sailed on one of the last liners to leave Europe and the war broke out while they were on the high seas.
In 1941, China was at war with Japan and the city of Shanghai was under full Japanese occupation. By 1942, the Japanese herded the Jews into a 'designated area', just like a ghetto. It was crowded and violent and many Jews and Chinese were killed in air raids. After the war, Peter's parents returned to Vienna, went to Israel and then came to Australia.
As a 10-year-old at Sunday School at Bentleigh Temple, Peter heard words like terror, transports, cattle trucks, crematoria, kapos. It was unfathomable that these things happened on the same planet, only a few decades before. He was horrified.
Then it became closer and more personal.He saw family photos of those who didn't survive, relatives whose futures were never realised. This motivated him to write two novels. The first, Rachel's Chance, was based on his parents' experiences in Shanghai. The second, View from a Sandcastle, is about a young boy coming to terms with his legacy of being Jewish.
Peter commented that time softens edges and removes witnesses. We all hope the Holocaust can never be repeated. 'Never Again' captures this sentiment. But history of full of tragic repetitions, such as Rwanda, and Cambodia. What have we learnt?
As descendants of the survivors, we will carry on their work as best we can. How much of a role should the Holocaust have in defining ourselves as Jews? Survivors' children will explain the Holocaust to their children, but this is already one step removed. The Holocaust has a place, but not an overwhelming place. They should not carry guilt.
Perhaps the way the Holocaust might be represented in the 21st century is in the commemoration of Yom Hashoah. There may be a transition from a secular outpouring of grief to a celebration of survival, closely followed by Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, a symbol of the survival of the Jewish people. Maybe in generations to come Yom Hashoah will translate into a religious celebration and commemoration akin to the Exodus from Egypt celebrated as Pesach.
A lively discussion followed the panel, moderated by Stan Marks. Comments covered views on Life is Beautiful, a film about the battle between evil and humanity and its controversial portrayal of a concentration camp. There was more discussion about the ritualising of Yom Hashoah. The issue of Holocaust deniers on the Internet was raised. and the fact that there is no method of combatting them. We hope that the testimonies from survivors are bigger and better, and that the truth will reach more people than the deniers. We need to teach our children how to sift through the rubbish on the Internet and to look at the sources of who has posted the material they are reading. They must learn to distinguish between the trash and the treasure they find on the Internet.
The discussion concluded with comments from Inga about the importance of studying history. History as a subject is disappearing in schools and universities. People will only want to study history when they think it is useful to them. You can make reasoned judgements if you have been taught well. History elucidates situations because it explains people. It needs to be taught so students can gain intellectual control over their situations. History not understood is bound to be repeated.