The Shoah (Holocaust)
Entire libraries have been dedicated to documenting and recording the Holocaust (Shoah). The word “holocaust” comes from the ancient Greek, meaning: a burnt sacrifice. Today “The Holocaust” is used overwhelmingly to refer to the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews as part of its plan to rid the world of all Jews. “Shoah” is a Hebrew word which specifically denotes the Nazi genmocide of the Jewish people, as distinct from other instances of genocide against other peoples throughout history.
The ‘Holocaust’ occurred over the period 30 January, 1933 to 8 May, 1945. It was a unique event in the history of humankind in that one specific people, the Jews, were marked for destruction as an ideology of the state. A number of other groups and individuals (including Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents and the intellectually and physically disabled) were also targeted by the Nazis.
Two other factors which make the Holocaust unique were the gigantic scale of the persecution, oppression, enslavement and extermination of human beings and the ‘industrialisation’ of the process of doing so. However, if the Holocaust was unique, its lessons are universal. They include the potential for evil in totalitarian regimes, the need for active opposition to such evil wherever it occurs and the obligation to cherish the individual freedoms and human rights that people take for granted in democracies such as Australia.
Holocaust survivors come to Australia
With the proclamation of VE Day in May 1945, the Allied peoples of the world celebrated. In Sydney thousands jammed Martin Place, shouting, waving flags, and singing. But for many Jews in Sydney, particularly those who had family in Europe, victory was not a time for celebration. They knew that many family members had perished.
Many Holocaust survivors sought to establish new lives in Australia, which was a highly-favoured haven. It was geographically as far from Europe as possible and offered its citizens freedom and democracy. During 1945 the Australian-European Search Bureau published lists of survivors, which it shared with the Red Cross and the Australian Jewish Welfare Society.
In August 1945 Australia’s Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, instituted a Close Relatives Reunion Scheme. This made Holocaust survivors with family already in Australia eligible for immigration, but had a quota of 2000 immigrants for the first year and then 3000. This was still far lower than the pre-war quota of 5000 per year. Some survivors were accepted into Australia on the basis of their work skills. Nevertheless, proportional to population size, only Israel accepted more Holocaust survivors than Australia.
The Australian Jewish Welfare Society was instrumental in obtaining entry permits for, receiving, integrating and rehabilitating immigrant Holocaust survivors. The society assumed responsibility for the employment, housing, medical care and English tuition of survivor immigrants. One group it brought to Australia comprised 300 Jewish orphans, who arrived between 1947 and 1950.
Despite difficulties including shipping shortages, quotas imposed on Jewish passengers per ship and local xenophobia towards non-British immigrants, approximately 15 000 survivors settled in Australia in the four years from 1945. Although they brought little by way of wealth or possessions, these immigrants did bring a strong commitment to hard work. They shared with other immigrant groups the usual difficulties of adjustment to a new language and culture; but, in addition, they had to cope with the psychological trauma of their Holocaust experiences. Their ability to put the past behind them and to forge new lives for themselves is a tribute to their courage and an inspiration.
In total, about 35 000 pre-war Jewish refugees and post-war Holocaust survivors had immigrated to Australia by 1961. The Australian ethos of a fair go enabled many to achieve success in both psychological and material terms. Holocaust survivors have made significant contributions to Australia in fields as diverse as industry, theatre, art, medicine, architecture, academia and business. For many, this has been their way of giving something back to the country which has given them so much.
They value the freedom, opportunities and democracy which are cornerstones of Australian life, particularly given their experiences in the Europe of the Holocaust.
Survivor organisations in NSW
There are a number of Jewish organisations in Sydney catering for the needs of Holocaust survivors. These include the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, JewishCare, the COA Sydney, the Child Survivors Group, B’nai B’rith and the Board of Deputies through its Shoah Remembrance Committee. Many survivors act as volunteer guides at the Sydney Jewish Museum, teaching about the horrors of the Holocaust through retelling their experiences.
The organisations listed above are involved in various educational and commemorative functions throughout the year, including Yom Hashoah (organised mainly by the Board of Deputies) Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) and remembrance of the liberation of various concentration and death camps.
The Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants was launched after an International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in 1983. Its charter is to represent the views of survivors; to co-operate with other organisations and individuals in opposing Nazi and fascist philosophy, activities and injustices; to foster the memory of Holocaust survivors; to assist and co-operate with educational programs on the Holocaust; to assist in acquiring and maintaining artefacts and memorabilia from the Holocaust period; to assist in co-operation with other institutions in providing solace and comfort for survivors; and to encourage Holocaust Commemoration.
The office of the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants is situated at Beit Hashoah, Sydney Jewish Museum, Darlinghurst. Phone: 9361 3678.
COA Sydney provides highly subsidised meals for Holocaust survivors, both in their Woollahra centre and via home delivery.
JewishCare in co-operation with the association began Club 50, a lunch program for survivors comprising guest speakers and activities.
B’nai B’rith has fostered a program called Courage to Care. This is an exhibition which travels around country areas focusing on those who saved Jews from the Nazis.