My walk up to the Sydney Jewish Museum on a weekend afternoon is a quiet one. As I settle into a seat, waiting for the event to begin, I find myself observing the room. It’s an intimate space. There’s a small raised stage, which holds five chairs evenly spaced, and a lectern in the far-right corner. It brings me back, suddenly, to being in primary school, eagerly waiting for someone — teacher, peer, grandparent, parent — to tell me a story.
Of course, the stories that were about to be shared are harder to recount than most. This was touched upon in the opening address, delivered by Sydney Jewish Museum CEO Kevin Sumption, highlighting the value of the written word in preserving the voices and stories of Holocaust survivors: in not forgetting the atrocities Jewish peoples were subjected to during the Holocaust; in remembering, commemorating, and honouring their memories; and in ensuring that such atrocities are never repeated. 90 years on from the Holocaust, with neo-Nazi sentiments and groups on the rise, it’s more important and pertinent than ever that these stories are told, and listened to widely.
On this Sunday afternoon, I had the privilege of listening to the testimonies, and hearing excerpts from the memoirs, of five Holocaust survivors — Richard Haber, Francine Lazarus, Paul Dexter, Lotte Weiss (who passed away in 2021, and whose story was told by her son Johnny), and Olga Horak OAM as part of an event in the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
No two experiences shared were the same. Richard described his experiences growing up in the Krakow Ghetto, from where he was forced to escape with his parents before the family was captured and placed into a forced march to Auschwitz. The family managed to escape, surviving as they were hidden by a Polish couple for nine months until the end of the war. Francine recounted her lonely experiences in hiding in Belgium, living with strangers from the age of four, moving from safe house to safe house, and her life-long grief of losing her father, who was captured and sent on the last convoy from Belgium, and subsequently murdered in Auschwitz. Paul was just six years old when the final Slovak-Jew round-up occurred in September 1944. Initially in hiding, the family was forced home, arrested and taken to the Sered transit camp, where Paul saw his father for the last time. His memoir details his search to find out what happened to his father. Lotte’s story was told by her son, Johnny, explaining her deportation to Auschwitz from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in 1942, and her eventual work in the office of a German mining company, which she came to do by lying about her secretarial skills. Her parents and five siblings were all murdered in Auschwitz. Also growing up in Bratislava, Olga discussed her family being forced into hiding after her sister was taken to Auschwitz in 1942, her eventual deportation to Auschwitz with her parents and grandmother, and her experiences being on a death march to Bergen-Belson. Olga’s sister, father and grandmother were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, while her mother collapsed and died waiting in a queue to register for an ID card as a survivor after liberation.
These stories of survival are just five of many, and my brief retellings do not even scratch the surface of the survivors’ broader lives and experiences both during and after the Holocaust and the war. Yet, while their experiences differ, their stories of bravery, courage, grief, loss, resilience, and hope brings them together. It was noted, too, that the end of the Holocaust didn’t mark the end of survivors’ troubles, grief, and loss.
As Olga read from her memoir, “I do not live in the past, the past lives in me.” All five survivors explicated the importance of family — their partners, children, grandchildren — to them; people to live for, and to remember those who they had lost. They described similarly their memories of entering Sydney Harbour, and setting foot on Australian soil for the first time, in having a second chance to rebuild and reclaim their lives.
It is astounding to me the strength and grace Richard, Francine, Paul, Lotte (through her son, Johnny), and Olga possess to be able to continue to tell their stories. To remember the darkest moments of their lives and share it with others, in order to educate and to start conversations. Perhaps, as Johnny expressed, it is an obligation: both to those whose lives were cut too short by actions fuelled by unfounded hate, and to those who survived. Experiencing this hate firsthand, Olga shared toward the end of her testimony that she does not hate, because “hatred is ugly”. You do not have to love, or even like everyone, is her implicit message, but you should look to understand. Richard, Francine, Paul, Lotte, Olga, and their families, continue to live with the baggage of a history where hatred and fear were espoused and acted upon. It is our obligation to ensure we remember, listen to, and learn from their stories. Lest we forget.
The Sydney Jewish Museum is open Monday-Friday, and Sunday, excluding Jewish holidays and public holidays. Opening times and dates can be checked on their website. Richard, Francine, Paul, Lotte, and Olga’s memoirs are available for purchase at the Museum or on the website.