A typical week…

Every week we follow the same educational program for the many schools which visit the Melbourne Holocaust Museum museum. One might think that it would be monotonous to present the same educational program day in and day out, but I can assure you that this is not so. To give you an idea of how different each school’s visit can be, here is a quick summary of just one week’s worth of school visits.

On Monday we had a group of Year 10 students from the Aravah region in Israel. This is an annual visit of Israeli students to spend time in the Jewish communities of Melbourne and Sydney, and each year they visit the Centre as part of their program about ‘Jewish Melbourne’. Despite living in Israel, many of them had not visited Yad Vashem, so that ours was the first Holocaust museum that most had ever visited. They were very taken by our museum, and especially by meeting our survivors, David Prince and Abe Goldberg.

On Tuesday we welcomed Year 8 students from Carey Baptist Grammar School for their annual visit. These students spend a number of weeks involved in a special Human Rights program and they visit the museum to understand just what happens when human rights, including the basic human right to life, are denied. It just so happened that one girl was in tears after seeing our display of Acts of Courage – the Righteous Among the Nations. The reason? She is the granddaughter of ‘Gus’ Kaminski, who features prominently on the display. We were also overcome with emotion, especially when we saw how similar she is to her grandmother. She represented to all of us – students, teachers and guides – a powerful connection to the Holocaust and to the Righteous. We honoured this young person by asking her to place her school’s memorial candle in our memorial room.

That same afternoon, students from Notre Dame College in Shepparton visited the museum. While speaking to some students about Kristallnacht and the Australian Aboriginal League protest organised by indigenous Australian, William Cooper, we were informed that two grandnieces of William Cooper were among the students. Again, we were overcome and were very honoured to commemorate and celebrate their visit here. These two young people had the honour of placing their school’s memorial candle in the memorial room as well.

As well as the thrill of having William Cooper’s grandnieces among us, there were eleven students in the Shepparton school group who are exchange students from Germany. One of the Australian students asked if students in Germany studied the Holocaust. Here was an excellent opportunity to hear directly from German students that they indeed do learn about the Holocaust, and that they also are taken to various historical sites in Germany, as well as to Auschwitz, as part of their program. This led to a discussion about Germany’s acknowledgement of the Holocaust and of the importance of Holocaust education there, as well as here.

The next day we had a visit from Frankston Secondary College. Usually, history or English teachers bring their students to the museum as they are studying the Holocaust, but this visit was very different. This was a group of psychology students and their topic was Obedience to Authority and how this found expression in the Holocaust. The students were interested in answers to the most troubling question: how was it possible for ordinary people to carry out the crimes of the Holocaust? They viewed a short video clip of Stanley Milgram, whose seminal experiment in the 1960s demonstrated how ‘ordinary’ people were capable of inflicting lethal pain on others in the name of ‘science’, and at the behest of an authoritarian figure. The relevance of the Holocaust to the study of psychology is powerful but not always recognised, and we appreciate the fact that these students had the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust in this context.

Finally, we welcomed two groups of Years 8 and 9 students who were studying The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Freedom Writers. At the end of the visit, we asked the students to think back on the most powerful image or photo they had seen in our museum. Usually, students identify the photo of the humiliation of the Jews of Olkusz, or the model of Treblinka, as the most powerful image or artifact they had seen. Today was different. For the very first time, a student said that the map which shows in blue and red bars the numbers of Jews before and after the Holocaust, country by country, had made the greatest impact on him. When asked why, he replied: ‘The map just makes me sad. It shows how many people died.’

Monotonous? Hardly! Each day brings different schools and different young people to our wonderful museum. We never know whom we will meet, nor what exactly will make an impression on our students, but as this one week shows, each day is unique!