Skip to content

Holocaust Studies in Australia: Moving from family and community remembrance to human rights and prevention of mass violence

By Suzanne D. Rutland and Suzanne Hampel 


The twentieth century has been recognized as a century of genocide. From the tragedy of the Armenians during World War I into the twenty-first century, millions of people, men women and children, have been murdered in the name of racial, religious or tribal purity. This included the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, constituting one third of the Jewish people. Since the 1980s, this human tragedy has been used for education against racism and human rights abuses, so that this particularistic tragedy has taken on a more universal connotation, representing ultimate evil. In recent years, the Australian government has become part of this global trend, with Holocaust education being introduced into school curricula with other key educational developments.

The Australian Jewish community and Holocaust memory

Around 35,000 Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors found a safe haven in Australia before and after the war. Most embraced their new homeland but they were reluctant to speak about their experiences. Thus, Australian Jewry is largely a post-Holocaust community, with Melbourne having the highest percentage of survivors on a pro-rata population basis. From 1936 to 1941 around 9,000 pre-war Jewish refugees, including German and Austria Jewish internees sent out by the British, settled in Australia. In the post war-period 1945-1954, 17,000 Jewish survivor migrants found sanctuary in Australia, supplemented by a further 8,000 survivors from Poland and Hungary between 1954 and 1961. By 1961, Australia’s Jewish population had almost trebled to 59,343, of whom around 26,000 were not from a refugee or survivor background (Rutland, 2001).


Today Australian Jewry is a vibrant community of c115,000-120,000 people, mainly concentrated in the two major cities, Melbourne and Sydney, on Australia’s Eastern coastline (Graham, 2011).

However, for many survivors the past was too painful to talk about. Australian Jewish writer and Lodz ghetto survivor, Jacob Rosenberg (1994), expressed this anguish in a poem entitled, “No Exit”:

How do you describe it?
What alphabet do you employ?
What words?
What language?
What silence, what scream?

As in other parts of the world, there were a number of reasons for this silence. For many, their terrible wartime lives were ‘unspeakable’ (Rutland, 2017). People often responded inappropriately or with disbelief. Many survivors believed that the best way to secure continuity of Jewish life was by having children to replace those who had died that they should focus on rebuilding their lives in Australia. To do this, they needed to put the past behind them. They also wished to shelter their children from the horrors they had experienced.

Jewish novelist, Mark Baker, son of Polish Jewish survivor and author of the Fiftieth Gate described the “wall of silence” as follows:

I grew up in a household where there was silence – silence about my parents’ stories. I didn’t ask, so my parents never answered me. We didn’t talk “about that”. My parents never spoke, but their dreams – their nightmares – are my dreams. These dreams were inarticulate, they were communicated in silence. I carried their dreams, their pain… With my book, I wanted to know. I wanted us to talk about those dreams. I wanted to break the silence. (quoted in Rutland, 1998, 318)

Another child of survivors, Ruth Wajnryb (2001), further explored the topic in her book, The Silence: How Tragedy Shapes Talk. She wrote:

It was as if we’d arrived from another planet, with no records or recollections, no memory. We lived in the present and for the future. We were busy. We had plans. We had ambitions. We had this space in time that was now. And we were working hard toward what we could imagine ahead of us. But there was no past. The past was cordoned off, sealed out. There was a complete severance with what went before.

Early memorialisation in Australia was largely within the family. Parents named children after lost ones. Particularly in Melbourne, where 60% of survivors settled, there were reunions of landsmannschaften (organisations of people from the same town or village). The ‘Buchenwald Boys’ who migrated to Australia as a group celebrated their liberation on 11 April 1945 with an annual ball, with music, dancing, drinking and stories. There were also annual Jewish community events commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April/May 1943, when a remnant of Jewish fighters held out against the Germans for three weeks. However, it took over three decades before Holocaust memorialization and education took on a broader compass (Rutland, 1998; Berman, 2001).

The Breaking of the Silence

As in other parts of the world, the breaking of the ‘silence’ began in Australia in the late 1970s. In Sydney, the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies formed a Holocaust Remembrance Committee in November 1979 and began to organise the annual community commemorations for Holocaust Memorial Day, which later extended into a week of events. Then, in 1981, the first World Gathering of Holocaust survivors took place at Yad Vashem with the participation of an Australian delegation. In the same year, the Jewish Service Organisation, B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant), held the first Australian Holocaust exhibition in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1982, The Australian Holocaust Survivors’ Association was formed, holding its first function in 1983. Another key milestone was the International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors held in Sydney in 1985, with survivors from both major centres participating (Rutland, 1998; Berman, 2001).

Following on from the B’nai B’rith 1881 travelling exhibition, the community realized that more permanent exhibitions were needed. In 1984, the Jewish Holocaust and Research Centre was opened in Elsternwick, Melbourne – an early development for the establishment of Holocaust museums (Cooke and Lee-Frieze, 2015). Sydney took longer, with two rival projects being proposed, but in 1992 the Sydney Jewish Museum opened, combining both Australian Jewish History and the Holocaust. These museums were funded by the local Jewish community and their focus was particularistic, with the survivors arguing that the Holocaust was a unique event in human history, and that it should not be compared with other genocides (Alba, 2016).

In 1988 when ‘March of the Living’, a program of Jewish youth visiting Poland and Auschwitz started, the Australian Jewish community opposed participation. One thousand survivors signed a petition opposing the program. As Sam Lipski, a Melbourne Jewish journalist wrote: “For many in our community, Poland is a painful memory … a graveyard for millions of European Jews during the Holocaust” (Sam Lipski, AJN, 2 February 1989). It was only in 2001, with a major generational shift, that the Australian Jewish community formally joined the program. Since then over 1,000 Australian Jewish students have participated in the program (Rutland, 2015b).

Moving from the Particular to the Universal

With the establishment of Holocaust museums in Melbourne and Sydney, the Jewish community realized that they needed to educate the next generation, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Survivors began speaking to school groups, mainly not Jewish, in the museums. These education programs have expanded, with the Sydney Jewish community hosting 25,000 school students and Melbourne 22,000 school students in 2015.

As well, both government and private schools began introducing the Holocaust within the History syllabus and there have been programs of professional development for History teachers, most important of which has been an Australian Educators’ program started at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Centre in 1987. Over 450 Australian school teachers, again mainly non-Jews, have been sponsored to study at Yad Vashem. At the 9th International Conference on Holocaust Education at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, seven Australian educators from Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane participated, sponsored by the Gandel Holocaust Studies Program for Australian Educators.

As mentioned, the Holocaust museums in Melbourne and Sydney were funded and run from within the Jewish community, with fairly minimal government assistance (Gandel Program, 2017). A key federal government initiative was the opening of a witnesses and survivors’ exhibition at the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra opened in November 2016. This was done in consultation with the Melbourne Jewish Holocaust and Research Centre (‘Holocaust Exhibition, ABC News, November 2017).

As well, Australia became an observer nation with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in July 2015. The beginnings of IHRA were in 1998, when the Prime Minister of Sweden convened a special commission to create an international force. In January 2000, the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust was held, with 45 countries in attendance, representing historians, politicians and heads of state. The Forum issued the Stockholm Declaration, which provides the basis for IHRA, chaired by renowned Holocaust scholar, Professor Yehuda Bauer (2001). The Declaration states:

With humanity still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils. Together we must uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it. We must strengthen the moral commitment of our peoples, and the political commitment of our governments, to ensure that future generations can understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences (IHRA website).

The Place of the Holocaust in Australian State History Syllabi, Years 7-10

Whilst Holocaust education has been made mandatory, the approach is different in each state, since education is still largely state-based. History is compulsory for all Australian students, with the average hours that history is taught in Australian secondary schools being between 40 and 50 hours per year, for four years. These variations are evident in the table below:


Government Curricula at State Level: information supplied by Gregory Keith

Former Education Minister (and first female PM), Julia Gillard introduced the concept of a National History Curriculum in 2010 and the Holocaust is a compulsory unit in the curriculum, but this still has not been fully implemented. The national history syllabus also provides very little direction about pedagogic approaches. Thus, in the last few years, the Holocaust is one very small component of the syllabus and teaching it in any detail is not compulsory. It is likely to receive between 1 and 3 hours in Year 10. However, the determinant is based on teacher choice in terms of hours allocated and content taught with some teachers choosing to give a much greater focus on teaching the Holocaust, resulting in a very wide spectrum of approaches.

Moving from the particularistic to universalistic

In 2016, the Sydney Jewish Museum began a major renovation of its Holocaust exhibition on the upper floors of its building. The final approach marked a major generational shift, moving for the first time to a more universalistic framework from its longstanding inward focus. Throughout the exhibition, the experience of other persecuted groups, including the homosexuals, gypsies and disabled is incorporated. As well, the final top level will be a Human Rights Centre, focusing on other genocides, and includes the aborigines. Thus, the universal aspects of the survivors’ legacy, a legacy once focused on the “the personal, private and Jewish origins”, has been firmly established. (Alba, 2016)

In this way, Holocaust memory has taken on a broader connotation, with the message of the need to fight against racism and genocide and for universal human rights being a central motif, as seen in the recent generational changes that have occurred in Australia.

Conclusions and Challenges

Within the Jewish community there has been a major shift from a parochial approach to Holocaust education to a universalistic approach, focusing in human rights. As well, Holocaust Education is considered important in Australia, as seen with its introduction into the various state History curricula although, as yet, there is no mandatory national curriculum. Whilst there are a number of university Holocaust programs, these are not mandatory for History teachers. This gap in knowledge creates the challenge of the need to introduce more professional development for History teachers who choose to focus on teaching the Holocaust, and its concomitant universal message. As well, there is the challenge of involving groups for whom the Holocaust has less relevance, in particular Muslim school children, as demonstrated by recent research (Mendes, Rutland 2009 and 2015a).

Acknowledgement: The authors are grateful to Greg Keith for providing them information for the table.


Alba, A. (2016). Transmitting the Survivor’s Voice: Redeveloping the Sydney Jewish Museum. Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, 30(3), 243-257.

Bauer, Y (2001) Rethinking the Holocaust. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Berman, JE (2001) Holocaust Remembrance in Australian Jewish Communities, 1945-2000. Perth: University of Western Australia Press.

Cooke, S and Lee-Frieze, D (2015) The Interior of Our Memories: A History of Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers.

Gross (2015) Editors’ Notes and Acknowledgements, As the Witnesses Fall Silent: 21st

Century Holocaust Education in Curriculum, Policy and Practice. Geneva: Springer

Gross, Z and Stevick, ED (eds.) (2010). Policies and Practices of Holocaust Education: International Perspectives. Vol 1, PROSPECTS: Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, 40 (1).

Gross, Z and Stevick, ED (eds.), As the Witnesses Fall Silent: 21st Century Holocaust Education in Curriculum, Policy and Practice. Geneva: Springer

Mendes, P (2008) Antisemitism among Muslim youth: A Sydney teacher’s perspective. ADC special report, no. 37. Melbourne: B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission.

Rosenberg, J (1994) My Father’s Silence. Focus Publishing Pty Ltd; Caulfield North, Victoria

Rutland, SD (2017) in R. Mason (ed), Legacies of Violence:

Rutland, SD (2015a) Genocide or Holocaust Education: Exploring Different Australian Approaches for Muslim School Children. In: Gross, Z. and Stevick, E.D. (eds), As the Witnesses Fall Silent: 21st Century Holocaust Education in Curriculum, Policy and Practice. Geneva: Springer, 225-243.

Rutland, SD (2015b) “Returning to a graveyard”: Australian debates about March of the Living to Poland. In: K. Auerbach (ed.) Aftermath: Genocide, Memory and History. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, pp.141-165.

Rutland, SD (2001) Edge of the Diaspora: Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Rutland, SD and Caplan, SA (1998) With One Voice: the History of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies. Sydney: Australian Jewish Historical Society.

Wajnryb, R (2001) The Silence: how tragedy shapes talk. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.


Gandel Holocaust Studies Program for Australian Educators, The International School of Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Accessed 12 June 2017.

‘Holocaust exhibition telling stories of survivors opens at the Australian War Memorial’, ABC News, 30 November 2016, Accessed 12 June 2017.

International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance,å Accessed 12 June 2017.

Professor Suzanne Rutland (MA (Hons) PhD, Dip Ed, OAM) is Professor Emerita in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical & Jewish Studies, University of Sydney. She has published widely on Australian Jewish history, as well as writing on issues relating to the Holocaust, Israel and Jewish education. Her latest books are The Jews in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and co-author with Sam Lipski of Let My People Go: The Untold Story of Australia and Soviet Jews, 1959-1989 (Hybrid Publishers, 2015), which was co-winner of the Australian Prime Minster’s Literary Awards, Australian History, 2016. She received a government grant from the Australian Prime Minister’s Centre for Research on Australia for this project. In January 2008 she received the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to Higher Jewish Education and interfaith dialogue.

Suzanne Hampel, OAM, is a Tutor at Monash University since 2005, and Course Coordinator for Study Abroad trips to Rwanda and Eastern Europe. She is also a Member of the Board of the Jewish Holocaust Centre, Melbourne since 2007. She has been the Founding Director and Coordinator of March of the Living Australia educational program, 2001-2010, and has received a number of highly prestigious awards in recognition of her contributions to Holocaust education and Jewish Studies.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: