In 2017 Australia became a Liaison Country to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. We spoke to delegate Steven Cooke about Holocaust remembrance, Australia's unique contribution to the IHRA and the founding of the Australiasian Association of Holocaust Organizations.
How do you think the Australian public views Holocaust remembrance?
I don’t think there is only one view. As in all countries there is a diversity of responses to the Holocaust. However, the number of survivors who came to Australia during and after the Second World War, the political decisions that were made, particularly relating to Jewish refugees, as well as alleged war criminals who came to Australia after the war means that the Holocaust is intimately bound up with Australian history. There has been widespread commemorative activity: Holocaust testimony in Yiddish was published in Australia as early as 1948, and temporary exhibitions were held periodically from the mid-1950s onwards, with permanent museums being established in the mid-1980s.
How is the Holocaust dealt with in the Australian educational system?
Teaching about the Holocaust is well established in schools and universities, and there are many organizations, including museums, working in Holocaust education and commemoration. There is geographical variation in approaches – in Australia the education system in schools is a state, (or provincial) rather than a federal responsibility. Although a national curriculum was developed in 2010, its implementation is a state responsibility, so there is variation between states as to what is taught, and how much time is mandated in each curriculum to Holocaust education.
We also have the Gandel Scholars Program that sends teachers from Australian high schools to Yad Vashem, and to share their learning on their return. There are a significant number of other organizations involved in Holocaust education and some cities, such and Melbourne and Sydney, have longer established and comparatively better resourced museums. The Sydney Jewish Museum has just undergone a significant redevelopment, and the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne is planning for redevelopment over the next few years. These initiatives are in part incorporating the latest museological and pedagogical approaches in the museum, but are also changing to cope with increasing demand, particularly from school groups who are coming in ever greater numbers.
How is International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorated throughout Australia?
There is a lot going on and lots of points of engagement in Australia. What we perhaps lack at the moment is a more Australia-wide approach particularly around a national day of Holocaust commemoration. This is something we hope to address through one of our proposed liaison status projects which we will carry out as part of our application to become a full member of the IHRA. The designation of 27 January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day coincides with Australia Day on the 26 January – our national holiday – commemorating the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’ in 1788. Disquiet over the choice of this day as our national day has grown in recent years, as 26 January 1788 also marks the start of the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Australia. So, in addition to Holocaust remembrance, we have some traumatic and troubling historic and ongoing issues relating to colonial genocide in Australia and so I think our involvement with the IHRA may provide some guidance here, with the experience of countries such as Canada helping to inform Australia’s ongoing need for recognition of the genocide and reconciliation with Indigenous communities.
What can Australia uniquely contribute to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance?
I think that Australia has a lot to contribute to the IHRA. The Jewish community in Australia established museums and memorials to the Holocaust relatively early, compared to many countries away from the European killing sites, so we have a significant amount of experience in developing museums and exhibitions, education programs and so on. This also means that there are numerous academics working alongside our professional colleagues, critiquing and evaluating – in a collaborative way – the work of museums and other organizations devoted to Holocaust education. Research on genocide and atrocities in Australia has also developed considerably over recent years, and there is a productive academic dialogue between academics working on settler colonial genocide and those working on the Holocaust. As I mentioned the Holocaust is widely taught in schools and universities, so we have expertise there too, as well as in online hate speech monitoring. There are many formal and informal links between individuals and organizations in Australia and the rest of the world, but the ability to share this expertise, and also learn from our colleagues through the IHRA liaison process is very promising.
The events of the Holocaust took place at great distance from Australia. How do you ensure that the history of the Holocaust feels relevant to contemporary Australian society?
Due to our geographical location, we have also been thinking for a long time about the ways to overcome the temporal and spatial distance between the events of the Holocaust and contemporary Australian society. How do you make an event that happened not only a long time ago, but also very far away, relevant to current and future generations? Australia has the highest per capita survivor population outside Israel, so the testimony of Holocaust survivors has always been important: indeed, survivors were instrumental in developing many of our memorials, museums and commemorative campaigns. One approach is therefore to foreground that the Holocaust is the lived experience of people in our communities, our neighbors: it’s our history in both historical and personal terms.
We are also uniquely placed to work cooperatively with organizations involved in Holocaust commemoration, education and research in our region, and we are actively looking at ways in which we can bring organizations together, for example through the Australasian Association of Holocaust Organisations (AAHO), and how they might perhaps contribute to the work of the IHRA in future.
The Australasian Association of Holocaust Organisations was recently launched with the active support of the Australian Delegation to the IHRA. How do you see the role of the AAHO in supporting Holocaust remembrance in Australasia in the future?
The AAHO was launched in Melbourne in October this year – the brainchild of Pauline Rockman, a delegate to the IHRA and co-President of Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre and Warren Fineberg, its Executive Director. The meeting brought together representatives from organizations across Australia and New Zealand, and invited representatives from Holocaust organizations in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan. It was an incredibly inspiring meeting: there is so much excellent work going on. The organization will meet regularly and bring colleagues across the Asia-Pacific region to work together and learn from each other, sharing experience and expertise.
One immediate opportunity occurred to me in response to a presentation at the Bern IHRA Plenary on the Network of Dutch War Collections by Puck Huitsing and colleague. The network aims to make the Second World War collections about and from the Netherlands that are dispersed in many sites and archives across the country digitally more accessible, with a focus on persons, places, monuments and events. This is an inspiring project, and perhaps one of the discussions within the AAHO is how we might virtually link up the archives and collections that we each hold to provide an overview of the material that is held across the Asia-Pacific region.
Steven Cooke is a senior lecturer in Cultural Heritage and course director for the cultural heritage and museum studies program at Deakin.