On museums and nationalism

by R.S.

On the weekend I took my mum to the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick.

The place has the air of the sacred. Sacred because of the profound meaning given to it, the investitures of emotion, the kindred ties, the ritualistic invocations. It is a site of mourning, a way to deal with grief and trauma. I am interested in this interaction of memory and sacredness, but also of where the silences in memory are and the way the place is animated by more than its intention.

What stood out for me more was the things happening on the periphery: a group of children laughing; chatting adults; a bored daughter being taught a history lesson, whether she liked it or not; a tourist trotting quickly through; an Israeli security guard shuffling us out so he could finish his shift. I found myself looking forward to getting home to the TV series I’d been watching.  This ambivalence, of course, is not the kind of response the place elicits. It demands your attention and heart at every moment.

I wondered, walking through, to what extent memory of the Holocaust has been stunted by a fear of Holocaust deniers. Whether, that is, Holocaust deniers have created Holocaust memory, inasmuch as those involved in Holocaust memory have allowed deniers to dictate the terms. What makes me wonder this is the thorough lack of complexity to the narrative presented and to what extent fear and anxiety was the reason for this.

The narrative is clean cut. It’s precise and accurate: everything that is said happened, happened. The hyper-vigilance of it – the attempt to keep it comprehensible – loses something of the complexity. Historical empiricism can of course give complexity to the past, but we don’t need fidelity to sources and strict rules to follow in order to remember. It is OK to not be in control all the time.

What I am interested in is complexity, the invisibilities and silences in the memories, but also the ways in which these silences create a heaviness that hangs over the museum. Michael Taussig asks “what real monument can compare with invisibility?” This must surely be a central question in remembering trauma: nothing, surely, can represent it, but we must try.


I am a historian and my concern is memory and silence, and so seeking out silences, I found otherwise absent Sephardi holocaust narratives. I am interested in how Ladino speaking people may have made their lives viable under fascism, in the camps, in relating to Ashkenazi Jews who would have seemed so thoroughly foreign. The museum had little information on diaspora refugee communities such as Melbourne nor the level of diversity within those communities. Elsewhere is not hard to find stories of the vibrant Yiddish speaking culture of Warsaw or Carlton or the tensions between Yiddish speaking Jews and Anglo Jews in Australia. But what became of those Ladino speaking refugees in the camps or in these diaspora communities? How did they make their lives viable within a dominant community of western European Jewry, but also in an Australia still thoroughly preoccupied with the border patrols of whiteness? Nationalism, of course, has its limits.


Uncle William Cooper, the Yorta Yorta man who led the protest at the German consulate against the treatment of Jews in Germany, is increasingly memorialised in both Australia and Israel. Cooper’s resistance was of a man experiencing the blunt end of colonialism,where emptiness was a central colonial fantasy: a land without a people, terra nullius. Next to the acknowledgement of Cooper was a brief explanation of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization exploration of the Kimberly for a possible Jewish state: had the feeling such ironies were lost.


An American Christian Zionist with a Southern accent spoke to a young man, a museum staff member, about how God gave the children of Abraham the land of Israel. The Palestinians have never existed. It was awkward. The young man agreed, reluctant and polite, and spoke of how the Arabs even today don’t want the Jews to have a home. He went on with conviction: the Arabs, the Arabs, the Arabs.


Unique to the museum are the survivor volunteers who show guests around and are there for people to ask questions and to have a bit of a chat. What I think it was I liked most was the sudden and instant complexity and subjectivity they gave to the place: nothing was predictable when subjectivities of those who experienced fascism speak. Having real people does something profound and unexpected to the stage management of memory. Such wonderfully subjective experiences muddle up the strict, hyper-vigilant linear narrative – sealed glass cabinets, tangible history, pertinent quotes and art that tells you exactly what to think – of this kind of memory production. Anything could happen if you put real people out the front of something like this.


My mum has wanted to visit the museum for some time, ever since she saw the Maurice Sendak exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia.  It is not possible, it should be said, for us to separate this trip from exploring the multiple identities we have wound up with.

My family stopped practicing Judaism before the Holocaust and before anyone took Zionism seriously. Theresa, my mother’s great-grandmother, is still almost always referred to as a “Jewess” – which seems redundant now, but indicates something of a shift in language, yet a stasis in the oral histories of my family. Recently I’ve been writing on a history of colonialism and violence in my family in Central Australia. Theresa’s daughter would marry a man who was known for the violence and terror that he inflicted on Aboriginal people about 400 km north-east of Alice from the mid 1920s until his death in 1939.

Had they been born Europe, the lives of Theresa’s daughter and grandchildren would have been in grave danger. But they weren’t. They were in Australia, privileged in a settler pastoral aristocracy who dominated the lives of Aboriginal people thoroughly and whose impact today is immeasurable.

Going to the museum for us was about exploring the intersecting points of identity, memory, and the past: we were seeking out something of ourselves there. But this is not what I found: I keep returning to Taussig’s idea of “mimetic excess” and that my own identification with the Holocaust – as identity, rather than an understanding of what can happen to humanity – seems, in the end, excessive. The fear of many Australian Jews who also might fit such (if at times problematic) categories as white, middle class, hetero, cisgendered, male and what-have-you, who feel themselves victims – as though the barbarians are at the gates – seems to take on some of this mimetic excess.

The rules from the centre on fitting in seem pretty clear in terms of nationalism and the Holocaust. However what I think needs grappling with is how I might come to understand the pasts that I am connected with in all their multiple, connecting and mismatching parts. But most importantly I am interested in how this can be done with a critical eye: a panorama that takes in all the terrain.