From the Honest History vault: The Holocaust at the Australian War Memorial

In December 2016, Honest History published a review by Professor Peter Stanley of the then recently opened Holocaust exhibition at the Australian War Memorial. We added to it later with a 2019 speech from then Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson, to the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and a 2020 speech by the Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.

At a time (2021) when the Memorial is falling over itself (with $498m of taxpayers’ money) to say more and more about how Australians perform in wars and warlike conflicts, it is worth reminding ourselves that it has, in the past, gone beyond this brief to look at how wars affect non-combatants, particularly non-combatants who are not Australians. Professor Stanley said this in his review:

As a permanent display, this is a significant step in the Memorial’s relationship with the Holocaust survivor community in Australia – which counts descendants now much more numerous than the original tens of thousands of survivors who migrated in the decades after 1945. It also suggests that the parochialism which has prevailed at the Memorial for some years may be changing.

He noted that the then Director had held his ground against critics who believed the Holocaust was not a suitable subject for an Australian War Memorial.

As Dr Nelson said at the display’s opening, “Not a single person lobbied us to present this exhibition. We are doing it because it is the right thing to do [and because] we have a responsibility to tell the story of the Holocaust as responsible global citizens with a global outlook.”

Now, the bulldozers are biting into the Memorial site so, we are told, the children of recent veterans can see in the expanded building some recognition of what their parents did during their service in the Australian Defence Force. The spruikers of the big build seem to say very little, though, about what the new space will tell us about why we fight our wars, what difference they make, and who they harm. How far, if any distance at all, have we come from that parochialism of which Professor Stanley complained in 2016?

David Stephens

2 August 2021

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Pictured at the War Memorial are Holocaust survivors, Abram (Abe) Goldberg OAM and his wife, Cesia Goldberg (Jewish Holocaust Centre)

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