Two UNSW academics are on a quest to unearth Holocaust stories more Australians can relate to as survivors pass away.
Australian Jewish refugee Symcha Gausman thought his wife and children were safe where he left them in Poland. The 26-year-old arrived in Australia in 1939, hoping to establish himself with a job and a home before sending for his family to join him.
In 1943, he managed to send them a food parcel with the help of a Jewish humanitarian agency from Portugal. But by that time, his young family had already been murdered by Nazis in Auschwitz. His children were four and six years old.
“The year before, the community had been liquidated and sent to Auschwitz,” Dr Lanicek, a Holocaust scholar with UNSW Arts & Social Sciences, says. “And if a young woman with two children arrived in Auschwitz, we know there was no chance of survival.”
This heartbreaking story is one of many Dr Jan Lanicek will be unearthing from the State Library of NSW archives to piece together a strand of Australian history rarely revisited until now.
“It’s very easy today, with different databases, to find out about the fate of people at that time,” Dr Jan Lanicek says.
Dr Lanicek says he is collating these stories with colleague Dr Ruth Balint to ensure newer generations have access to first-hand experiences of the Holocaust as survivors pass away.
“We rely on survivors to tell their stories,” Dr Lanicek says. “In this way, we make the connection between ourselves and the Holocaust. But in a few years, even now, it will be very difficult to get them to talk to students and other audiences.”
So, he says, we need to find new ways of connecting people to the Holocaust, “especially in Australia which is so far from Europe”.
He says many migrants in Australia can identify with the stories of Jewish refugees who arrived here before their families were expected to join them.
One of his students noted similarities between the story of Mr Gausman and that of his own father who lived for 10 years in Australia before his wife from India could join him, he says.
“Of course, it was a completely different situation [and outcome] but this connection, it brought it home to him, the feeling of a separated family,” Dr Lanicek says.
Dr Lanicek also highlights the situations of many people in Australia who are from the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere who “read the newspapers” about ISIS, the Taliban or persecution in places like Myanmar.
“It’s not some vague