Remembering the victims and honouring the survivors of the Holocaust was front of mind this week, as close to 2000 people attended the two major Yom Hashoah commemoration events across two nights in Sydney.
The theme was ‘Heroism in the Holocaust’, with this year’s Yom Hashoah coinciding with the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Famed author Thomas Keneally, 87, was the keynote speaker at the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD) commemoration event on Sunday night, which was held at UNSW Kensington in front of a sell-out crowd of over 1000 people. In the audience were survivors, NSW Governor Margaret Beazley, state and federal politicians, and consuls from various countries.
Keneally, who won the 1982 Booker Prize for Schindler’s Ark, told the story of how Poldek Pfefferberg convinced him to write the book, which Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was later based on.
Pfefferberg was a Polish immigrant whose life was saved by Oskar Schindler, and with whom Keneally had a chance meeting while in Los Angeles.
“The Pfefferbergs are responsible for making me write Schindler when I didn’t know what in the hell I was doing,” Keneally said.
“He told me that it had to be someone from far away and from another culture that wrote this book. Pfefferberg was a robust, pushy American from Beverly Hills who came up with the war cry ‘an Oscar for Oskar’, which he used to terrify and bully the far more sensitive and more shrinking Steven Spielberg.”
In the audience was Yvonne Korn, whose parents Mundek and Leosia, grandmother, great-uncle and aunt were saved by Schindler. She, along with several of her family members, took to the stage to honour Keneally for telling Schindler’s story.
“This family would not be here were it not for Oskar Schindler, and the story of Oskar Schindler would not be known to many of you had it not been for Thomas Keneally,” Korn said.
“Our parents talked about him [Schindler] often, and it seemed kind of normal that this had happened to us and our family. He was just a part of our history for which we knew we had to be grateful.”
Korn recalled the first phone call Keneally made to her mother in 1981, where he asked to talk about Schindler.
“How did he did know about Schindler?” Korn had asked her mother.
“She said, ‘Well that’s a story in itself. Poldek locked him in his luggage store in Los Angeles until he agreed to tell the story.’
“Over the next 18 months to two years, Tom spent many, many precious hours interviewing my parents about Oskar Schindler.”
NSW JBD CEO Darren Bark honoured the survivors in the room and thanked Keneally for his words and for being a “dear friend of the Jewish community for many years”.
“Your incredible work, telling the world of Oskar Schindler’s heroism, will never, ever be forgotten,” Bark said.
“It is thanks to you that every man, woman and child knows about the incredible courage and bravery that Oskar Schindler displayed during the war. Without you, Thomas, the world simply would not have known.”
Keneally said it was his “great honour and amazement” to be asked to speak at the event and paid tribute to the survivors.
“For had by some accident and planning and occasional bravery I had lived through that infernal process of the Holocaust, I doubt I could have had the will to live on,” he said.
Monday night’s Youth HEAR commemoration event drew a crowd of over 700 people, who heard from survivors including Peter Halas, who lost his mother and grandparents in Budapest when he was just five years old. Halas eventually migrated to Australia, where he and his wife founded the swimwear label Seafolly. CEO of Youth HEAR Julia Sussman said it was a privilege to host such a powerful event.
“Youth HEAR aims to provide a platform for young adults to engage in a way that remains meaningful and relevant – because Never Again means never forgetting,” she said.
“Monday night’s event was proof that by creating an event specifically designed for young adults, by young adults, [it] allows us to see engagement in Holocaust commemoration in a way that the community hasn’t seen before.”
On Sunday, Benny Kaplinski made an emotional address at the NSW JBD Rookwood Yom Hashoah memorial service, where he spoke about being the child of two Holocaust survivors.
“My parents Izak and Sima were understandably deeply affected by the terrifying memories of what they had experienced,” Kaplinski said.
“My childhood was one in which I was brought up by two highly protective, anxious, paranoid parents. My father would often wake up in the middle of the night from recurring nightmares. My mother used to have a great fear of Germans when hearing the language being spoken on the bus.
“My only regret was that my parents hardly told me anything of (their experiences) in the belief that concealing this information would protect us from the trauma that they lived through. When I think about it now, their story contains the essence of great legends.”
Meanwhile, the Sydney Jewish Museum unveiled a tribute to Eddie Jaku on what would have been his 103rd birthday last week. The exhibition honours the life stories of both Jaku and his wife Flore, and explores their experiences in the Holocaust, their lives before and after, and Eddie’s journey to becoming an internationally acclaimed author.