As living witnesses to the Holocaust dwindle, contemporary written accounts become ever more important. For writers living through those hellish years, diaries and memoirs were simultaneous outlet and testimony. Many of these writers did not survive, but their words serve as an eternal window into that dark time. An Australian mother and daughter used last year's lockdown to peer through this window together via Melton's course, "The Holocaust as Reflected in Diaries and Memoirs."
Shirley and her daughter Cassie first encountered Melton in 2013, when they took a Melton course together in a Sydney synagogue. That course provided a "fascinating overview" of the history of the Jewish people from Biblical times until today. Mother and daughter loved learning together—but when Cassie moved to Melbourne in 2015, it seemed unlikely that they could do so again.
During lockdown, however, opportunity arose. Shirley noticed that Simon Holloway—the facilitator from their previous course—was offering a virtual Holocaust course. "We knew he would be an engaging and inclusive facilitator with deep knowledge of the subject matter." Better yet, Shirley's friend had taken the course the year before and recommended it highly. The text-based material seemed well suited to an online format, and the virtual presentations would allow mother and daughter to share the experience, despite the 900 km between them.
Both Shirley and Cassie already knew quite a bit about the Holocaust, but they continuously seek to expand their knowledge. Shirley is a volunteer guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum, and Cassie studied history at school and university. Cassie's husband is a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors. Both Cassie and Shirley have been to Europe—Shirley visited Berlin and Poland in 2019 on a trip organized by the Sydney Jewish Museum, and in 2006, Cassie went on March of the Living while in school.
But the pair found that learning about the Holocaust through materials written as events unfolded offered a fresh, intimate perspective of familiar occurrences. "It felt sometimes as if we were eavesdropping on the thoughts and feelings of the diarists and memoirists." The course's selections spanned a 12-year period, and they included both iconic Holocaust writers, as well as lesser-known ones, from a range of communities. "Often, immersing ourselves in the materials, we felt a great sense of foreboding. We knew what the diarists and memoirists did not yet know."
This immediacy made the material all the more gut-wrenching. The selections "demonstrated the extreme suffering of different individuals and communities, at different times" during that period. For Shirley and Cassie, one of the most emotionally difficult parts was analyzing "the material that conveyed the brutal reality of everyday life, and the 'choiceless choices' that many had to make in the impossible situations that they were forced into." Another challenging element was learning about the internal strife the suffering produced. "It was difficult to confront the idea that there was conflict between Jews, both within families and within wider communities. This really reinforced the idea that Nazism's brutality often forced Jews to become complicit in their own destruction."
Shirley and Cassie appreciated going through this taxing experience together. "We debriefed after each lesson. We often remarked on how moving and difficult the material was, and how Simon enhanced our understanding of the texts by adding historical and biographical detail and context. We also remarked on how the contributions from other participants contributed to our understanding of the materials." Twice, the mother and daughter were able to physically be together and watch the lessons side by side.
Shirley and Cassie are grateful that Melton enabled them to spend this time together during lockdown and their enforced separation. In that challenging time, the course offered a bridge—connecting Sydney to Melbourne, mother and daughter, and today's Jews to their people's recent, devastating past.
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