January 25, 2023

Why It’s Important to Learn the Stories of the Holocaust from Its Survivors

Why It’s Important to Learn the Stories of the Holocaust from Its Survivors
Learning from eyewitnesses gives an important insight into what actually happened.

Article written by Dr Rebecca Kummerfeld and Dr Breann Fallon.

With International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaching on the 27th of January, we are taking the time to reflect on one very important question: why is now the time to listen to the voices of Holocaust survivors?

Intolerance and racism are growing in Australia and across the globe, with celebrities like Ye (formerly Kanye West) circulating dangerous antisemitic rhetoric. With an estimated 1 in 4 Australians having little to no knowledge of the Holocaust, according to a recent study by Deakin University, it is important to ensure this history is never misrepresented or forgotten.

In 2023, now more than ever it is important to take the opportunity to listen to the recollections and life lessons from Holocaust survivors – eyewitnesses of one of the darkest periods of history – to find a way forward. Their stories of resilience and courage are reminders of the dangers of hate, and can inspire new perspectives in today’s world.

Here are three reasons why now is the time to listen to the voices of Holocaust survivors.

1. Learning from eyewitnesses is an important reminder of what actually happened.

Many Australians learn about the Holocaust through books and films, which often focus on the most famous parts of this history. But hearing from an eyewitness, someone who saw the history unfold and was part of it, makes it clear that no two stories are the same.

The history of the Holocaust is vast, and there are so many different experiences to hear about, including experiences of hiding, escape, and ghettos and camps, as well as experiences of people living in different countries, of different ages, and varying backgrounds.

At the Sydney Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst, there are over 40 survivors that share their stories with visitors to the museum and school students. Hearing from these eyewitnesses to history is, we think, an honour. Hearing from those who survived the Holocaust gives a more authentic understanding of what really happened.

2. Their stories are difficult to hear, but they can inspire humanity and goodness in society today.

World War II and the Holocaust ended almost 80 years ago. Still, all these years later, the human stories from this period of history are relevant and continue to grow in their relevance to our lives today. They matter today, not just because the numbers are so large and the facts so shocking, but because there is still inspiration to be found in having the privilege to hear from survivors, and from the resilience they demonstrate. Their messages inspire hope in people and a wish for more humanity in our society today.

Holocaust survivor Ernie Friedlander says:

“Of my family, only my mother and I survived the Holocaust. This was due to the humanity of a German soldier who looked the other way. This contributed in a major way to form my belief not to be prejudiced or generalise about people, but consider each one on their merit, regardless of colour, race, or religion.”

Ernie gives this message of equality every time he shares his recollections of the Holocaust. He urges those he speaks to, to take action. These recollections of a difficult past are, in a way, lessons about humanity.

If you can’t visit the Sydney Jewish Museum to hear from a Holocaust survivor, there are many ways to discover their stories. You can read a survivor’s memoir, or follow a trustworthy Instagram account like @SydneyJewishMuseum, @HolocaustMuseum, or @USCShoahFoundation.

3. There will, unfortunately, be a time when there are no survivors left to tell their stories, but the future of memory is here!

When it comes to learning about history, we know that nothing quite compares to having an intimate conversation with the people who were there to experience it. Meeting Holocaust survivors and hearing their stories is an incredibly moving experience.

Sadly, we must prepare for a time when we no longer have survivors left with us.

This is where next-generation language processing technologies and AI come in! Interactive technologies offer a way for future visitors of the Sydney Jewish Museum to have authentic and meaningful interactions with important eyewitnesses to history.

Over an intensive five days over the summer of 2020-21, Holocaust survivors Eddie Jaku, Olga Horak, Yvonne Engelman, Francine Lazarus, Kuba Enoch, and Paul Drexler came to the museum to answer around 1,000 questions about their experiences in the Holocaust, their lives, and their interests and hopes for the future, all while being filmed within a specialised rig with 23 cameras.

The use of AI technologies has allowed us to transform the many hours of footage from these interviews into interactive biographies.

Now, in our exhibition Reverberations: A Future for Memory, you can ask a question to the digital versions of Eddie, Olga, and Yvonne and hear them respond back to you in real-time, as though it’s the real survivor sitting in front of you. They will answer anything from ‘Tell me about your family’ to ‘Do you like Vegemite?’.

This unique experience gives a glimpse into how people of the future will continue to engage with Holocaust survivor testimony, for when the time comes that there are sadly no more survivors left to tell their own stories.

With the amazing opportunities we still have to speak with Holocaust survivors, what would you ask?


Dr Rebecca Kummerfeld
Dr Breann Fallon
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Why It’s Important to Learn the Stories of the Holocaust from Its Survivors