Learning from history

Sydney Jewish Museum

Teachers play a crucial role in educating the younger generations on the history of the Holocaust. Journalist Sue Osborne looks at the wide range of syllabus related resources provided by the Sydney Jewish Museum for teachers across Australia.

Throughout the school year, the Sydney Jewish Museum has multiple offerings for teachers to engage within the museum space, as well as online and printed resources which can be accessed remotely and used in the classroom. All of the face to face events and seminars are approved by the NSW Education Standards Authority.

The museum’s teacher training seminars cover content mainly for History and English teachers who teach the Holocaust, and Studies of Religion teachers teaching about Judaism. These sessions each provide between six and 16 hours of NESA approved professional development and include unique opportunities to hear from panels of Holocaust survivors, museum educators and various industry professionals. They also equip participating teachers with practical classroom applications of the knowledge they have gained and printed resources for future use.

Teachers’ Network events are held each term, and are a way of bringing together teachers from across the state from a variety of schools and disciplines. The network aims to provide teachers with an opportunity to engage with colleagues, expand content knowledge, design classroom strategies, and discuss the complexities of Holocaust education as well as education more broadly.

These events are varied in content, and cover topics such as storytelling in the classroom. Teachers can hear from the museum’s curator, tour the archives, or listen to a panel of Holocaust survivors. All Teachers’ Network events provide three hours of NESA approved professional development.

“The Teachers’ Network provides, showcases and shares the wonderful, diverse range of expertise and interests of the dedicated team of education officers, survivors, curators, historians, archivists, volunteers and colleagues, who expertly and sensitively present and give rare insights into the unique resources, artefacts and exhibits intrinsic to the Sydney Jewish Museum,” said Stephen M, a head teacher in Modern History.

“The programs and activities reflect the museum’s commitment to quality education and experiences – as well as its ever developing relationship with teachers, educators, the community and stakeholders to enhance and promote awareness, understanding, professional development, teaching and learning across a broad spectrum of key learning areas and subjects, including History, English, Studies of Religion, Society and Culture, Legal Studies and Human Rights Education.”

The museum educators, the curatorial team and resident historian have compiled resources to aid teachers in the classroom in both online and printed formats.

These resources can be acquired through the museum’s website, through the Department of Education and in the museum shop. This is an area that will continue expanding and adapting to syllabus changes to ensure resources are relevant to teachers and their students.

Teachers throughout Australia can also engage with the museum’s content and its educators through its Facebook community. SJM Learning is a closed group in which teachers can ask questions and seek answers to their queries about teaching the Holocaust in the classroom and about the content itself.

The museum shares content from its professional staff, its collection and its resource of educational materials to enrich this community of teachers.

Photos by Katherine Griffiths

A survivor's tale

IE journalist Sue Osborne witnessed Egon Sonnenschein, Holocaust survivor, tell his story during a school excursion in late 2019.

Egon was born in 1930 in Ptuj, Yugoslavia. He was 10 when Germany attacked Yugoslavia in April 1941 and his life on the run began.

The family fled to his grandparents’ home in Croatia, a puppet Nazi state run by the brutal Ustashi, whose cruelty rivalled that of the most abominable regimes. Egon recalled looking out the window to see men, women and children tied together being marched to the river at bayonet point. Once at the river, some were beaten to death with hammers. The dead were tied to the living, and both were pushed into the river. Those tied to the dead drowned. Egon later walked by the river and saw the disfigured bodies. He said he didn’t stop shaking until well after the war had ended.

In another instance, Egon heard of villagers locked into a church that was then doused in petrol and set alight. He said Jews were not allowed to work or have money or any means of transport, not even bicycles. “We were sitting ducks,” he said. Signs around the town said “No Jews, Roma or dogs allowed to sit on park benches”.

The Sonnenscheins survived thanks to the generosity of the town mayor, a former student of Egon’s grandfather, who saved more than 300 Jews and Serbs from death.

Desperate to leave Croatia for Italian-occupied Slovenia, the family purchased false identity papers from a Slovenian man who offered to take their household goods to Slovenia, issuing a false contact address to aid their border crossing.

The family arrived, weary and fearful. Despite paying a large sum for help, they had no permits to enter the country and were imprisoned for five weeks. Upon his release, Egon’s father went to collect their household goods and exchanged Italian liras with the “helpful Slovenian man”. During this exchange, Egon’s father noticed his own beautiful carpet was laid out on the floor, and realised that the plan had been to have the Sonnenscheins killed and steal their belongings.

In 1943, the family moved again. Crossing Lake Como and struggling up mountains, they finally made it to Switzerland, where they discovered friendship and people willing to help. Egon was entrusted to the care of a foster family. To this day, he remains in touch with the children and grandchildren of the family who, he reflects, “treated me better than their own children”.

The Sonnenscheins later made their way to Israel – where they lived for seven years – before settling in South Africa for 26 years. In 1983, Egon, his wife Miriam and their four children came to Australia.

Egon told the students he had learnt to “never give up”, to appreciate family and education, to look for good things and put bad things behind you, that helping people is a privilege, to treat everybody as you want to be treated, and that the glass is always half full.

Sydney: https://sydneyjewishmuseum.com.au
The Australian Jewish Museum in Melbourne: https://www.jewishmuseum.com.au