I would like to wish all our interviewees, their families, and our supporters a happy, healthy, and sweet new year 5784!
The Refugee Voices Archive had a very busy year. We have continued to grow our audiences, both digitally and in person. Our website has been designated by Google a ‘site of record’, which means that it noted as a reputable source that provides information for Google’s knowledge panels. Thousands of people around the world engage with our daily social media posts, which feature stories from the archive. As a result, many researchers and family members of interviewees get in touch with us regarding specific photos or interview recordings. An increasing number of members of the third generation are looking for their grandparents’ testimonies. I am always very pleased when I can send them the link to their grandparents’ interview. Sometimes they had only encountered the grandparent in question as a very young child and now they can listen to his/her story as an adult. This is the wonderful offering of digital technology, which facilitates that personal history is given from generation to generation, LeDor VeDor, and I am grateful that our Archive can play a part in this process.
Our, in-person, International Forum in April 2023 on ‘Collecting, Preserving, and Disseminating Holocaust Testimonies’ at Lancaster House, showed that the interest in Holocaust testimonies has grown immensely over the years and that many international organisations, governmental bodies, and archives are thinking about innovative ways to share their collections. The Forum facilitated a lively dialogue between historians, Holocaust educators, archivists, and Next Generations. We were also honoured to have been joined by some of our interviewees in the audience and on one panel. Thank you Kurt Marx BEM, Eva BEM and Jackie Young for participating. If you did not have the chance to attend or you would like to remind yourself of some of the themes which were discussed, please find the link to the recording of all sessions here.
Sometimes, the importance of the Refugee Voices interviews is illustrated in unexpected ways. This happened a few months ago, when miraculously pieces of the Great Synagogue of Munich which was destroyed in 1938, were found in the river Isar, where construction crews were working on a river damn. 150 tons of stone columns and an almost intact tablet with the Ten commandments were unearthed. The Munich Synagogue was one of the first German synagogues to be destroyed, as Hitler considered it an eyesore in the centre of Munich, and he ordered the demolition of the synagogue in June 1938, months before the November pogrom. The community was given very short notice and many community members helped to clear Torah scrolls and other property from the building through the night. One of the people who remembers that night and who was involved in helping to clear the synagogue was AJR member and Refuge Voices interviewee Rolf Penzias BEM, who came to the UK on a Kindertransport and just celebrated his 100th birthday. At the time he attended the Jewish vocational school in Munich and he and his fellow pupils were asked to help. In his Refugee Voices interview, he recalls in detail how the beautiful synagogue was emptied and dismantled. His testimony was featured in a BBC news story you can read here.
I have a personal connection to this story, as I was born in Munich and often passed the small grey memorial stone which told us about the presence of the Great Synagogue. I also often went to the department shop which stands on the ground of the former synagogue. But it was only when I conducted my interview with Rolf that I found out that this beautiful synagogue was destroyed many months before the November pogrom.
I really hope that the remnants of the once famous synagogue will make their way back to that very place, perhaps in the form of a new memorial, and people will be able to listen to the testimony of Rolf, who was a witness of this brutal destruction of one of Munich’s most famous landmarks.
It is very unlikely that many more physical remnants of destroyed synagogues will be found, but I find solace in the fact that the recollections of these buildings, and the many lost homes of our interviewees, live on through the memories we have collected in the last 20 years.
In the new year we are looking forward to recording many more interviews (we have a waiting list!) and to sharing more content from our interviews with new audiences, in new innovative ways.
Thank you for your support, interest and patience!
Shana Tova and my very best wishes,
Dr Bea Lewkowicz, September 2023