Cultural institutions find new ways to remember the Holocaust - Museums Association

Cultural institutions find new ways to remember the Holocaust

Art by young activists and an eyewitness database are among the projects marking Holocaust Memorial Day
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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A team of activists have created artworks as part of a project by Manchester Jewish Museum
A team of activists have created artworks as part of a project by Manchester Jewish Museum Courtesy of Manchester Jewish Museum

Holocaust Memorial Day will be very different this year because of the national lockdown, but museum and heritage institutions have found new ways to remember the genocide.

The theme for the event, which takes places on 27 January, is “be the light in the darkness”. This is designed to resonate with current world events, aiming to inspire people to reflect on acts of resistance and how they can combat “increasing levels of denial, division and misinformation in today’s world”.

Each year Holocaust Memorial Day remembers the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution and in genocides that followed in places such as Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. 

Manchester Jewish Museum has enlisted a team of nine young people from King David High School, Crumpsall, to be creative activists for its ongoing Trailblazers initiative. The participants have uncovered hidden stories from the museum’s archives, their own family histories and conversations with residents from the city’s Cheetham Hill area, where many Jewish refugees settled, and have created commemorative artworks based on their research.

Films of the process and the resulting artworks will be launched virtually on 28 January and afterwards donated to Cheetham Hill community partners. The works include a sculpture of Hilde Davidsohn created by one of the activists. Davidsohn fled Berlin, having to leave her sister and mother behind, and came to Manchester on a domestic visa.

The Jewish Museum London has launched a mental health programme, Life with Loss: Understanding Grief and Memory, to support young people in schools. Created in the memory of Holocaust survivor Solly Irving, the programme will enable the museum to use the objects and documents in the collection, donated by Irving during his lifetime, to help young people to understand how to live with loss. Irving, who died in 2017 aged 87, worked alongside the Jewish Museum London for many years, speaking to thousands of young people through its learning programme.

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The Wiener Holocaust Library in London is launching a digital database of eyewitness testimonies from the Holocaust, many of which have never been accessible to the public online. The accounts have been translated into English for the first time by a team of volunteers at the library.  

The first 380 testimonies will be published on 28 January and the remaining 1,185 will be released later this year.

Some of this year’s projects have chosen to highlight less well-known histories. In Rochester, an innovative project will shine a light on the connection between persecuted groups occupying two neighbouring historic buildings in the city: Chatham Memorial Synagogue and the Ship Inn, one of the oldest LGBT pubs in the UK.

Using the symbols used by the Nazis to mark out Jews and homosexuals – the yellow star and the pink triangle –  a visual window display will be unveiled at IntraArts cultural centre on Holocaust Memorial Day and will remain in place throughout LGBT history month in February.

The racial justice protests of 2020 have also had an impact on this year’s commemorations. The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottingham is running a series of virtual events to shine a light on the little-known Nazi persecution of the Afro-German community and other people of colour, as well as exploring the fake racial science used to justify the persecution of both Black and Jewish communities, which is still propagated by the far-right white supremacist movement today.

The main ceremony for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 will be streamed online from 7pm on 27 January. Event organisers are asking households across the UK to light a candle and put it in their window to mark the day.

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Looking ahead

In the longer term, efforts are underway to ensure the atrocity is memorialised before it goes beyond living memory. The Imperial War Museum is expanding its Holocaust exhibition, which is scheduled to reopen this autumn with new Shoah galleries and an extensive learning programme.

But a further project to create a national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Westminster has become mired in planning controversy. A public consultation on the project last November found significant opposition to the location of the David Adjaye-designed sculpture and underground building, which would take up a quarter of the green space in Victoria Tower Gardens.

An opinion piece in the New Statesman last week said the project risked overshadowing other memorial sculptures in the garden and could be an “unnecessary duplication” of existing Holocaust research institutions such as the Imperial War Museum.

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