Multidirectional Memory? National Holocaust Memorials and (Post-)Colonial Legacies

This article is based on a lecture given at the German Historical Institute London (GHI London) on 11th June 2019 within the framework of the GHI lecture series “Contested Histories”.

By Dr Avril Alba, University of Sydney

How do colonial history, the Second World War, and the Holocaust intersect in scholarship and/or wider public engagement? What is the relationship between these histories and diverse fields of study? These two questions provided the backdrop for the 11 June 2019 GHI London’s panel “Multidirectional Memory? National Holocaust Memorials and (Post-)Colonial Legacies”, challenging each participant to think about these issues in relation to their own fields of scholarship and professional work. Panel members were asked to reflect on whether and how they were able to engage and actualise the theoretical premise laid down by Michael Rothberg in his influential volume Multidirectional Memory: The Holocaust in an Age of Decolonisation1, in which he explored the possibilities for the memories of colonial and genocidal violence to intersect and provide mutually beneficial frameworks to recount, explain and, ultimately, prevent such atrocities.

The panel offered diverse perspectives on these issues. Yasmin Kahn (Oxford) provided insight into the workings of British colonial rule in India and the memory work that would be necessary for Britain to come to terms with this past. Tom Lawson (Northumbria) challenged the audience to think about how and whether the invocation of Holocaust memory could be generative in illuminating histories of colonial violence when Holocaust memory was so often instrumentalised to ‘screen’ other instances of mass violence. Both  presentations affirmed the importance of retaining the specificity of each historical instance of mass atrocity while also making a case for the political and historical efficacy of careful comparative study.

Central Star Void, Sydney Jewish Museum, 2017. Copyright: Sydney Jewish Museum

My own work as a scholar and curator in Holocaust studies has been increasingly influenced by the Australian context within which it has been undertaken. Australian Holocaust museums have a somewhat unique history as private museums that were funded, developed and, at first, largely run by survivors. The context and content of these spaces were thus largely (in the words of the Sydney Jewish Museum’s first curator, Sylvia Rosenblum) “personal, private and Jewish”2 and focussed on telling the survivors’ stories against the backdrop of a historical exhibition. Given Australia’s considerable survivor population, such an approach was possible in the early 1990s and nearly every visitor, general and student, would hear from a survivor as part of their tour.

While deeply personal and powerful, the focus on survivor experience in the first decade or so of the museum’s existence meant that historical and empathetic connections with ‘other histories’ of mass violence was limited or left up to the visitor to infer. Many of the museum’s survivor volunteers either did not feel that their experience connected with other histories of genocide, or simply did not see this as part of their mandate or within their capabilities to explore. For some, there was reluctance or even outright refusal to see connections between their experience and those of other genocide survivors – including Indigenous Australians. In this regard, Australian survivors were not unusual nor alone in relation to the broader Australian population who, mired in the so-called ‘History Wars’ of the 1990s/early 2000s, were still debating whether Australia’s colonial history could rightly be labelled ‘genocidal’.

Intersections between Colonial History and the Holocaust?

In 2012, the Sydney Jewish Museum began the process of redeveloping its permanent Holocaust exhibition and exploring the possibility of an additional Holocaust and human rights exhibition. As Project Director/Consulting Curator for this project, I was keenly aware that through our work we were also enacting a process of intergenerational change. While survivors were consulted as part of the development process, the curatorial teams for each exhibition were comprised of descendants, non-descendants, Jews and non-Jews, all of whom had professional experience across a broad range of historical, museological, curatorial and design disciplines.

With intergenerational change came the recognition that the Holocaust could serve as a powerful conduit to other experiences and stories in the Australian context. While the decision and process to actualise this connection was not uncontested, nor completely realised and resolved, it has, to some extent, borne “multidirectional” fruit.

The curatorial decision to explore and make explicit in the exhibition intersections between Australia’s colonial history and the Holocaust was undertaken where a direct connection could be made either historically or thematically. For example through exploring Austrian SS Leader Ernst Kaltenbrunner’s little known plan to solve the “Jewish Question” by sending European Jewry to live with the “Austral Niggers”3 and sending Australia’s Aryan population back to Europe, we were able to demonstrate how deeply racial thinking permeated the Nazi world view and how closely Jews and indigenous peoples were related within this racial thinking. This historical connection provided a basis for thinking about race science in the Australian context more broadly and while differences were duly noted with regard to the harnessing of these ideologies in the German and Australian contexts, making this link explicit produced a powerful context for self-reflection on the Australian, as well as European, past.

Engaging memory in the converse direction, through bringing the commemoration of the Holocaust and other forms of genocidal violence to bear on emerging forms of indigenous memorialisation in Australia, has also proven generative. The visual arts workshop, Representation, Remembrance and the Memorial4, staged in Melbourne in June 2018 and led by the Wiradjuri/Celtic artist, Brook Andrew, took as its focus how best to memorialise the frontier wars in Australia. The workshop was conceived and implemented in an explicitly comparative and international perspective, bringing Australian indigenous experience into dialogue with international developments with invited guest scholars and curators from a variety of countries dealing with colonial and genocidal pasts including Cambodia, North America, South Africa, New Zealand and the Scottish Isles. 

As participants conveyed the particularities of each instance of mass violence, questions relevant to all case studies emerged. Discussion of these questions did not, however, always bring consensus. For example, whether forgiveness was possible in the context of genocide became a question about which the group could not come to an agreement. Rather, it provoked ongoing discussion as to its role and effectiveness. Was forgiveness an essential part of the healing and reconciliation process? Who could legitimately offer and who could grant forgiveness? Did forgiveness entail an acknowledgement of guilt and, if so, how was that guilt to be accounted for and redressed? Could memorials become conduits for facilitating the dual processes of forgiveness and reconciliation? Or do they serve to obscure or ‘screen’ the difficult work that forgiveness entails, both from both perpetrator and victim groups?

Understanding the specifics of each group’s cultural practice was therefore a common theme throughout the symposium. Differences were welcomed and much was learnt from contrast as well as confluence. Despite, or perhaps in some ways due to disagreement, the most consistent factor in the discussions might be described as “solidarity”. A solidarity not based in a dogmatic sense of allegiance but one which emerges rather from a deep and shared understanding of the complexity of the commemorative process, and a commitment to its ultimate value, despite its proximate difficulties. 

One of the most poignant topics that was discussed in several sessions was the repatriation of human remains, particularly those of Indigenous Australians, whose remains are held in a variety of museum collections world-wide. There is no agreement among Indigenous groups in Australia as to how these remains should be cared for once back in Australia, but there is certainly a strong desire for their return. One idea is the creation of a National Resting Place in Canberra, in which remains would be cared for by indigenous communities until they were able to be identified and returned to their Country (clan group area). The question of how to identify and bury those who were subject to this particular form of violence cannot be answered definitively—each case will present different challenges. Yet surely other initiatives that have attempted to afford victims in death the dignity that was denied them in life, hold resonance despite their differences? For those involved in the difficult work of researching, commemorating and displaying difficult pasts, it is when we are confronted most starkly with examples such as the need for a National Resting Place that we  must harness the power of multidirectional memory. For while our histories contain their differences, our work also displays a fundamental similarity — the desire and necessity to remember the victims and restore to them their dignity. Surely this is work we can, and must, undertake together.

You can listen to the podcast of the event here.

All GHI London podcasts can be found here.

About the Author

Avril Alba is Senior Lecturer in Holocaust Studies and Jewish Civilisation in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney. She teaches and researches in the broad areas of Holocaust and modern Jewish history with a focus on Jewish and Holocaust museums. Her monograph The Holocaust Memorial Museum: Secular Sacred Space was published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2015. From 2002-2011 Avril was the Education Director at the Sydney Jewish Museum where she also served as the Project Director/Curator for the permanent exhibitions Culture and Continuity (opened 2009). She was also Project Director/Consulting Curator for the museum’s most recent permanent exhibition The Holocaust (opened March 2017). With A/Prof Jennifer Barrett and Professor Dirk Moses she is Chief Investigator for the ARC Linkage Project Australian Holocaust Memory, Human Rights and the Contemporary Museum.

Citation: Avril Alba, Multidirectional Memory? National Holocaust Memorials and (Post-)Colonial Legacies, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.08.2019,

Further contributions to the seminar series “Contested Histories” of the GHI London:

Dana Hollmann, Contested Histories – Slavery’s Past and Present: Challenges to Academic Research and Museum Work in Germany and Britain, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.05.2019, /18625.

Simone Hacke: „History Battles“ und „Weapons of mass instruction“: Geschichtslehrbücher in Konfliktgesellschaften, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.07.2019,

David Irion: From Collected to Contested: Die Zukunft von Museen nach der Rückführungsdebatte, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.07.2019,


  1. Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: The Holocaust in an Age of Decolonisation (Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 2009). []
  2. S. Rosenblum, ‘Are Museums the Best Place for the Memorialisation of the Holocaust?’ International Network on Holocaust and Genocide, 11 (1996), p.17. []
  3. Kaltenbrunner proposal to Himmler, Germany, 20 April 1938, (replica) courtesy Bundesarchiv Berlin, BDC collection. []
  4. []

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