SJM’s pandemic pen pals
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Connecting with survivors

SJM’s pandemic pen pals

School students across Sydney have been exchanging letters with Holocaust survivors through the Sydney Jewish Museum’s pen pal project.

Olga Horak at a Sydney Jewish Museum Holocaust memorial ceremony.
Olga Horak at a Sydney Jewish Museum Holocaust memorial ceremony.

“IT was a great opportunity to learn more about the war, and to talk to Olga and see what a beautiful person she is,” expressed Emanuel School year 8 student Summer Fine, who recently began exchanging letters with Holocaust survivor Olga Horak through the Sydney Jewish Museum (SJM)’s pen pal project.

Coordinating the project, which was conceived just before lockdown, museum floor coordinator in the SJM’s education department, Ilana McCorquodale, explained how the initiative came to life. “The people at the museum who we were most worried about were our survivor volunteers, who had been speaking to students on a weekly basis.”

After putting a call-out on the Emanuel and Moriah College parent year 8 group chat, McCorquodale was inundated with responses. “It just exploded so then I was ringing survivors saying, ‘We thought we would just have one student write to you, but can we make it two?’

“Some of the survivors have said the sense of confinement of liberties reminded them of being in hiding. Some letters have been about the war experiences, but so many are just about life.”

Others have shared words of wisdom with the next generation. One letter, written by Kitty Lowinger, was particularly touching, said McCorquodale.

It reads: “I was a small child in the war – but my mother and I survived because she chose to be a survivor (and not a victim). It is good to see, that you, Jonathan, are choosing to look at the present lockdown with a positive attitude.”

Survivor Alice Loeb has enjoyed communicating with three student pen pals, aged 9, 10 and 12. “The children have been isolating at home with their families and completing their work online. This gives them a unique opportunity to hear insights from survivors,” said Loeb.

When social distancing restrictions have further eased, the museum is planning a pen pal reunion. “I can’t wait for that. It will be delightful,” said Loeb.

The SJM is currently collecting items including memorabilia, artworks and photos that reflect the recent highs and lows of Sydney Jewry. The museum is seeking submissions that show how the community practised Judaism, celebrated weddings, births and brit milah, and mourned during the pandemic. This week the SJM also held its first exclusive talk for museum members in a new series running on Wednesdays at 1pm.

The museum will be reopening with its new exhibition, Jews from Islamic Lands, to museum members on June 28, and all exhibitions will open to the general public on July 1.

Submit items at sydneyjewishmuseum.com.au/collecting-pandemic. Talks for members can be viewed at sydneyjewishmuseum.com.au/product-category/webinars/members-only.

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