Tale of a Young Philo-Semite
Since my childhood, I have had a keen fascination with all things Jewish. Perfectly normal for a Jewish child perhaps, but I grew up in a Catholic home, born to a Sri Lankan mother and an Irish father and had no contact with the Jewish world. From the age of seven, I recall walking with my grandfather to our local library and being thrilled with the prospect of borrowing ten books about the Jewish history on my library card, and another five or more on my grandpa’s card. To this day I don’t know what sparked my interest in Jewish history, perhaps I just stumbled across the diary of Anne Frank and that’s where my desire to read and learn more really began? My current supervisor thinks the link may be that I have played the violin since the age of four or that I am reincarnated.
The books I would choose were about Jewish religion and culture, but more often than not about the Holocaust. A rather frightening topic for a young child, yet accounts I read, moved me to tears, learning the experiences of so many innocent people who perished. Observing my interest in the Holocaust, my dad would take me, practically every weekend, between the ages of eight and ten to the Holocaust museum in St. Kilda where I would listen to stories from the volunteers who worked there and wander around the museum. I would tell my dad when I was old enough I would like to volunteer at the museum myself, to which he would just smile and nod. After I had read everything I could get my hands on from our local library, my interest in the Holocaust subsided as I became more focused on my studies at school.
In my first year at Melbourne University, I undertook Business Law taught by a wonderful Jewish lecturer and working part time met my first Jewish friend. It happened by chance, we were sharing our love of pastries and muffins when she said she was Jewish. I remember blurting out “Oh I would love to be Jewish!” Thankfully instead of thinking I was a rather strange girl, she laughed and we became the very best of friends. She even gave me an honorary Jewish name ‘Galit’ and said I knew more about Jewish history than she did, which was a great compliment considering she attended a prominent Jewish high school. I told my friend Maya, I would much prefer the name Rivkah, but I settled for Galit and asked her to teach me ancient Hebrew. With us both studying Arts/Law we found we had a lot in common, besides our love for bagels. Even though I had finally made a Jewish friend, which I had always longed to have, I still did not pursue Jewish studies. Studying law demanded most of my time and energy, and apart from the occasional documentary and Hanukah festivals, I kept my interest in Jewish history at arms length.
My dream was to become an international lawyer and work with the international criminal court, prosecuting war criminals. Half way through my degree, I realized this was an overly idealistic dream that would probably never eventuate; if it did I would be well into my fifties. Working as a legal assistant in a government firm for a year, I became even more disillusioned with what life as a prospective lawyer. Drowning in contracts and paperwork I became frustrated thinking ‘this is not why I wanted to become a lawyer!’ After much deliberation and disappointment, particularly to my family, I discontinued my law degree and took six months off from uni.
Still uncertain with what I wanted to do, but feeling the pressure of ‘I must finish a degree,’ I enrolled at Monash University Clayton and decided to complete the Arts component of my degree, until I knew what career path to take. Having lots of credit for the units I had completed at Melbourne, I was able to choose a few electives outside my major of English. Scrolling through the list online, I enrolled in Alexandria, Jerusalem and Rome – the ancient cities and the Holocaust in an age of Genocide. Thrilled at the prospect of studying Jewish studies which had long been absent from my mind, I fell in love all over again with both units and performed exceptionally well.
For the first time in my university life, I attended every single lecture and tutorial, inspired by the amazing lecturers and tutors. Towards the end of the semester I approached the lecturer of Holocaust and genocide studies, and said that I would like to continue as a post graduate student, however I was not sure what the future would bring in terms of employability and also my major was English, not Jewish studies. As I had only taken Jewish studies as an elective, I was not permitted to do honours in Jewish history. The lecturer informed me that Moansh was in the process of creating a masters program for Holocaust and genocide studies that I could apply for, however there were limited prospects of employability so I should consider alternate avenues as well. Talking with my family (who were devastated I had left my law degree and secretly hoped I would return to it) my mum advised I needed to do something practical and that history whether it is Jewish history or any other history, was not a suitable career path, my husband also agreed. But I couldn’t ignore or escape the fact that I was always crossing paths with Jewish studies that re-kindled my interest in studying the Holocaust.
After much deliberation, the following year I enrolled in a Diploma of Education (secondary) as well as the masters of holocaust and genocide, hoping I could make everyone happy, including myself. Pregnant with our second child, I completed my teaching rounds at Mount Scopus College whilst simultaneously undertaking a unit towards my masters. Once our daughter was born, I took intermission from my masters for a year, to care for our two young children. This year I have returned to complete my masters, in the hope of entering a PhD next year. I now tutor in history and teach violin part time as I complete my studies. My current mini-thesis is on pregnant women in Auschwitz and involves looking at oral testimony from the Shoah archive. As the year draws to a close, my paper is still in the drafting stages, with the final copy due before the end of the year. I hope very much to get a grade high enough, that will permit me to apply to become a PhD student, so I can continue on my path of Jewish Holocaust history, with the ultimate goal of lecturing in Holocaust studies at Monash, but only time will tell. Whilst I am unsure of what initially sparked my interest in Jewish history and the Holocaust in particular, after listening to countless testimonies and researching for almost a year, I know why I am writing about the Holocaust today. My children will never have the opportunity to speak to a Holocaust survivor, and if students and academics do not write about the experiences of survivors, they will begin to collect dust in archives and museums and in the decades that follow may become forgotten. As a student and a teacher and as a non-Jew I do not want this to happen. So I write, particularly for the mothers and children who perished; I write so that we remember, in the ardent hope that History does not repeat itself.
Jessica Ebejer is a masters student in Holocaust & Genocide studies at Monash University.