Inside AJHS: The Helena Mann collection

Rachel Skerys - Master of Information Studies – Charles Sturt University

Helena Mann’s story and collection demonstrate an unwavering commitment to Holocaust education and remembrance. As a survivor of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp during the Holocaust, Helena’s journey extended far beyond liberation. Her involvement with the Melbourne Jewish Holocaust Centre from its very establishment highlights her enduring dedication to preserving the memory of those tragic times.

Helena’s collection reminds us that the history of a survivor transcends the moment of liberation. Instead, in the case of Helena, and many others, it stretched into a lifelong commitment to ensure history was never forgotten, nor repeated, fuelled by passion and determination. Helena carried forward an unwavering commitment to actively engage with organisations and individuals, advocating for Holocaust education and ensuring that the stories of survival and resilience are never forgotten. It is through the quiet impact of people like Helena underpinning community-driven development that efforts towards remembrance and understanding were progressed.

Throughout her lifetime, Helena remained an ardent and prolific letter writer, engaging with media outlets, fellow survivors, and experts in various facets of Jewish life. She amassed a trove of articles spanning every aspect of the Holocaust and Jewish culture over numerous years, which she shared among her network of correspondents, fostering the exchange of knowledge and insights. Nestled within her collection are a few photographs contributed by Holocaust survivors.

In the early 1990s, as Helena’s health began to decline, her collection of personal papers embarked on a journey from her possession to the Archive of Australian Judaica. More recently, the collection moved to its final home with the Australian Jewish Historical Society. A collection that serves as a portal through time, not merely recounting Helena’s narrative but also preserving personal insights, letters, and clippings, encapsulates a historical point in time.

Consider how many of us reminisce about cutting out newspaper clippings in the past—a gesture to share an article with friends or to commemorate a significant event. Reflecting further, when was the last time you penned a letter? Expressing your thoughts and opinions on paper before sending them to someone?

In an age dominated by digital communication, these historical practices are steadily fading, and the likelihood of encountering collections akin to Helena’s diminishes. The art of preserving newspaper clippings itself is waning as we get further from the golden age of print newspapers. Helena’s collection, sourced from the 1980s, might serve as a poignant reflection of the fading practices that gave way to the era of emails and platforms like Snapchat. It stands as a time capsule, capturing the final moments of such traditions before they were eclipsed by the digital revolution.

Helena may not have been widely recognised, and her collection may not primarily consist of historical artefacts from the war. However, what her collection beautifully achieves is the preservation of Helena’s essence—the embodiment of her fervour, convictions, and beliefs forged from her history of war and loss. It underscores the importance of documenting the stories of individuals—stories that are relatable, brimming with passion, imperfections, and insights.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society has successfully preserved Helena’s personal papers and records, ensuring their endurance for future generations. Employing contemporary archival methodologies, each file from Helena’s collection has been meticulously described. These file descriptions are  visible through the Australian Jewish Historical Society’s online portal, providing researchers, academia, and members of the public with an opportunity to understand the breadth of records held. This endeavour provides a conduit through which access to Helena’s papers can be requested and will perpetuate her legacy of providing education, both presently and for generations to come.

With the continued efforts of the Australian Jewish Historical Society and its dedicated volunteers, accessibility to collections akin to Helena’s will expand. This commitment enriches not only the society and its archive but also contributes to the tapestry of Jewish heritage in Australia. By fostering greater accessibility and understanding, these collections become invaluable resources, furthering education, and perpetuating the legacies embedded within them.

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Societies like AJHS rely on volunteers to be able to function. Whether you have retired or are just starting out on your professional journey, consider volunteering your time and expertise to help preserve our community's heritage and help others discover their own family story. Click the heading to email AJHS for more details.