Memory Quilts – Giving History a Human Face

by Alice McDermott, Learning Team Intern

During Alice’s time as a Learning Team Intern at the museum she worked on producing resource packs for our Memory Quilts: Triumph Over Adversity exhibition. These packs explore in depth the stories of some of the Holocaust survivors (’The Boys’) whose lives are represented on the quilts.

Having spent
the past couple of months getting to know the life stories of several survivors,
finally meeting some of them at the launch of The Quilt exhibition was a
surreal experience.

I had read their books and newspaper interviews, watched
their speeches and accounts online and trawled through archives looking for
photos and objects. Any available resource was potentially a precious nugget of
information that represented a part of someone’s journey, and their stories of
survival needed to be handed sensitively. 

It felt like a big responsibility,
and by the time I had gathered enough information to write the resource packs,
it felt like I knew them. And then, after two months of research, there they
were in front of me with not a clue who I was! 


Even though I had a million
thoughts and questions whizzing round my head, I merely introduced myself and
shook the hands of Josef Perl and his wife Sylvia, Ben Helfgott, Mala Tribich,
David Herman’s daughter Julia (above, with the quilt), and smiled at Esther Brunstein. It was a special

Writing the resource packs (pictured below) was a very interesting and at times emotional task.
I wanted so much to accurately depict the lives of these amazing people, and to
do their stories justice. 

For me this meant including the more traumatic
details that the survivors had chosen to talk about in books or testimonies,
and as a result the section of each resource box that covers ‘Life during the
Holocaust’ may be difficult to read. 


I feel that being honest about the details
of ghetto life and camp experiences is essential in understanding the magnitude
of the feat that is their survival of the Holocaust, and that it makes reading
the section about their lives after they arrived in England all the more

Researching and writing it all was a unique insight into the power of the human
spirit and of unwavering faith. I was very familiar with the narrative of the
Second World War and the Holocaust, but piecing together stories solely from
the perspective of Jewish survivors really does mean that ‘history comes
alive’, in the words of Josef Perl. 

imageJosef Perl’s Quilt Square

That was what we set out to do in creating the resource packs – to give
visitors the opportunity to learn more about some of the individuals behind the
squares, and how their stories relate to the wider context of the Holocaust and
the Jewish faith. As well as celebrating the achievements of The Boys with the
Memory Quilts exhibition, with the resource packs I wanted to give history a
human face.

Visit Memory Quilts: Triumph Over Adversity until 7 February 2016 to explore the resource packs yourself. 

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