Irish Examiner, January 26, 2022
Oliver Sears chart his family’s unspeakably difficult journey through the horrors of the Second World War in a new exhibition, ‘The Objects of Love’
One of our most powerful gifts as humans is our ability to tell our own stories. The truth of that struck home after seeing how Oliver Sears, Dublin gallerist and second-generation Holocaust survivor, has used personal mementos to chart his family’s unspeakably difficult journey through the horrors of the Second World War in a new exhibition, ‘The Objects of Love’.
If the events of that time seem alien or remote, go to see it at Dublin Castle where it runs at Bedford Hall until February 13.
If you can’t make it, let me take you there — on the eve of World Holocaust Memorial Day — through the eyes of those who spoke at the opening earlier this month.
It isn’t often that you hear a Government minister’s voice catch, so it made an impression when Patrick O’Donovan, the minister of state with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, spoke with real emotion.
As the father of a seven-year-old, a nearly three-year-old, and a nearly two-year-old, it was easy to understand why, as he recounted Oliver’s mother’s experience of living in hiding in Nazi-occupied Poland.
“For several months, Monika was forced to stay under the table when Kryszia [her mother] went out to work… This would break your heart… For companionship, she had a doll’s chair, a book, and a potty. She was warned never to come out and never to cry. If she did, a German monster would devour her. She received two fudge sweets each day, for being good, when her mother returned.”
He went on to describe how Monika, her mother, and her grandmother, Rosa, were rounded up and put on a train bound for certain death. Sensing the danger, Kryszia bribed a guard to open a window and, as the train slowed rounding a bend, she threw her daughter out, then jumped after her with Rosa.
Three generations of women lay on the ground while machine-gun fire flew all around them, but the train kept going and all three survived.
“It is what any mother or anybody would do to survive,” said Mr O’Donovan.
In these words, he summed up the spirit of this exhibition of objects, documents, and photographs, so beautifully curated by Oliver Sears in association with the Office of Public Works; it touches the very essence of what it is to be human.
You can’t look at the photographs of a two-and-a-half-year-old Monika Sears, taken in the Warsaw ghetto, and not see a member of your own family. There she is in her little dress, a big bow in her hair. In one photograph, she’s sitting on a chair, legs swinging, reading a book. In another, she has raised her right leg as if she’s about to dance a reel.
You can’t help but think that telling our own stories can save us now; directing us to seek out what unites rather than divides us.
We might also look at what resonates down the decades. The art deco ring, smuggled through the war, sewn into the lining of Monika’s coat, is now worn by Oliver Sears’ wife, Catherine Punch. The couple set up Holocaust Awareness Ireland last year to connect the Holocaust to contemporary culture and the politics of our times.
The human cost serves as a stark warning to any society ready to dismantle democracy, but the Holocaust also contains a powerful message of hope, courage, and kindness.
Oliver is especially keen that an Irish audience listens to Irish voices on this subject. “History magically becomes more relevant when heard in your own accent,” he says.
One of those voices, filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson talks about the powerful and reinforcing tremors of the Holocaust he felt growing up as a middle-class kid in Dublin. His grandfather moved from Antwerp to work at the glass bottle factory in Ringsend in Dublin. While his immediate family was not directly affected, many of his uncles, aunts, and cousins “were never found again”.
Those four words are chilling.
“As I got older, I recognised the effect that had on me,” Abrahamson continued. “I realise that the echoes of that life, with its vividness and its colour and its language and history and the catastrophe of the Holocaust were present in my childhood.”
He feels ready to mine that story for the screen now; to speak openly about a subject that, for so long, remained private or unspoken. It is one that remains deeply relevant.
“We remember not as a passive ceremonial act, but as part of a present fight,” says Abrahamson.
That fight is always the same. It’s a fight for empathy, compassion, enlightenment, and togetherness against those forces that dismiss the intellect, ‘other’ people, and elevate dissension.
Those malign forces wear different faces in each generation. The minister and Abrahamson make the same point, and both highlight the signposts on the road to violence and, ultimately, death.
They said the Holocaust would never happen again, but we have seen ethnic cleansing and violence claim the lives of tens of thousands in the eight decades since the Second World War. We saw the Balkan civil war, live on television, said Mr O’Donovan, recalling the rounding up and extermination of young men and, more recently, the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Tellingly, he talked of the failure of diplomacy, of politics, of the UN and the EU, and the need to do more. Now, as Russian troops mass on the Ukraine border and plan missile tests off the Irish coast, we will see clearly what ‘doing more’ might look like.
Despite the urgency of the present, we should also cast an eye to the past. The 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, on January 20 last, passed with little fanfare here. Yet let us remember that there were 4,000 Irish Jews on the abhorrent list drawn up by senior Nazi officials in Berlin as part of Hitler’s Final Solution.
Wartime experiences of Irish people
Too often in a country that relegated one of the deadliest conflicts of the 20th century to the status of ‘The Emergency’, we think of the Second World War as remote. But the many wartime experiences of Irish people are starting to emerge.
For instance, Ciara Boylan recalls that her grandfather, Clare dentist JJ ‘Jimmy’ McNamara, was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after it was liberated in 1945 to try to identify the dead from dental records.
She tells his story in a new book, Family Histories of World War II, a fascinating collection of 13 wartime experiences collected from the staff at NUI Galway and edited by Róisín Healy and Gearóid Barry.
Back at Dublin Castle, Sears says ‘The Objects of Love’ exhibition is an opportunity to publicly honour his family and all those murdered in the Holocaust in solemnity.
He uses a French phrase, ‘Je mets ma famille en valeur’ — I am imbuing my family with value — to describe what he is setting out to achieve. In doing so, he has also shown us how precious the lives of strangers are and how, collectively, we must protect them.