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Unpacking the Suitcase: German-Jewish Refugees in New Zealand and the Afterlives of their Displaced Objects 1933-2015

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posted on 2021-12-08, 13:36 authored by Hormann, Louisa

When German-Jewish refugees arrived in New Zealand in the 1930s fleeing Hitler’s Europe, they brought with them everything they could from their former homes: furniture, luggage, personal documents, musical instruments, artwork, books, silverware, linen, a typewriter. These humble and remarkable domestic objects survive today, a few in public heritage collections, but most in the private family homes of descendants. But while the Jewish refugee migration story is well known in public and academic circles, less so is the story of those objects. This thesis explores the relationship between refugee families, their descendants, and the material objects they have inherited.  To what extent do refugee objects embody the memory of the prewar, European past? And how do the objects’ meanings change for refugees and their descendants, over time and in different custodial contexts? A major part of this thesis involved oral history interviews with refugee survivor families (mainly second-generation participants), and studying the interviews, letters, memoirs, and reminiscences of the first generation. Material culture objects were also analysed, and curated in an electronic archive (available for review).  This thesis charts the slowly evolving significances of the objects throughout the various stages of the object migration journey. It examines themes of cultural identity, intergenerational memory, collection practices, and the private-public tensions inherent in the institutional custody of family objects. These themes are explored in three chapters, the first of which defines the German-Jewish refugee archive in New Zealand against the existing literature on displaced Jewish objects, by contextualising the New Zealand objects within the specific historical circumstances determining their owners’ migration journeys. The final two chapters analyse the usage and meanings of the objects in the ‘private archive’ of the family, and the ‘public archive’ of local and international collecting institutions.  Drawing on insights from migration, material culture, Holocaust, and memory studies, this thesis is premised on the widely accepted argument that such mementoes function as mobile depositories of cultural identity and knowledge to ensure continuity between generations. Considering objects as nodes of memory for remembering a German-Jewish past (between Europe and New Zealand) characterised by the traumatic rupture of first generation silence, brings my research into conversation with the work of second-generation scholar Marianne Hirsch and Nina Fischer. But by addressing the role of collective memory and cultural identity in determining the future location and preservation of such artefacts, this thesis significantly extends the findings of Hirsch and Fischer beyond the private sphere to interrogate the perspectives of both families and collecting institutions. In doing so, it argues that New Zealand’s German-Jewish refugee objects bear multiple identities and meanings as a result of their dispersed, transnational history. In light of current international repatriation movements to return such artefacts to Germany, the provenance and significance of these objects is particularly pertinent today, as the first person authenticity of survivors rapidly fades, and the memorial sphere transforms to accommodate this change.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Gigliotti, Simone