Jews are never going to 'get over the Holocaust'

Pic. Peter Dench. © Unknown.
Pic. Peter Dench. © Unknown.

In October 1934, my great-grandfather was the last Jew in Germany to be buried with full military honours.

That same year his son, my grandfather, was at a university class when another student warned him that he shouldn’t go home - the Gestapo were at his house.  He cycled from Cologne to his cousin in Amsterdam.  Eventually he made his way to South Africa. 

My grandmother, born in a small village in Lithuania, also in due course made her way to this country.  She never knew of a time when anti-semitism wasn’t rife.  I remember sitting on her lap as a small child, and looking through her photo album of her own childhood. 

She showed me a photo of her class, and pointed out those classmates who were murdered in the Holocaust.  The young man in the photograph was the teacher, who to save his own and his families’ lives later betrayed his pupils to the Nazis. 

Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust. The Nazis were very clear about what the ‘Pure Race’ should be.  They began by killing the mentally disabled, and in this eventually extended to Jews, Romany (Gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Communists. My grandparents were amongst the lucky ones.  They managed to survive the biggest genocide the world has known, where Six Million Jews, including One and Half Million children were killed simply because they were Jews. 

While my grandparents escaped death, they couldn’t avoid racism.  They arrived in a country at a time where Afrikaner Nationalism was at its height and radical racism, including anti-semitism had become part of the fabric of society. 

While the scale and intention was different, the system of apartheid shared its roots in Nazi policy. Indeed many leading Nationalists, including future Prime Ministers Hendrik Verwoerd and B J Vorster were warm admirers of Nazi Germany. 

South Africa has come a long way since then, and we are now a relatively new democracy, forging our new national identity.  Yet race continues to be a dominating factor in our country.  We are reminded almost daily of our dark past with racial slurs, acts of degradation and violence constantly rearing its ugly head.  So, how do we heal ourselves and a nation, and are there universal lessons we can learn from the Holocaust?  In remembering and honouring our past, can we forge a better future? 

Jews are never going to “get over the Holocaust”.  There are many reasons for this, but here are some:  It is still too raw and personal to “move on”; There are still countless stories coming out of the tragedy, from victim, persecutors, bystanders and those who took an active stance in saving lives (Only last week did I learn the role that the Philippines played in providing a safe haven for German-Jewish refugees). 

And most importantly, we honour the memory of those who lost their lives under the most tragic of circumstances.  They did not die in vain.  And because we have no idea how or when they all died, we choose one day, called the Day of Remembrance, to reflect on the loss that we have collectively suffered as a Jewish people. 

Similarly, Black South African’s should not ever be told “to get over apartheid”.  It took many years before Survivors of the Holocaust could talk about their experiences.  Many were too traumatised to do so, and believed they would only be able to cope if they pushed their experiences to the back of their subconscious. 

Others suffered survivor guilt, feeling either ashamed that they survived when so many hadn’t or blamed themselves for what happened.  Also, following the war, there were those who simply didn’t want to hear about the Survivor’s stories.   Yet, even today fresh stories from the Holocaust emerge.  Those who have never spoken out before are doing so because they realise that if they don’t it will be too late.

I believe that South African’s are now ready to talk about the past, and should be encouraged to do so.  Apartheid affected us all, at every level of society.   The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a role to play, but redress is not a once-off phenomenon.  But there is much already happening.  I was delighted to learn about various oral history projects taking place at different institutions around the country. 

We need more of them, and we need to ensure that we capture a broad diversity of experiences from a diversity of different people.  We need to know how ordinary South Africans experienced apartheid (old, young, male, female, urban, rural, traditional, victims and perpetrators).  We need to validate our history and have the discussions that need to take place, and to a large extent, these discussions are already happening. 

This past Human Rights Day saw many thought leaders and politicians looking back at that day, and asking tough questions about where we are as a society, compared to where we should be.  The discussions are important, so long as they take the country forward.  And we constantly need to vigilant against racism (and politicians who use it for nefarious purposes). 

The recent sad passing of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela evoked huge emotion among South Africans.  It re-ignited images of police brutality, the mental and physical torture meted out randomly, the struggle of the ordinary people against an unjust society, a society that affected us all in different ways. 

We need to remember the past, not so that we can harp on about it, but in order to move forward.  There may very well be a universalism to healing.  It is this that we should explore as a nation. 

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies will commemorate the Day of Remembrance on Thursday 12 April at the Westpark Cemetery.  Fellow South African’s are invited to join.

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