Holocaust Mourning and Memory


Holocaust Education in South Africa


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Tolerance Education in Post-Apartheid South Africa

By Gwynne Schrire

After the 1994 elections the dead end politics of white rule with its institutionalised racism had given way to a vigorous multicultural democracy, a burgeoning confidence and the opportunity to forge a new society that rejected racism and injustice. Instead of revenge and recrimination, the new government sought truth and reconciliation. The ANC government had introduced a new constitution which guaranteed equality to all and prohibited discrimination against anyone on grounds which included race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language or birth.

Through her experience as organiser of the National tour of the travelling Anne Frank exhibition, Myra Osrin, then chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Council, had recognised that the memory of the Holocaust and the issues it raised could serve as a teaching tool for a culture of tolerance. These issues were important for people living in a new South Africa that had been built on the painful heritage of apartheid South Africa. The Holocaust was a well documented case study, rich in evidence and visual materials and was the extreme example of what could happen when a society was ruled by prejudice and racism. A chance meeting by Myra Osrin, with Stephen Smith, director and founder of the Holocaust Centre, Beth Shalom, in Nottingham, England, when she went to visit that centre crystallised how a place could be developed in Cape Town to teach those issues.

Such a Holocaust centre would educate the Jewish and general public and in particular young people about the Holocaust. It would serve as a place of commemoration and remembrance of the destruction of 6 million Jews and other victims of the Holocaust and heighten public awareness of the evil and dangers of prejudice and racial intolerance as also the implications of indifference. It would also embark on a programme of research, teacher training, curriculum development and workshops and seminars.39

The common denominator of all Holocaust memorials is in a universal willingness to commemorate suffering experienced, rather than suffering caused.40 Jews form a small proportion of South Africa's population and this centre would be designed for the education of South Africans, many of whom would have little if any knowledge of Jews or of the Shoah. How does one make the suffering of strangers relevant to today's learners who have been hardened by constant exposure to television violence, crime and gangsterism? The challenge of the Holocaust Centre would be to portray the facts in a way that would be pertinent to the visitors' own experiences.

On Myra Osrin's return from England she embarked on the achievement of a long held dream, that of establishing a centre in South Africa that would record the history of the Holocaust particularly that of the Jews of Lithuania. The centre would also commemorate the Holocaust experiences of the tiny community of Jews from the Dodecanese islands of Rhodes and Cos, the only Spanish speaking Sephardi community to suffer this fate. Of the 1767 Jews deported from their island home to Auschwitz on three cattle ships in July 1944, only 163 were to survive the imprisonment.41 More survivors from Rhodes Island live in Cape Town than anywhere else in the world.

As chronological and geographic distance from the Holocaust increases, the problems of historic memory are magnified, despite growing public familiarity with literal images of it distributed through the media of photography, films and television.42 The sheer enormity of the extent of the Holocaust makes it difficult to portray the subject in a museum. How does one use a small finite space to commemorate the deaths of six million people who died by starvation, disease, torture, hanging, shooting, burning, gassing, and other ways; who were killed in Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Holland, France, Rumania, Greece, Italy, Czechoslovakia and other countries, and whose corpses ended up in streets, forests, fields, bunkers, ghettos, forced labour battalions, concentration camps, extermination camps and other places?

The Cape Town Holocaust Centre did this by using photos of the families of Cape Town Jews who were murdered to represent the victims, and identification pictures from one small town, Bedzin, photographed before deportation by the Germans, to portray all those deported. Faces, not statistics. The displays focus on the development of the Holocaust, rather than on the detail. It serves as an impactful introduction to a largely uninformed audience for whom the number of six million does not even resonate.

The centre's mission would be to ensure that the memory of what had happened would be preserved and would serve as a lesson in the importance of tolerance for the new generation of South Africans who were fortunate to be growing up in a country with a non discriminatory constitution. In this way, the memory of the lives and tragic deaths of their fellow Jews would become a legacy for the future.

In a message for its opening in August 1999, Prof Kader Asmal, Minister of Education, said "The Holocaust was human history's crime of all crimes. It signified the point where barbarism took over the structure of the state which as a matter of deliberate policy, officially despatched people simply because of what they were. The root cause was to be found in centuries of antisemitism, which like its soul-mate apartheid, was a consequence of the power-politics of domination and strategies to destroy dignity and trample humanity".43

Archbishop Tutu, a patron of the Centre said "we learn about the Holocaust so that ... such atrocities will never happen again and the world will be a more humane place."44

The success of the centre exceeded all expectations as school after school booked for the four-hour education programme and returned, bringing more children, and the children returned, bringing parents, and the parents returned, bringing church groups, trade unions, employees or fellow workers. Each programme spawned further requests for programmes. Schools came with Afrikaans pupils, German pupils, Moslem pupils, Black pupils, Jewish pupils. They came with their ignorance and their prejudices, and they left with knowledge and challenged attitudes. The success of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre was summed up by a teacher who wrote that:

The programme is introduced with a video specifically made for the Holocaust centre in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa that gives a historical overview of the period from 1933 - 1945. Trained volunteers, retired teachers and survivors act as education assistants to guide the groups through the exhibition. The panels discretely draw attention to the similarities between the Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1939 and the apartheid system. No Jews or Whites only signs on park benches, documents stamped with a J, and pass books for Non Europeans, pseudo scientific racial categorisation of Jews and Blacks, tiered sleeping accommodation in concentration camps and mine hostels. As the visitors pass through the panels outlining the development of the Final Solution, the differences between the Holocaust and the apartheid system also become clear. After 1939 there were no similarities between apartheid and the Holocaust, there was never genocide in South Africa. The visitors also realise what evils can be caused by racism, discrimination and prejudice.

Although ageing and diminishing in numbers, the survivors share their experiences with groups when possible. The survivors are a living part of the exhibition and their presence is very much felt through the incorporation into the centre of photographs of Cape Town's survivors taken just before the opening of the Centre and a twenty minute video of their testimony at the end of the visit. Part of the impact of the Centre comes from the visiting groups' realisation that the displays recount the experiences of real flesh and blood local people with whom they can identify not shadows from the misty past. Klaus Neumann observed that in Germany the presence or absence of survivors and the ways in which their absence or presence has been noted, ignored or imagined has shaped public memories.46

The feelings evoked from the learners can be seen in the remarks written in the education programme evaluations, some of which are quoted below. From a student "I hope one day to come back to teach my own children about the Holocaust. When I started learning about Hitler I used to like him and everywhere I went I used to draw the swastika sign. Some of my friends idealised him, but when we saw what happened today we changed our minds."

Jeshajahu Weinberg the founding director of the Washington Holocaust Museum wrote that

Like the Washington Holocaust Museum the Cape Town Holocaust Centre shares an educational responsibility to help visitors to apply the metaphoric meaning embedded in Holocaust history to their contemporary experience as individuals and as a member of society. They do this, as shown in this learner's comment,"Having just come through Apartheid, I thank G-d that we, as a South African people, did not have to endure such horrors to achieve our freedom. My heartfelt gratitude to all who made it possible for South Africans to be reminded that there is no room for prejudice in this world".

Apartheid may be over in South Africa but racism is still alive and well both socially and in the work place. It takes a long time to eradicate deep seated and long held prejudices which are usually learnt as a child in the home. Despite legislation, there are still many inequities. Attitudes of tolerance must be taught and the Centre, through its well chosen documentation, successfully demonstrates the moral lessons from the Holocaust in a way that is applicable to a multi-ethnic audience and visitors who have gone through the display will have no doubt of the Holocaust's historicity and significance.

The effect on the visitor is the result of the impact of the visual and auditory stimuli provided by the display combined with the emotional impact of the debriefing workshop held at the conclusion of the programme. This brings the visit to the Holocaust Centre out of the arena of a passive walk through a museum displaying past history, that is not always relevant to today's younger viewer, into a visit that challenges them to evaluate concepts and attitudes that have a day to day relevance. No longer passive viewers but active participants.

Debriefing workshops are held at the completion of the visit. These form the focal point of the experience. Here they are made aware of how the issues raised by the Holocaust impacts on their own lives and what problems can arise from issues of diversity. The workshop encourage the learners to reflect on how they would have responded under similar circumstances, or how they respond when faced with examples of racism, prejudice and discrimination in their own lives." I learnt a lot about myself even though I thought I was going to learn about other people" a learner wrote. They are shown that racism, prejudice and discrimination know no boundaries. It can begin as name calling or teasing but can end up in genocide. The pupils are taught not to judge by how one looks or what religion one practices, but to promote diversity; not to make assumptions but find out about differences. They are given the opportunity to confront issues of racism, prejudice and discrimination, how to recognise incidents of these in their own lives and what they can do to intervene. That they apply these lessons to themselves is obvious from their evaluation forms such as this one:

"From my visit to the Holocaust Centre, I have learnt that I have been very disrespectful towards my African classmates and my behaviour has been unacceptable. My responsibility to Society is to stop racism and teach that all faiths should be respected."

The response to the visits from both school teachers and learners have been enthusiastic:

"In many ways" wrote one teacher," our learners still experience racialistic if not racist pressures in the communities in which they grow up. Their common reaction, 'My parents should see this' says it all, and quite a number of them have returned with their parents. For some of these learners what they experience at the Holocaust Centre is a vindication of something they instinctively feel, for others it is an eye opener, but not one of them walks away at the end of the day untouched. There is no better way to teach learners about the dangers of generalisation, stereotyping and discrimination than through a visit to the Holocaust Centre."

In addition the centre has run educational programmes for diverse adult groups representing church members, social workers, lawyers, ecologists, military students, employers from the post office, banks and businesses. Visits have been arranged for tertiary institutions, universities and colleges and interschool seminars are organised during school holidays for teachers and youth to provide an opportunity for pupils of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds to interact and explore together the issues of prejudice, racism, discrimination and the need to respect diversity.

"I always thought that Apartheid happened a long time ago and I have nothing to do with what happened in that time, but I do carry a grudge against other races and I should not. This museum opened my eyes to see what can happen when prejudice influences people, I will not let this happen to me now".

The visitors confront the issue of how they would have coped with a Holocaust. In Germany there were the victims, but there were also the perpetrators, the resisters and the bystanders48. The Washington Holocaust Museum accepts that one of the Holocaust's fundamental lessons is that to be a bystander is to share in the guilt, and that this lesson was applicable to the contemporary problems of society and to the behaviour of individuals49. In the debriefing workshop at the Centre, the students are encouraged to consider these issues. What do they think their response would have been had they lived in Germany at the time? How would they react here in Cape Town if they became aware of human rights abuses?. Would they be able to stand up and be different?

A teacher wrote "I learnt that my role in society has been one of a bystander. I see wrong and do nothing." Another wrote" I always knew that I had certain responsibilities in society but the visit to the Centre reminded me about how important it is to have a positive influence in my community and on the lives of others - to take a stand and to make a positive difference in my own country. I learnt to value people's lives, ideas and feelings."

Wrote a university student: "It totally changed my attitude of bitterness and revenge towards the cruel white South African. It also became clear to me why Mandela decided to reconcile and I will do the same from today. I realise that revenge only makes things worse."

The reputation of the centre resulted in unforseen opportunities. The South African Police Service asked the Centre to run workshops for its personnel to help sensitise them to the issues of racism, prejudice and discrimination in the police force. This was an inheritance of attitudes entrenched during the apartheid years when the service was racially segregated with the power and top ranks going to the whites only. It is not yet ten years since apartheid was outlawed and many of the senior positions are still held by old-timers. Change is more difficult and more threatening for older people. These sensitivity training workshops were designed to focus attention on abuse of power and the importance of mutual respect and it also points out how fragile democracy is and how carefully it must be guarded. Such workshops could never have taken place in the previous government. These have proved so successful that these one-day seminars are now held weekly for police personnel.50

Among the comments from the police personnel were these: "I learnt the importance of treating people as equals, attempting to stop corruption in the police service and trying to stop racist attitudes and behaviour amongst colleagues..... I will try not to be so judgemental towards ethnic minorities, eg Nigerian immigrants, and treat them from their viewpoint… It certainly has changed my way of looking at and behaving towards others...This was a terrific experience which I would recommend for everyone in this country and then maybe we will learn to live in peace with each other."

Arising from these workshops was a request to run one for a group of rival gangsters - carefully guarded and unarmed. There has been no subsequent feedback but the colourful group participated actively and seemed to benefit and it is hoped that for a short time at least, in one gangster-ridden area, peace reigned in the streets.

Then followed requests from the Department of Correctional Services.51 Could the Cape Town Holocaust Centre run similar courses for their prison personnel? Here too the responses were very positive." I have learnt that being in a prison situation one can change other people when one has a positive attitude and behaviour,... it has opened my eyes to the wrongdoing perpetrated by those who believe that others are worth nothing, The programme broadens members views of the way prisoners should be treated. .. I have learnt the importance of respecting cultural diversity,

The reason why the results from the workshops run for police and correctional services personnel have been so successful was that, having learnt about Holocaust history in the morning, the participant then participates in an afternoon workshop. The centre creates a "safe place" in which they are able to share or discuss almost anything and everything that they may have perpetrated themselves or witnessed or experienced. Nothing that they would have experienced would have been as bad as what they had learnt about that morning.

The South African state education department has recognised the value of Holocaust studies in human rights education and it has now been included as a compulsory module in the new national curriculum. In response to the inclusion of Holocaust studies in the new National curriculum, the Cape Town Holocaust Centre developed a teachers' resource pack to provide support materials for teachers who would have to teach the Holocaust.52 Marlene Silbert, the education director of the Centre who has developed the programmes and centre director Richard Freedman have conducted seminars throughout the country to discuss the Holocaust and the issues arising from it like identity, human rights and individual responsibility with curriculum advisers and teachers.53 The Centre has also entered into a joint programme with Facing History and Ourselves (Boston) in a pilot project to take the programme into the schools working with teachers.

Regular educational work and moral-political activity is regarded by the US Holocaust Museum, Washington, as its most important mission in society and it has assisted with personnel for training programmes for volunteers and teachers. The Washington Museum uses the historical narrative of the Holocaust as a metaphoric warning and as a weapon in the battle against racist, ethnic, religious and ideological hatred in all its human expressions. 54 So too does the Cape Town counterpart which has taken an active role in human rights issues.

Together with the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, in 2001 the Centre held a three day conference on Genocide and the Rwandan Experience with a large delegation from Rwanda and including Prof Ben Kiernan from Yale's Genocide Studies programme and Drs James and Stephen Smith from the Aegis Genocide Prevention Initiative, UK.55 In February 2003 a seminar was run for young local refugees from Rwanda, Angola, Nigeria and the Congo and in June 2003 in association with the Konrad Adenauer Stifftung, the Centre organised a panel discussion on the experiences of refugees in South Africa today with Nomfundo Walaza from the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture, as moderator.56 Following the events of 9/11, a seminar on Religion and Violence was held in 2002 in association with the Kaplan Centre of Jewish Studies of the University of Cape Town with the participation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim speakers from universities from California, Washington, Virginia and Cape Town.57

From trying to come to terms with the pain of the victims to examining the pain and attempts at reconciliation of the children of the perpetrators, the Cape Town Holocaust Centre has come full circle in the path to reconciliation. In 2003 it created a travelling exhibition entitled "Seeking Refuge: German Jewish immigration to the Cape in the 1930s, including aspects of Germany confronting its past" with the sponsorship among others, of the Federal Government of Germany. The exhibition was accompanied by a series of films and lectures on the German Jewish refugees as well as on Germany's examination of its Nazi past both in literature and in history by scholars, many from Germany.

Part of the exhibition focussed on reconciliation and showed Germany confronting its Nazi past through commemorative initiatives, memorial museums, monuments, memorial plaques, official reunions with survivors and many private acts of remembrance and reconciliation. These acts of commemoration and memorialisation, by focussing, not just on the sites of extermination, but on the lives of victims, play an important role in educating German society and contributing to their willingness to confront Nazi crimes as part of Germany's history.58 To the Cape Town Jewish community this was a revolutionary perspective as they themselves had not confronted their own anti-German prejudices and had not recognised that Germany today is not the Germany of 60 years ago.

Myra Osrin, the founder and then director of the Holocaust Centre, attended a conference on "The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors – the Moral and Ethical Implications for Humanity" at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2002. There she heard The Proclamation of the Survivors, which concluded that "The lessons of the Holocaust must form the cultural code for education towards humane values, democracy, human rights, tolerance and opposition to racism and totalitarian ideologies." 59

One of the speakers at the conference was Former Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Per Ahlmark who said: "Holocaust survivors because they were there and came back to testify the truth, sense before they see, the seeds of antisemitism and racism. Survivors have often sounded the alarm, because they know what is at stake. By doing so they have strengthened democracy in a way no others could. We have to listen to the survivors in order to survive."60

Kubler-Ross61 has described the process of coming to terms with a loss. These included shock, denial, rage, anger, grief, pain, until at last a stage of acceptance and peace is reached. The Cape Town Jewish community has gone from the initial shock, despair and anger at the Holocaust, through a period of very deep grief and pain, to a healing of their own wounds while in the process trying to heal the scars left in their fellow citizens by the human rights abuses of the former apartheid South Africa. The Cape Town Holocaust Centre is at the same time an institution of practical educational worth and a collective metaphor for the Jewish way in death and mourning. Public memory of the Nazi Reich and mourning over the deaths of its victims in the Holocaust has not become an instrument of revenge nor a call for the perpetuation of prejudice.

In Cape Town they are listening to the survivors. Memory and mourning has become an instrument to strengthen democracy and teach the lessons of tolerance and reconciliation. This has been welcomed in a land in which true democracy is not yet ten years old and the memory of life under a racist apartheid government is still fresh.

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39 .Proposal for the Establishment of a Cape Town Holocaust Centre, Cape Town Holocaust Memorial Council, 24 February 1997.

40 .Sybil Milton, In Fitting Memory: The Art and Politics of Holocaust Memorials, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 17

41 .Hizkia.M Franco, The Jewish Martyrs of Rhodes and Cos, (Harare, Zimbabwe: Harper Collins 1994)

42 .Milton, Sybil, In Fitting Memory: The Art and Politics of Holocaust Memorials, (Detroit Wayne State University Press,1991), 17

43 .Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, January/February 2002, 1

44 .Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, July/August 2003, 1

45 .This and all subsequent evaluation comments come from "Extracts from Education Programme Evaluations", (Cape Town Holocaust Centre, December 2002)

46 Klaus Neumann, Shifting Memories: The Nazi Past in the New Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2000),262

47 .Jeshajahu Weinberg and Rina Elieli, The Holocaust Museum in Washington, (New York: Rizzoli, 1995), 175, 19

48 .We owe the perception of these categories to Raul Hilberg's Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945(Aaron Asher, Harper Collins)

49 . Jeshajahu Weinberg and Rina Elieli, The Holocaust Museum in Washington, (New York: Rizzoli, 1995), 18

50 .Owen Wolf, "Police Praise Sensitivity Training at Centre", (The Big Issue, June 2002 reprint, Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, July/August,2002)

51 .Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, February/March 2003, 5.

52 .Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, July/August, 2002,4

53 .Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, February/March 2003, 4

54 .Weinberg, Jeshajahu and Elieli, Rina, The Holocaust Museum in Washington, , Rizzoli, New York, 1995, p175

55 .Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, July/August 2003, 2

56 .Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre. February/March 2003; Exhibition programme, Seeking Refuge, Cape Town Holocaust Centre," Changing Countries: Experiences of Refugees in South Africa Today", 10 June 2003

57 .Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, February/March 2003, 7.

58 .Linda Coetzee, Myra Osrin, and Millie Pimstone, Seeking Refuge: German Jewish Immigration to the Cape in the 1930s Including Aspects of Germany Confronting its Past,(Cape Town: Cape Town Holocaust Centre, 2003), 54

59 Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, July/August 2002

60 Newsletter, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, July/August 2002

61 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, The Wheel of Life: A Memoir of Living and Dying.(London, Bantam, 1997) -->


from the December 2007 Chanukah Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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