“If we forget, the dead will die a second time,” said Eli Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor. As the world prepares to remember the Holocaust on Friday, it is a very real problem in South Africa where the community of German Nazi genocide survivors of 6 million Jews is shrinking.
The few survivors who remain from the death camps are old. They were children when they were interned with their parents, grandparents and siblings – most of whom never achieved freedom. The Covid-19 pandemic has also made it even more critical that they are not exposed to additional risk by participating in public events.
Six of them will give their testimony at noon on Friday when the South African Jewish Council of Deputies (SAJBD) virtually hosts its annual Yom HaShoah ceremony. Previously, the ceremony was reportedly held in the Jewish section of Johannesburg’s Westpark Cemetery, with a keynote speech by a single survivor with the flames of memory lit by six other survivors – one for each of the six million who perished.
Last year, the commemoration was made virtually because of the Covid-19 lockdown. This year there will be a mixed commemoration with six survivors giving their testimonies virtually and lighting their own candles in memory.
According to Mary Kluk, SAJBD National President and Founder and Director of the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Center, it is essential that the voices of survivors are heard now, more than ever before.
“We took the theme of memory and resilience and looked at the essence of how we remember, how we share the lessons of history and how we help young people understand that every day we are faced with choices of how we treat each other. . How do we encourage them to make positive choices? “
The Holocaust is part of the South African school curriculum as an essential part of learning about human rights, she says, and understanding what it takes to build a prosperous and flourishing country for all. “It’s an important way to avoid seeing people who are different from us as less.”
Yom HaShoah (International Holocaust Day) was originally commemorated on the anniversary of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto on April 19, 1943. It now takes place a week after Passover, which commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and eight days before Israel’s Independence Day.
This year’s commemoration includes two women from Cape Town: Ella Blumenthal and Miriam Lichterman; Helene Sieff from Johannesburg; Pinchas Gutter, a former Capetonian living in Canada; Oscar Langsam and Marian Turski.
Gutter is also known as the virtual holocaust survivor; he was the first person to be turned into a hologram by the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Center Memorial Program, using over 100 cameras and asking him thousands of questions, so that one day where there will be no more members of the genocide first generation left to tell the stories, a virtual version of him will last to help the second and third generation keep the memories alive.
Langsam’s story is one that has not often been told. Not a death camp survivor, he was interned by the British for the duration of World War II in Mauritius with 1,580 Jews who had all been caught fleeing the 1940 genocide aboard two ships heading for Palestine. They were imprisoned on the island in the Indian Ocean – 128 of them would die.
“On the one hand, they had escaped Nazism,” Kluk explains, “but on the other hand, they lived through a very difficult period. They were used to the European climate, now they were stuck in asbestos huts on a sweltering tropical island.
The sixth testimony will be from Turski from Warsaw, who chairs the Auschwitz memorial committee. Commemorations are traditionally aimed at young people, Kluk says.
“The greatest gift we can give survivors is the engagement of young people that they will remember – that they will always remember. This is why involving young people in these ceremonies is one of the ways we demonstrate to survivors: we, as future generations, hear you and urge you to remember.
In a world increasingly plagued by identity politics, it is vital to strengthen the doctrine of human rights and defend the concept of a global humanity, to create a world where everyone can be safe and healthy. ‘flourish without discrimination or persecution; because the alternative is too often too horrible to contemplate. As Kluk notes, “The Holocaust didn’t start with the gas chambers, it started with the way people treat each other.”
This is a theme Turski continually referred to in his opening speech commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the famous death camp: “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. It started with small forms of persecution of the Jews. It happened; it means it can happen anywhere.
“This is why human rights and democratic constitutions must be defended. The eleventh commandment is important: do not be indifferent. Don’t be indifferent when you see historical lies, don’t be indifferent when a minority is discriminated against, don’t be indifferent when power violates a social contract.
The Yom HaShoah ceremony will be broadcast live on the SAJBD Facebook page on Friday at noon. Visit www.sajbd.org for more details.