6 Holocaust survivors to give their testimonies at annual Yom HaShoah ceremony
“If we forget, the dead will die a second time,” said Nobel prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel. As the world prepares to remember the Holocaust on Friday, it is a very real issue in South Africa where the community of those who survived the Nazi German genocide of 6 million Jews is dwindling.
The handful of 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 made it to freedom. The Covid-19 pandemic too has made it even more critical that they are not put at further risk by attending public events.
On Friday, six of them will give their testimonies at noon, when the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) will host its annual Yom HaShoah ceremony virtually. Previously, the ceremony would have taken place at the Jewish section of Johannesburg’s Westpark Cemetery, with a keynote address by a single survivor with the flames of memory being lit by six other survivors – one for each of the six million who perished.
Last year, the commemoration was done virtually because of the Covid-19 lockdown. This year, there will be a blended commemoration with six survivors giving their testimonies virtually and lighting their own candles in memory.
The dwindling numbers, says Mary Kluk, the national president of the SAJBD and the founder and director of the Durban Holocaust and Genocide centre, make it essential that the voices of the survivors are heard now, more than ever before.
“We’ve taken 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 the young people understand that every day we are faced with choices of how we treat one another. How do we encourage them to make positive choices?”
The Holocaust is part of the South African school curriculum as a critical element in learning about human rights, she says, and understanding what it takes to build a successful and flourishing country for all. “It’s an important way of avoiding seeing people who are different from us as being 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 is now held 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)’s Shoah Centre memoirs programme, using more than 100 cameras and asking him thousands of questions, so that one day when there are no members of the first generation of the genocide left to tell the stories, a virtual version of him will endure to help the second and third generation keep the memories alive.
Langsam’s story is one that hasn’t often been told. Not a death camp survivor, he instead was interned by the British for the duration of World War II on the island of Mauritius along with 1 580 Jews who had all been caught trying to flee the genocide in 1940 aboard two vessels heading for Palestine. They were jailed on the Indian Ocean island – 128 of them would die.
“On the one hand they had escaped from Nazism,” explains Kluk, “but on the other hand they had a really difficult time. They were used to Europe’s climate, now they were stuck in asbestos huts in a sweltering tropical island.”
The sixth testimony will be from Turski from Warsaw, who chairs the Auschwitz memorial committee. The commemorations traditionally are targeted at the youth, says Kluk.
“The greatest gift that we can offer survivors is the commitment from the youth that they will remember – that they will always remember. This is why involving the youth in these ceremonies is one of the ways that we demonstrate to the survivors: we as future generations, hear you and give you our commitment to remember.”
In a world increasingly beset by identity politics, it is vital to reinforce the doctrine of human rights and defend the concept of a global humanity, to create a world where everyone can be safe and can flourish free from discrimination and persecution; because the alternative is all too often too awful to contemplate. As Kluk notes, “the Holocaust didn’t start with the gas chambers, it started with how people treat one another”.
It’s a theme that Turski referred to continually in his keynote speech commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the notorious death camp: “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. It began with small forms of persecution of Jews. It happened; it means it can happen anywhere.
“That is why human rights and democratic constitutions must be defended. The eleventh commandment is important: Don't be indifferent. Do not be indifferent when you see historical lies, do not be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against, do not be indifferent when power violates a social contract.”
The Yom HaShoah ceremony will be streamed live on the SAJBD Facebook page on Friday noon. Visit www.sajbd.org for more details.