It is remarkable that, seventy two years after the Holocaust, a seemingly never-ending amount of new material on the tragedy continues to emerge. Surely by this time, the history of this period, should have already been told. Yet, on an almost daily basis, new stories are coming to light and fresh research (thanks in large part to the recent opening of Eastern European archives) is being undertaken. New books are being written, while educators are constantly looking for ways to ensure the Holocaust is never forgotten.
One of explanations for the new stories is that many survivors of those times have, until quite recently, never spoken about their experiences. For a variety of diverse and complicated reasons, many could not – or did not – want to talk about the horrors they endured: Some did not want to burden their families with their trauma; Others felt guilty for surviving, while so many didn’t; Many didn’t speak because they feared that no one would believe them; Some hid their Jewish identities to survive, and then struggled later to recapture their identity, or didn’t want to reveal their identity in order for their children not to ensure similar persecution; Many blamed themselves for what happened to them, and felt ashamed to talk.
On the other spectrum, there were Holocaust survivors who from the outset felt an obligation to speak out. They had survived, and so felt it to be a moral duty to testify to what had happened and to give a voice to those whose voices had been so cruelly silenced.
And somehow, in spite of the stories that continue to come out of the Holocaust, the magnitude of it is so great, that no Jew was left unaffected by the tragedy. For those who survived, the daily humiliation, sadistic cruelty and ever-present fear they had to endure can never be overcome. The survivors were in the minority. Six million – three-quarters of European Jewry and one-third of the world’s Jewish population at the time, did not. Where, when and how they all died can never be established, hence a particular day on the global Jewish calendar has been established to collectively remember and mourn them.
So, are there lessons that we, as South Africans can we learn from the Holocaust?
The recent debate following Helen Zille’s comments on colonialism shows that it is not only Jews, but all those that have suffered racism and discrimination who are sensitive about their history. Just as victims of colonialism and Apartheid are rightfully resentful when they are told to “get over” what happened and move on, so should Jews not be told to “get over” the Holocaust. The trauma of those years affects not only the survivors, but succeeding generations as well.
While Apartheid did not go so far as to result in mass extermination, the basis of racial discrimination was a defining principal of both systems. Hence South African’s, especially black South Africans, should begin now to capture their stories, so that they can be preserved for future generations. Healing, understanding, coming to terms with past trauma – it all takes time, and time needs to be allowed for the process to be followed through.
One of the core lessons to be taken to heart is that the Holocaust did not take place in a vacuum. Times of political unrest and economic turmoil frequently provide fertile ground for racial and ethnic hatred to come to the fore. When people feel angry, frightened and threatened, they invariably look for someone to blame, and unpopular minority groups all too often provide a convenient target. The lessons for contemporary South Africa are obvious.
Another crucial lesson conveyed by the Holocaust is that mass murder was the culmination, not the start of the process. What began with words of hate paved the way to increasingly hateful deeds. Rwanda is a recent example of a genocide that started with words and ended in deadly action. In these turbulent times, it is therefore crucial that, together, South Africans ensure that the singling out of any community for their present ills does not happen.
The Holocaust is a defining point of history and a reference point for numerous other forms of oppression – be it colonialism, civil war or ethnic persecution. Inevitably, the term is misused for practices of point-scoring. Sometimes, it has been maliciously used to denigrate Jewish people, such as alleging that Jews promote Holocaust remembrance to ensure that “the world owes Jews a collective debt”. Such rhetoric ultimately aims not merely as trivialising the Holocaust as an historical event but even to spitefully use it as a weapon against its primary victims.
Another way in which the Holocaust is misused to make malicious attacks on Jews is to claim that the latter holds their own suffering to be more important than everyone else’s - a baseless and unjust charge that is itself a racist generalisation. Of course, there can be no premium placed on human suffering, and it is absurd to allege that there is some kind of hierarchy of suffering, in which the one who has suffered the most has the highest status than the rest. Hurt and divisions of the past will remain until we acknowledge them. As South Africans, we needs to preserve our memories and come to terms with our own legacy of humiliation, exploitation and dispossession - not in order to brood on past wrongs but in order to work for a future where such injustice can never again occur.
On Sunday 23 April Holocaust Commemoration Ceremonies, to remember those who perished in the Holocaust, will take place throughout the country.
For more information please contact Shirley on 011 645 2583.