‘Bechol dor vador : The Holocaust in South African Jewish Consciousness’ … Richard Mendelson

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Yom Hashoa 1/05/08

Yom Hashoah Vehagevurah – Holocaust and Heroism Day – Thursday 1 May
The Pesach Hagadah speaks eloquently and powerfully of the historical imperative of transmitting the memory of the Exodus from Egypt from generation to generation: Bechol dor vador chaiav adam lirot et atzmò keillu hu yatzà mimmitzraim – In every generation, every individual must feel as if he personally had come out of Egypt. So it is with the commemoration of the Holocaust and the transmission of its memory. We feel the same imperative to remember and honour the memory of the martyrs of the Holocaust. We are now the fourth generation of South African Jews to commemorate the Shoah. Many here today are of the generation who lived through the Holocaust years; some – dwindling number – directly experienced its horrors, and we pay tribute to them as the living and heroic witnesses to our people’s tragedy; others here today, including myself, are of the post-war generation, the children of the late 1940s and 1950s, born after the Holocaust, and others still are their children and even grandchildren. The memory of the Holocaust, like the memory of the Exodus from Egypt, is one of the crucial bonds between these generations; one of the critical ties that bind us together as a South African Jewish community; one of the principal elements that define us as South African Jews. From the start, from the war years themselves, the Holocaust has played this vital role. South African Jewry was agonisingly aware during the war itself of the tragedy engulfing European Jewry. In June 1942 the World Jewish Congress reported on the appalling plight of European Jewry, and in December of that year Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons that Hitler intended to exterminate the Jews. These pronouncements helped to galvanise supporters of the war effort in South Africa, and a number of mass meetings were held, which were addressed by non-Jewish leaders and Christian clergy who denounced Nazi barbarism. As the Minister of Labour, Walter Madeley, over-optimistically put it, “The conscience of South Africa has been stirred.” The enormity of the catastrophe overtaking European Jewry was fully comprehended by the South African Jewish community. The parliamentarian Morris Kentridge, father of Sydney Kentridge and grandfather of William, asserted in January 1943 that “two million Jews (had been) treacherously murdered in the slaughterhouse of Poland” and “five million more were in hourly peril of the same fate”. With such knowledge, South African Jews could hardly divorce themselves from the European calamity. Many, as we know, hailed from the regions most devastated by Hitler’s war machine. Beginning in 1942, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies coordinated official days of mourning for South African Jewry, when Jewish businesses closed early and special synagogue services were held. The Board also lobbied the Smuts government (unsuccessfully) to permit the entry of more Jewish refugees; Jewish immigration, severely restricted before the war, had virtually ceased with the advent of war. But Prime Minister Jan Smuts feared that renewed Jewish immigration would lead to food shortages and pressure on Allied shipping, and further accelerate and widen antisemitism in South Africa – antisemitism which was rife in prewar and wartime South Africa. This hostility on the part of many translated into an indifference towards the plight of European Jewry. Even the uncovering of Buchenwald by the American Third Army in 1945 failed to evoke a sympathetic response from those Afrikaners who had opposed South Africa’s entry into the war on the Allied side, since acknowledging such evidence would have discredited Germany and made the Allied cause acceptable. Instead of acknowledging the horrors of azism and the plight of its victims, Afrikaner Nationalists concentrated on the sufferings of the German people after the war. For the older generation of South African Jews, the destruction of European Jewry was intensely personalised; the vast majority had their roots in Lithuania, where 90 percent of Jews had been annihilated. At a Day of Mourning, observed in all South African synagogues on 14 March 1945, congregants sobbed – and some even fainted – as a mass kaddish was recited. Shortly after the war, in July 1945, the Board of Deputies convened a conference in Johannesburg of the Landsmannshaften (immigrant fraternal societies), to mobilise practical support for their surviving European brethren. Food and medical supplies were collected and sent to Europe via the American Joint Distribution Committee. In the ensuing months, long lists of survivors with relatives in South Africa were published. With the ongoing publication in the Jewish press of the wrenching accounts of survivors, and the personal testimony of the few who reached South Africa, the horrors and dimensions of the European tragedy became more and more inescapable. In May 1946 a service was held in Johannesburg to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, inspiring the Board of Deputies to explore ways of further assisting Jewish survivors in Europe. A year later the fate of Lithuanian Jewry was movingly recounted for local Jewish audiences by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a survivor who toured South Africa, vividly describing the destruction of five Lithuanian communities. By 1947, 38 South African Jews were engaged in relief activity in Europe as part of the Joint Distribution Committee staff, while on the home front Jews tried, without success, to influence government immigration policy to allow expanded Jewish immigration. By 1948 the Holocaust had become firmly entrenched in the South African Jewish consciousness. One of its most important short-term effects, was to strengthen the already powerful South African Zionist movement and its commitment to the fledgling Jewish state. Four years later, in 1952, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies set the official date for future commemoration of the Holocaust. Following the lead of the Israeli Knesset, April 22 was chosen, rather than April 19, the official anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, this to avoid a clash with Pesach. The pattern as set for the nation-wide South African Yom Hashoa commemorations, which continue till the present. In part this was a response, it seems, to communal concerns that post-war Jewish youth were not as actively engaged with the Holocaust as the older generation. This apparent disengagement led to concerted efforts to educate the youth about the olocaust. The newly-founded day schools – King David in Johannesburg, Herzlia in Cape Town – played a leading role in this, embedding the Holocaust in their curricula, with powerful effect. On a personal note, I recall that as a schoolboy at Herzlia in the early 1960s, the most memorable and moving occasions of the school year were the nnual Yom Hashoa ceremonies, graced with the presence of the late Cantor Immerman of blessed memory, and the deeply stirring rendition of the Song of the Partisans. These for many, including myself, are the most vividly remembered occasions of their long-ago school days. The effect of this emphasis from the early ’50s onwards on Holocaust education was to cement South African Jewish youth’s identification with the suffering of their kinsmen and kinswomen in Europe – with the youth, till the very present, playing a conspicuous and central role in Holocaust commemoration. The formal educational efforts of the day schools, of the youth movements, of She’erith Hapletah and its deeply honoured members, and of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, have played a crucial role in entrenching a consciousness of the Holocaust within our community as one of the core elements of our common South African Jewish identity. Popular culture has played its part too here, in an informal if not always satisfactory way. The Holocaust has become deeply – if controversially – embedded in popular culture. Over the past few decades it has been a recurrent theme in film and television. Spielberg’s Schindlers List, Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, Polanski’s The Pianist have moved South African audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish, as they have audiences worldwide. A more recent evelopment in South African Holocaust education are the visits by groups of Jewish day school children to the Holocaust sites in Poland – the South African counterpart to the March of the Living. These visits, incidentally, have not been restricted to Jewish children. A party of children from Westerford High School has recently returned from a historical trip to the camps in Poland. These visits, permeated with the potency of place, have a profound effect on their young participants. My youngest son, who was privileged to participate in one of the tours, writes in the detailed diary he kept of the tour, of visiting the gas chambers at Majdanek: We enter the camp … the camp looks green and ull of life, when it is actually a place of such mass death and senseless killing. We stop outside the bath and disinfection room, which looks so innocent from the outside. Inside, we wait in the haircutting room. Jacob, our guide, tells us the testimony of Alina Berenbaum who arrived at Majdanek with her mother. Here they were undressed and all heir hair was cut off. In the next room, she and her mother were split. She had a cold shower and left through the side door. Her mother was led into the next room. The next room has walls stained blue with scratch marks. This is the gas chamber. I cried from sadness of the loss, but mostly out of anger, rage, frustration and pity … What person would have done this? Our whole group cried. We sat outside and cried and cried for 45 minutes. We let our feelings wash away, our anger settle. I don’t think I have ever been so angry before. The gas chamber is so scarily real. As I left, I felt how lucky I was. I could see the beauty of the world again, the green grass, the flowers, trees and sky. hundreds of thousands entered the innnocent looking building and never left. They would never see such beauty again. On the same day as the group’s visit to Majdanek, one of the South African touring party turned seventeen. Some sixty years before, his grandmother, then a seventeen year old had spent her seventeenth birthday in Majdanek. He phoned his grandmother, a survivor living back in South Africa, and they spoke by cell phone of her memories of the amp as he walked through it – an almost miraculous bridge across time between generations. For all of the growing distance in time, the agony of the Holocaust remains powerfully fresh and present in the South African Jewish consciousness. Memory of the Holocaust is a crucial and central element in our very sense of South African Jewishness. It is vital to who we are as South African Jews, as it ought to be. Bechol dor vador, in every generation, it is incumbent upon us as Jews to remember what our people suffered at the hands of the modern Pharoah during the Holocaust. Bechol dor vador, in every generation, every individual must feel as if he personally had witnessed the suffering of our people.

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