Lessons we can learn from the Holo­caust

The Star Late Edition - - INSIDE - CHARISSE ZEIFERT Zeifert is spokesper­son for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies of

IT IS re­mark­able that, 72 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 been told?

Yet, al­most daily, new sto­ries are com­ing to light and fresh re­search (thanks in largely 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 the ex­pla­na­tions for the new sto­ries is that many sur­vivors have, un­til 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 speak be­cause they feared 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 en­dure sim­i­lar per­se­cu­tion. Many blamed them­selves for what hap­pened to them and felt ashamed to talk.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were Holo­caust sur­vivors who, from the out­set, felt an obli­ga­tion to speak out. They had sur­vived, and felt it was their moral duty to tes­tify about 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 peo­ple – three-quar­ters Euro­pean Jewry and a 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.

Are there lessons that we, as South Africans, can learn from the Holo­caust?

The re­cent de­bate fol­low­ing He­len Zille’s com­ments on colo­nial­ism shows that it is not only Jews, but all who have suf­fered racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion 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 prin­ci­ple of both sys­tems.

Hence South Africans, es­pe­cially black South Africans, should be­gin now to cap­ture their sto­ries so that they can be pre­served for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Heal­ing, un­der­stand­ing and com­ing to terms with past trauma 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 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 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 at triv­i­al­is­ing the Holo­caust as a his­tor­i­cal event, but even to spite- fully 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 hold their own suf­fer­ing to be more im­por­tant than ev­ery­one else’s – a base­less and un­just charge that is 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 those who suf­fered the most have higher sta­tus than the rest. Hurt and di­vi­sions of the past will re­main un­til we ac­knowl­edge them.

As South Africans, we need 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.

What be­gan with words of hate paved the way for hate­ful deeds

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