Michalya Schonwald Moss reflects on how the experience of Covid-19 in South Africa catalysed her search to uncover her family's Holocaust history.
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen
Jolan Vida Schonwald, gassed at Auschwitz when she was 43 years old.
IT was an unimaginable curveball and it landed hard, right in my solar plexus. My husband had just returned from a scouting trip to Israel in March 2020 and we immediately went into quarantine, one week before the rest of South Africa. Being unable to control our circumstances and having to abandon our plans to emigrate, I found myself struggling to navigate this “new normal”. The only context I had to compare our situation to was the Holocaust. As a third-generation survivor, I felt trapped, anxious and afraid. It was then that hairline cracks started to appear, and with inherited transgenerational trauma overshadowing my present reality, I realized that I needed to find the courage to be curious about why a global pandemic had triggered an emotional reaction to a story belonging to my progenitors.
My grandfather, Moshe, had never spoken about his life before the war or his wartime experiences. My father and his brother were uncomfortable bringing it up. My uncle, David, described the impact of living with family secrets as having a constant elephant in the room, “and that elephant was death.”
exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In this article, Tali Nates discusses how memorialising the Holocaust and 1994 genocide in Rwanda enables South Africans to grapple with racism and xenophobia in South Africa.
The Holocaust and Genocide Centre allows us to bring to public attention and keep in public memory the abiding dangers of supremacist thinking, whether based on race as in wartime Germany or on ethnicity, as in Rwanda. The Centre does, and should remind us, daily, how quickly ordinary people can turn from living and learning alongside one another to exterminating each other with deadly justification … may you through this very powerful memorial teach us as South Africans to reconcile rival memories, to recognise the pain of others and, most importantly, to become more fully human”.
Prof. Jonathan Jansen, September 2015, at the JHGC building dedication ceremony.
In April 1994, while South Africans were jubilantly voting in the country’s first democratic elections, in Rwanda, a mere three and a half hours’ flight away, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi, as well as Hutu who opposed the genocide, were being slaughtered[i].
1994. Two countries in Africa. Two very different paths.
Not that South Africa’s transition to democracy has been easy. As xenophobic violence has shown, South Africans too have the potential for horrific violence against an “other”.