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”.
Survivors. Photograph: Anthea Pokroy
In 2006, during one of my visits to Rwanda, a personal experience profoundly impacted my thinking on the creation of a future Centre. At a visit to Ntarama Church Genocide Memorial site where more than 5 000 Tutsi were murdered, a young survivor, Cocous, was visibly upset. That morning we had also visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the last resting place of over 250 000 Tutsi, including his parents. Sitting with Cocous, who bears a large machete scar on his head, I shared my own family’s history. I told him about the murder of my grandmother Leah Turner and my two aunts, Cela and Helen. My father Moses and his brother Henryk were rescued by Oskar Schindler, but the rest of the family were murdered in the Holocaust. He touched my face in disbelief saying: “and still after that, genocide happened in my country?” We spoke about the words ‘Never again’ placed on every memorial to the murdered Tutsi around Rwanda. They sounded hollower than ever.
Never again, yet again? That encounter persuaded me that any museum in South Africa dedicated to the Holocaust and genocide had to include the story of Rwanda.
This conversation took place while we were reflecting on the importance of memorialising the Holocaust and genocides in the 20th century and how to make such immense human catastrophes feel resonant, relevant and ‘personal’ to South Africans in the twenty-first century. Around the world museums are emerging more and more as institutions dedicated to facilitating human rights awareness and education, dialogue, and debate; we hoped that the Centre would encourage South Africans to grapple with our own history (and how that continues to inform our present), within the context of broader histories.
Students. Photograph: Catherine Boyd
With or without our intervention, the Holocaust is present in South African public life. In 2007, the Department of Education included the study of ‘Nazi Germany and the Holocaust’ in the South African national social sciences and history curriculum for Grade 9 and 11 (15 and 17 years old). By first learning about the Holocaust and then about Apartheid, they hoped students would have a better understanding of human rights, peace and democracy. All good in theory, but to make this really work requires a huge amount of education before the first lesson is even presented. Much of the essential preparation is provided by three independent Centres, all under a national association, the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation. The first Centre was opened in Cape Town (1999) and a second one was established in Durban (2008). The Johannesburg Centre was officially opened in March 2019 but operated from temporary offices since 2008.
The JHGC, which was established in partnership with the City of Johannesburg, has been conceptualised to be a space for education, critical thinking, dialogue and deepening understanding around democracy, active citizenship and human rights. From the Centre’s exhibitions to its architecture, every aspect has been intentionally conceived to achieve these objectives.
In order to offer visitors a deeper understanding of recent genocides, the core exhibition, developed over many years, covers more generally genocides in the 20th century, starting in 1904 with the Herero and Nama genocide in Namibia and the Genocide of Christian Armenians beginning in 1915. It also looks at the development of the word genocide and explores the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and its aftermath. Finally, the exhibition connects to current human rights abuses in South Africa, particularly xenophobia and racism.
Sylvestre Sendacyeye, survivor from Rwanda, next to the Memorial for the Tutsi who were murdered in the genocide. Photograph: Catherine Boyd
The iconic building is replete with symbolism. Its South African architect, Lewis Levin reflected: “How can the language of architecture be recruited to describe and symbolize the terrible events that took place in Kigali and Auschwitz?” Asking Holocaust and Rwandan survivors what symbols they would like to see represented in the building, Levin recalls: “The first images that emerged from our discussions were those of trains, railway lines and the vast transportation network of Europe that was employed and diverted to haul people to their deaths. Trains and railways, once a symbol of industrial progress, in the eyes of 20th century modernists, were transformed by the Nazis and their collaborators into a vast killing machine. In Africa, the railways that represented the great dream of the colonialists, not only brought along empire, but also oppression and human misery”. The building’s façade is lined with railway lines embedded in concrete and rock. The railway, a symbol of modernity and progress, as well as oppression and suffering, is a strong reminder of genocide, a man-made catastrophe.
“The next images that haunted the survivors,” Levin continued, “were the forests and landscapes of death. The Nazis murdered Jews and others within the panoramas of the European landscapes, often in lyrical forest settings. In Rwanda, the genocide took place in a spectacular landscape of lush green vegetation and terraced hills”. Indigenous yellowwood trees wrap the building from all sides. As you enter the foyer, the railway lines disappear into voids, memorialising the loss and scars of genocide.
The building is constructed using industrial elements – rock, concrete, brick, steel, granite and glass. The burned brick is laid in the ‘English Bond’ style – a technique also used to build the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau and oppressive structures such as the Old Fort Prison complex at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. The large entrance plaza is laid with cobblestones, intimating ‘civilised Europe’. Along its edges are granite slabs symbolising genocides’ unmarked graves. Above them on the Plaza’s entrance wall, are lists of names from Europe and Rwanda, side by side, symbolising those who were murdered and challenging us to remember the men, women and children as individuals and not only as statistics.
Doris Lurie, survivor from Vienna, Austria, with her son Peter next to her portrait and story. Photograph: Catherine Boyd
The permanent exhibition area has wide, high windows, unlike many other museums that present this history in darkness. The design invites the visitor to remember that genocide does not happen only in the dark but in broad daylight while neighbours are watching. It challenges them to explore their role as bystanders today and encourages them to move to action. The exhibition journey ends in a Garden of Reflection with a soundscape, Remember/Zachor/Ibuka, by renowned South African composer Philip Miller, with music, songs and testimony of survivors of the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda.
The JHGC’s core exhibition and education programmes feature stories, photographs and artefacts of Johannesburg survivors that would not be found in any other museum in the world and are uniquely South African. The Centre collected many photographs, documents and objects from survivors of the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. Genocide survivor Xavier Ngabo, for example, donated objects found with the remains of his mother Beatrice. In response to hearing his testimony, students sponsored his return to Rwanda to find the remains of his parents and bury them.
The JHGC recorded hours of testimonies from Holocaust and Rwandan survivors. For many of the Rwandan survivors, when filmed, it was the first time they told their story – 20 years after the genocide. Holocaust and genocide survivors are also among the Centre’s volunteers and share their testimonies with schools.
Auschwitz survivor and writer, Primo Levi’s words greet visitors as they enter: “It happened therefore it can happen again; this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere”. With the Centre dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and genocide, these words felt painfully relevant.
For many South Africans, human right violations are often seen through the prism of ‘white vs. black’ because of the legacy of apartheid. When learning about the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda, these defined ideas – and simple binaries -- are challenged as one explores the idea of ‘white perpetrators against white victims’ and ‘black perpetrators against black victims’. South Africans are exposed to new perspectives in discussing and learning about oppression, prejudice, and discrimination.
The JHGC aims to provide a transformative learning experience to its visitors, encouraging ethical reflection and connections between past and present to build a better future. The Centre strives to build a community that comes together to change the discourse, to become upstanders and active citizens. It encourages students to leave a message on what they have learnt after their visit, and to think about actions that they would like to take moving forward. One of the thousands of such messages said: “I turn a blind eye when my family says foreigners must go back to their country. Now I will put my foot down. I will not condone it”.
Through its symbolic building, original exhibition, and diverse educational approaches, visitors are encouraged to draw connections between the Holocaust and the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda and our current society in South Africa and its particular challenges. Most importantly, in the words of Prof. Jansen, the Centre strives to help “South Africans to reconcile rival memories, recognise the pain of others and … become more fully human”.
[i] Over a period of three months, from 7 April to 15 July 1994, approximately 1 000 000 Tutsi, and Hutu who opposed the genocide, were murdered.
Tali Nates is the founder and director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. She is a historian who lectures internationally on Holocaust education, genocide prevention, reconciliation and human rights. She has published many articles and contributed chapters to different books, among them God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (2015) and Remembering The Holocaust in Educational Settings (2018).