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SA Organisations

Red Army’s role in liberating death camps, acknowledged

  • Russia
Last Sunday evening at Beyachad in Johannesburg, a capacity crowd joined the ambassadors of the Russian Federation and of Israel in commemorating the crucial role played by the Soviet army in achieving victory and the liberation of the concentration camps 70 years ago.
by DAVID SAKS | Oct 14, 2015

                                                                          

Pictured: Dr Tsipra Boudnitski relives the liberation of the death camps.

The function was jointly organised by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, the Embassies of the Russian Federation and the State of Israel and the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC).

The event was unique in that it was the first time that the Jewish community and representatives of the Russian state had collaborated in remembering and paying tribute to the Red Army for its part in defeating Nazi Germany and its allies.

Throughout the apartheid era, the Soviet Union had been regarded by South Africa as a hostile state, and the Jewish community had regarded it with abhorrence because of its persecution of its Jewish citizens and active support for Israel’s most implacable enemies. 

Speakers at Sunday’s event included Doctor Tsipra Boudnitski, a Jewish Red Army veteran who was brought in to care for the survivors of the camps and Tali Nates, director of the JHGC. The evening also featured the screening of a new documentary by award-winning SA-born journalist Paula Slier, in which she documents her journey and that of her father, Lionel, to discover what happened to their family during the Holocaust.

Prior to the screening, she and Lionel spoke about how their decision to embark on this journey of discovery had affected them. Afterwards, a Russian themed buffet was served.

In his message, Mikhail Petrakov, Ambassador to the Russian Federation, pointed out that the Soviet Army that liberated Auschwitz and many other notorious death camps, had been a mixture of 39 nationalities. Over half a million Jews had fought in the Red Army against fascism; more than 200 000 of them lost their lives.

Boudnitski, a highly decorated war veteran, served as a military doctor during the war and its immediate aftermath. Through a translator, she described the horrific scenes that greeted her and her comrades when they entered the newly-liberated death camps and the subsequent struggle to save the lives of the sick and malnourished survivors.

Nates emphasised the enormous sacrifices the Soviet people had made to free their own territory and other occupied Eastern European countries from Nazi occupation. Her own father’s life had been saved when the camp in which he was being held was liberated by Russian troops.

Lionel Slier related how the chance discovery in Amsterdam of a box of letters written by his cousin, Flip Slier, while in hiding from the Nazis, motivated him to embark on a mission of retracing his family’s roots.

Flip was later captured and sent to a labour camp where he was eventually gassed in the Sobibor concentration camp.

Slier described how, a day after the war ended, his father received a telegram from the Red Cross informing him that 34 members of his family were dead and where they had been murdered. In all, 119 members of the extended Slier family died during the Holocaust.

Lionel’s father came out to South Africa from the Netherlands while his mother was one of the orphans rescued in the Ukraine by Isaac Ochberg and brought to South Africa in the early 1920s.

Paula Slier accompanied her father on his visit to Europe. The documentary she made of their quest, included interviews with the head of the Dutch Nazi Party and with Rainer Hoess, grandson of Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoess.

Rainer Hoess has appeared on many platforms denouncing his grandfather’s legacy. Notwithstanding this, Paula Slier said she had felt deeply conflicted about meeting with him. In all, making the documentary had been a very difficult and emotional experience for her.  

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