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Beware of antisemitism in corona conspiracies, warns educator

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The appropriation of antisemitic tropes, including by protestors against government policies to fight COVID-19, needs to be taken seriously, says Holocaust educator Dr Matthias Haß.

“When looking at our world today, don’t look for the big, horrific crimes, look at the smaller events and the smaller crimes. That’s why current forms of antisemitism and conspiracy narratives are so troubling,” said Haß, who serves as the educational director of Wannsee House in Berlin. This estate is the location where Nazi officials met on 20 January 1942 to agree to the co-ordinated mass murder of European Jewry. It now serves as an educational centre.

Haß was speaking in an online webinar about this meeting and its relevance, hosted recently by the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre in partnership with the Memorial and Educational Site House of the Wannsee Conference.

He cited the example of recent demonstrations against anti-corona measures by the German government as containing troubling antisemitic elements.

“Some people, who feared mandatory vaccinations by the government opposed it by marking themselves with the yellow star [originally used by the Nazi regime to identify Jews],” said Haß, who is a political scientist by training. “The protestors added in the inscription ‘ungeimpft’ [unvaccinated], very clearly minimising historical events by putting themselves in the role of the victim.”

He mentioned another situation where an anti-lockdown protestor compared herself to Sophie Scholl – a German resistance fighter who was executed for her work against the Nazi regime.

“There have been other strange and disturbing comparisons. Something is going on here where current events are directly linked to the Nazi past. Antisemitism is at the ideological centre of many of these issues, no matter how constructed, absurd, and crazy the arguments are.

“To be honest, a few years ago, I would never have thought that the kind of antisemitism and conspiracy narratives that we are facing today still existed.”

It’s a “painful learning experience” to see this reality, and contemplate what it means for the work of the Wannsee House centre, said Haß.

He said he had issued a warning about seemingly “small incidents” of antisemitism precisely because of the extreme outcome of the Wannsee House meeting. This outcome was possible only because of decades of antisemitic propaganda that had seeped into German society long before the Nazi regime came into power.

As crucial as what was discussed at the meeting was that which wasn’t seen as necessary to debate. “There was no longer a need to argue why the Jews are the enemy. It was a common understanding at all levels of society. Clarity about hatred of Jews didn’t come suddenly or surprisingly, but grew over time, and was deeply engraved in the minds of these men [at the meeting] and in the minds of millions of ordinary Germans.”

Haß evoked the chilling ordinariness of the proceedings, organised by the head of the Reich Main Security Office, Reinhard Heydrich, at the luxurious villa on the lake.

“Heydrich wanted to dominate the meeting. That’s why he chose a place outside Berlin where he could show off. He served food; he served drink; it was a loose atmosphere.”

At the time, the Nazis believe they were winning the war and as such, saw the need to plan for a “racial new order of Europe. It’s not about finding compromise or a peaceful solution. [It was about] creating a new world,” Haß said.

The 15 Nazi bureaucrats who gathered discussed mass murder as a “logistical issue”.

“These weren’t people on the political level of the regime, they were the permanent secretaries in the ministry, the ones who were competent and really running the show.”

While mass shootings had already been carried out under their jurisdiction, the meeting was designed to co-ordinate these efforts into standardised practices.

“What filled their minds [when it comes to the killings] were issues of efficiency, money, time, the use of one bullet per person, the procedure after arrival [of deported Jews], and what to do with the bodies. The Nazis wanted the killings done in an orderly way.

“What do these men have in common?” pondered Haß, in detailing that the officials gathered had an average age of 42, that 10 of them had been to university, and eight had doctorates.

“What we saw was that they were pretty average, they were very young, they were well educated, and they were convinced of Nazi ideology. Other than that, there was nothing special about them.”

A year and a half ago, it was also established that a secretary attended in order to take notes. “This gave us insight into the fact that this entire procedure wasn’t something completely different. It was a secret meeting but this wasn’t so unusual. It was part of the daily work routine.”

All in all, it took just 90 minutes for the officials to agree decisively to kill the 11 million Jews that they believed to be alive in Europe at the time.

“Everybody was willing to co-operate, nobody hesitated and looked for a way not to participate in the genocide.”

Haß said that while they couldn’t openly object to the “final solution” proposal, if they had any misgivings, they could have played on notions of a lack of capacity or overworked staff. Instead, “they were all happy to be part of this”.

The language used by Adolf Eichmann in drawing up the final-protocol document of the meeting is “coded” in its euphemistic summary of the results of the discussion. Terms such as “parallelising procedures” are used in reference to extending mass murder across the continent and “natural reduction” when it comes to ensuring that they work the Jews to death.

It reflected how bureaucracies allowed perpetrators to distance themselves through language, suggested Haß. “Here, it was present in the most extreme way.”

The use of language as a key tool of power, in the case of the Wannsee House meeting, ignited a genocide. Yet language, even in very different contemporary situations, continues to play a role in prejudice and oppression, said Haß.

“Words matter. Public discourse matters. The few that start spreading hatred and lies need bystanders and enablers – those who remain silent. If nobody speaks out, their ideology can spread and conspiracy narratives gain ground.

“To engage in public debate; to call out the liars’ ideology cannot start early enough. It’s not enough to call them fools and lies. As we see in our world, there is a risk of the nonsense, the hatred, divisions, and violence becoming powerful forces in our societies.”

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Lost Barmitzvah boy finally finds his way home

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When Stephen “Sugar” Segerman started searching for the Barmitzvah boy whose photograph was on his mantlepiece, he didn’t imagine he would find out from someone half way around the globe that the boy had once lived a few houses away from him.

Last week, the SA Jewish Report described how Segerman – who once searched for and found the musician Sixto Rodriguez

– was now trying to identify the boy in a photograph he found at the Milnerton Market in Cape Town a few years ago.

Within a few days of publication and the story spreading around the world, the identity of the barmi boy as the late Arnold Kleinberger was revealed. Segerman had an emotional meeting with Kleinberger’s daughter, Aura Zartz, who lives in Cape Town, on Tuesday (13 April) this week.

“In the days following the story appearing in the SA Jewish Report, it was shared all over the world, judging from the enthusiastic responses I immediately received,” Segerman said.

“I started receiving a lot of emails from people who thought they recognised the barmi boy. One said, ‘My name is Cedric Reingold. I grew up in Highlands Estate and matriculated from Herzlia in 1978. I recently read the article, and recognised the person in the picture. His name is Arnold Kleinberger. He was in our third-grade year and if I’m not mistaken, left [Herzlia] sometime thereafter.’”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Chicago, Reingold said that he was scrolling through the online version of the paper, when he saw the photograph and immediately recognised Arnold. He then confirmed it with others in his matric year Facebook group. “But actually, I was 100% sure, even though he wasn’t at Herzlia for long [he then went to Cape Town High]. I can’t explain it – I just knew.”

Said Segerman, “I was elated. I then started an online search, and found that Arnold Kleinberger was born in 1960, which meant his Barmitzvah would have been in 1973, fitting with the timeline. Sadly, he passed away at the young age of 37 in 1997. I found a photo of his tombstone from the Cape Town Chevrah Kadisha website, and studied it to find any clues.

“It said that he was mourned by his family, but only his mother Sadie was named. I found out she had passed away in 2015. Her tombstone said that she was mourned by her daughters Marlene and Anita, son-in-law Maurice, and granddaughters Nadine and Aura.”

He searched the name Kleinberger on Facebook, and found a Doré Kleinberger, whose mother had been Eva Wolovitz. That led Segerman to Wolovitz’s tombstone, where again, he saw the name Aura. Further googling lead to the birth announcement of Aura and Adam Zartz’s son on the Herzlia Alumni Association site.

At this point, Segerman turned to his daughter, Natalia, and son-in-law, Ryan Rabinowitz, who were visiting from London, and asked if they knew them.

“Ryan looked at me with great surprise and told me that not only did he know Adam very well, but they had sat next to each other at shul that very morning,” said Segerman. “He immediately contacted Adam, and we spoke to his wife, Aura, who confirmed that the barmi boy was her late father, Arnold.

“She said that Doré was her mother, and her aunts were the late Anita Shenker and Marlene Kleinberger. Marlene had lived in Milnerton and passed away a few years before. Anita had cleaned out Marlene’s house and sent numerous items to the Milnerton Market.

“Aura was nine when her father passed away. She confirmed that his Barmitzvah was on 13 January 1973, and she had recently been given his Barmitzvah book by Anita’s husband, Maurice Shenker, which contained the same photo I had. She then told me that her father had grown up in Oranjezicht.”

Segerman and his wife have lived in Oranjezicht for the past 24 years, and it turns out they live just four houses away from where the Barmitzvah boy grew up.

In addition, Arnold’s parents’ domestic worker, the late Lettie Gal, would sometimes work for the Segermans. This is just one of many other coincidences linking all the people connected to the story.

Zartz, whose first-born child, Allegra, is named after Arnold, said that her father was always “elusive” to her. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she didn’t see her father much in the years before his death, which were marked with difficulties.

She said that when Segerman phoned, she felt like she was on some kind of ‘Candid Camera’ show – it didn’t feel real. In some ways, she felt heartbroken that her father’s photo had landed up in a stranger’s home, “but then I felt a huge amount of comfort that he was so close to where he grew up”.

She spent much of her childhood in her late grandmother’s home, and feels closely connected to it. Segerman emphasised that he has always felt very protective of the photograph, which meant a lot to Zartz.

Her mother, Doré, is the last remaining Kleinberger. She said Arnold’s father, Ernest, came to South Africa from Germany in 1936 when he was 13. “He had his Barmitzvah on the boat!” His mother, Sadie, was born in South Africa. She understands that Arnold was quite a “troubled child”, but also had many happy moments in his parents’ home and general goods stores, where he would help himself to chocolate.

“Their home was always warm and welcoming – a central meeting place that people gravitated towards,” Kleinberger said. “Arnold had a tough exterior, but was the kindest person. I think he had a difficult time in the army. But he loved Formula One racing and motorbikes, and would time keep at Killarney. He also loved to braai and surf. For our honeymoon, we went up the coast with his surfboard.”

Segerman was deeply moved by these revelations and in the days after finding all of this out, he went on his regular walking route, which passed the house that Kleinberger grew up in.

“Today my walk was different – more special and emotional than ever before. I stopped at both gates and thought about Arnold and all that has happened these past few days.” He has decided that he will say Kaddish for Arnold on his yahrzeit.

Zartz said that when Segerman first called, “I thought, ‘What is my father trying to tell me?’ And when I heard Stephen say he lived in Forest Road, I realised that he was just trying to make his way home. I don’t want to keep the photograph. I give it to Stephen with a happy heart. This story means that my dad is exactly where he needs to be.”

Correction: In the 9 April edition of the SA Jewish Report, we wrote that Stephen Segerman’s Mabu Vinyl store had closed. This is an error – it has not closed but has moved to new premises at 285 Long Street, Cape Town. We regret the error.

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Change is vital, Sydenham rabbis say

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On Shabbat morning over Pesach, Sydenham Shul passed the leadership baton from the incomparable Rabbi Yossy Goldman to his successor, Rabbi Yehuda Stern.

For the first time in the history of the shul, there was a lectern on either side of the pulpit, and the two rabbis gave a joint drosha on the theme of transition.

They spoke of the need to hold onto our history and tradition, yet innovate. They spoke of building on what they had learnt so well until now to create an even more successful future.

“Just like the Jews of Egypt, we must always hold onto our history and traditions, and we must ensure these qualities remain with us for future generations,” Stern said.

“But while we cherish our history, we must continue to build our destiny. Innovation and creative planning for the future is vital if we are to continue to be the premier congregation in this country,” Goldman said.

He recalled a conversation with Issie Kirsh, who started Radio 702, and changed the format a year after launching the successful station. “I remember asking him, ‘Issie, if it’s not broken, why are you fixing it?’ You know what he answered? ‘In this business, if you don’t innovate regularly, people get tired and move on. As good as it may be, it needs to be refreshed frequently. It’s very easy to change stations.’

“I don’t think it’s as easy to change shuls as it is to change radio stations. But we, too, need to innovate.”

Goldman told the community it had “nothing to fear” as he would still be around for many years, but he asked it to “embrace the change”.

“Nothing is broken here either,” he said. “We’re strong, and will only grow stronger.”

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UJW announces winners of mobile meals donation drive

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Jane Klein won first prize in the Union of Jewish Women’s Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM) Donate and Win Pesach Appeal – a three-night stay at Savanna Private Game Reserve valued at R75 000. The prizes were awarded by the UJW outside Kosher Pie Works in Sandringham on 6 April. KMM supplies cooked meals to 110 mostly elderly and often very lonely members of the community who are unable to cook for themselves. These meals, packed and delivered by volunteers once a week, are made possible by donations and fundraising initiatives. Second prize went to Melanie Burman; third prize to Ann Smith; fourth prize was won by Yvonne Rimer; and fifth prize went to Shelly Stein.

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