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Change is always possible against all odds

Welcoming a capacity audience to the biannual Zionist campaign for 2014/5, in Houghton, Johannesburg, last week, WIZO SA President Tamar Lazarus spoke of continuing the 100 year tradition of women’s Zionist activity.






 Pictured: Dr Bernd Wollschlaeger.

The hugely successful fundraising evening focused on turning lives around.

Guest speaker, Dr Bernd Wollschaeger, epitomised this theme. A Florida-based physician, his illustrious career pales in comparison to his life story. “I’ve been unable to speak about my life before,” he said. “I was so ashamed. How could I say I’m an Israeli citizen, a Jew, but my father was a Nazi?

“I was born in a Catholic town in South Germany called Bamberg. When I was about seven, I noticed adults didn’t talk about recent history. I knew 13 years before I was born, there was a war. Eventually my parents had to break their silence.  

“My father was one of the German army’s youngest tank commanders, a major in an elite tank unit, under General Heinz Guderian. Hitler awarded him the Knight’s Cross. For a child, it was clear cut: he was a hero.

“My mother told me a different story: in that war she lost everything dear to her, including my grandparents. An ethnic German from Czechoslovakia, she fled with her family from Soviet troops.

“In our house, there was a photograph of an officer on the wall. It belonged to our landlady, who my mother called ‘the Countess’. When I asked my father about him, he called him ‘the Traitor’.”

Wollschlaeger discovered that his landlady was Nina von Stauffenberg, widow to the man in the photograph, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, the colonel who led a failed assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944. He was executed.

“From her, I learnt of a Germany where men like my father and her husband made choices.

“At school, we learned that democratically elected Nazis established a brutal dictatorship. We learned that 80 million people died in the Second World War, including six million Jews. And then came the summer of 1972.”

He described the massacre of Israeli athletes in that year’s Olympic Games in Munich. “When news broke after hostage negotiations, that the kidnapped athletes were murdered, there was a headline: ‘Jews were again killed on German soil’.

 “My father said: ‘It means nothing. In our house we don’t talk about Jews.’ Perplexed, I asked him about the Holocaust; he told me my teachers were lying Communists. I didn’t know who to believe. I started voraciously reading anything about Jews; the more I read, the more I realised maybe my father was one of those who killed Jews.

“One night, he admitted it. He said killing Jews was necessary; they had to be purged from society. It was the last straw: I turned away from him.”

At 19, Wollschlaeger joined a project in which young Israelis came to Germany. “When they left, I wanted to visit them in their country.” Which he did. A friend’s father took him to Yad Vashem. “There I was really introduced to the Shoah. I was ashamed, curious as to what made Jews, Jews. I decided to enter the Jewish world.”

He returned to Bamberg where he came across an elderly Jewish community. “‘Be the Shabbos goy’, said Yitzchak Rosenberg, its chairman,” embracing Wollschlaeger’s idiosyncratic stubbornness to become a Jew.

There followed a difficult seven-year path into Judaism. “It was an intimidating character test and a very important day when I was presented as a Jew in the Rabbinical Court of Europe in 1986.

“In 1987, I took a one-way ticket to Israel. While being sworn in as an IDF officer, I asked myself if I was still my father’s son. Telling my story lifted a weight from me. Soon after, I went to visit my parents – by this time they were buried in Germany.

“Embracing Judaism helped me realise we all have choices. Words of hate can sprout into deeds; unchallenged deeds can become habits. Tolerated habits can influence character formation, which can become norms.

“It explains but doesn’t excuse how Germans looked away while millions died. As a society, we don’t learn. It’s easier to hate than take a corrective stance. Change is always possible against all odds.”

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Cemetery in sad state & no funds for repair

The Jewish cemetery in Roodepoort on the West Rand is in a sorry state of disrepair, with nearly a third of the tombstones broken or pushed over. There is also no wall to demarcate the area from the general cemetery. Unfortunately, no Jewish congregation remains to deal with the problem, nor are there funds available to carry out the necessary restoration.





Pictured: The sad state of disrepair at the Roodepoort Jewish cemetery, is clearly visible in this photograph.

Currently, the Country Communities Department of the SAJBD is responsible for the maintenance of over 220 cemeteries in the smaller towns and villages around the country. What makes it possible to carry out this role, however, is the availability of funds from various trusts set up by the former Jewish congregations of the areas concerned.

In the case of Roodepoort, no provision was made for the maintenance of the cemetery while there was still a functioning Jewish community in the town and no funds remain from the sale of the community’s assets after the closure of the shul. 

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, spiritual leader to the South African Country Communities, said his department was willing to take over the responsibility for maintaining the cemeteries of other congregations in the event of their closing down. This, however, was predicated on the trustees of those congregations entering into an agreement with the SAJBD to ensure that adequate resources were available for that purpose.

This would be done, as in the case of other country cemeteries, through the establishment of a trust, set up through the sale of the community’s property and other assets. It followed that the larger the cemetery, the more funds are needed to be made available.

In the case of Roodepoort, he had met with the trustees before the congregation closed and strongly advised that they make provision for their cemetery’s future maintenance. They had taken a conscious decision not to do so, and unfortunately, there was now nothing that his department could do about the situation, he said. 

Rabbi Silberhaft urged all communities outside the Greater Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban areas that had not yet made provision for the upkeep of their cemeteries, to do so as soon as possible, while they were still active and viable.

The upkeep of the final resting places of community members who had passed on, was a sacred responsibility, he stressed, and that in turn meant that the trustees of the congregations concerned needed to act responsibly when determining what to do with their community’s remaining assets.

Rabbi Silberhaft said that should they wish the SAJBD to take on that responsibility, they should contact him at to arrange for the necessary legal document to be drawn up in anticipation of the community closing. Alternatively, they could contact SAJBD Country Communities Chairman Marlene Bethlehem on  

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Ambassadors talk about Israel and Germany

On Sunday May 29, SACRED (South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity) in collaboration with the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, Bet David Progressive Synagogue and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, was an organiser of “Ambassadors in Conversation: Dealing With a Complicated Past, Creating a Common Future”.






The ambassadors in question were Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk and German Ambassador Walter Linder.

“Today relations between the two peoples are astonishing given the recent past: the German government’s position is one of ‘unconditional support’ of Israel.

“Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that ‘Germany’s support for Israel’s security is part of our national ethos, our raison d’être’. These words have been backed up by action internationally.

“She has also been on an official tour of Israel and has addressed the Knesset. Jewish life in Germany is active and supported by the government. Israelis now flock to Berlin and Merkel enjoys high popularity in the Jewish state.

“With the Holocaust still within living memory, we were honoured to host survivors in the audience who could not possibly have imagined this state of affairs 70 years ago, at the end of the Second World War.

“This is attributable to determined efforts by both countries to keep the doors of communication open without ignoring the terrible events of the Holocaust. Both ambassadors agreed that although relations between the two states will never be ‘normal’, they had been able to make significant progress in the last 70 years and that this should serve as an example to other countries and peoples dealing with painful pasts.”

The setting for the discussion was the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, whose director, Tali Nates, herself the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, was the moderator.


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Remember those who refused to be mere victims

For Yom Hashoah 2016, the international theme chosen by Yad Vashem is remembering those victims of the Holocaust who resisted being brutalised by the horrific circumstances in which they were placed, but instead strove to maintain and preserve their essential humanity.





The SAJBD, which organises the ceremonies in the seven main Jewish centres countrywide, is this year putting a particular emphasis on educating the next generation and providing it with the tools to carry remembrance of the Holocaust forward into the future.

An information pack specially geared towards young adults has been prepared for the many high school learners from both the Jewish and government schools, who are expected to attend the ceremonies.

Over the past decade and more, the keynote speakers for Johannesburg and Durban have been prominent Holocaust survivors from abroad, brought out for the occasion by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies. These have included Auschwitz prisoner Eva Schloss, whose mother later married Anne Frank’s father, Otto, Wallenberg survivor John Dobai and Ben Helfgott, who went on to become an Olympic weight-lifter.

This year’s speaker, Veronica Phillips, is from Johannesburg. Born in Budapest, Hungary, she survived years of internment in the international ghetto in her home city, the Ravensbruck, Penig and Johanneorgenstadt concentration camps and the Death Marches.

The Johannesburg and Durban programme will also include a presentation by SAJBD National President and Director of the Durban Holocaust Centre Mary Kluk, who will focus on the specific lessons that the Holocaust has for South Africa today.

The traditional Yom Hashoah programme includes alternate Hebrew-English reading of “To everyone, there is a name/Lechol ish Yesh Shem”, lighting of six memorial candles by survivors, Holocaust poetry readings and renditions of the Hazkara, Partisan Song, Ani Ma’amin, Shiviti and Hatikvah.

Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk, will deliver a message on behalf of the State of Israel and Lt Hilton Kaplan, the Soldiers’ Tribute on behalf of the SA Jewish Ex-Servicemen’s League. 

In addition, the Johannesburg ceremony will feature violinist Waldo Alexander playing the theme from the film Schindler’s List and Redhill High School pupil Gemma Davies reading an extract from her poem “Brother”, the prizewinning entry in the Writing, Poetry & Art Competition held by Chapman University, US.

Ceremonies will be held in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth on Thursday, May 5 and in Durban and Bloemfontein on the following Sunday (May 8). The date of the East London ceremony is still to be confirmed.

SAJBD Gauteng Council Chairman Shaun Zagnoev will preside over the proceedings in Johannesburg which will take place as usual at the Martyr’s Monument in West Park Cemetery, at 12:30.

* For further information on the Yom Hashoah ceremonies around the country, contact (Johannesburg) Shirley Beagle, (011) 645-2583; (Cape Town) Gwynne Robins, (021) 464-6700; (Durban) Roseanne Rosen, (031) 335-4452; (Pretoria) Diane Wolfson, (012) 346-8792; (Port Elizabeth) Michael Simmons (041) 373-7433; (Bloemfontein) Leah Chabas, (051) 436-2207, and (East London) Ellen Ettinger, (043) 748-4481.


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