Digging up memories among Parliament’s charred embers
When the fires swept through the Houses of Parliament on 2 January, I had many thoughts, both historical and personal.
First, I thought back on other great legislatures put to the match.
The most notorious, of course, was the Reichstag Fire in Berlin in February 1933 at the seat of the German Parliament. This act of arson by a Dutch communist (though unproved suggestions of Nazi involvement persist), Marinus van der Lubbe. The fire, which gutted the legislature, provided Hitler with the excuse to rule via decree, abolish most civil liberties, and entrench his party with an artificial majority in Parliament through the proscription of its communist members. The rest, as the following 12 years bore rueful witness, is history.
Across in Britain, its famous House of Commons, “the Mother of Parliaments” or the Palace of Westminster was largely decimated by fire in October 1834 after an act of carelessness by officials who decided to burn obsolete pieces of wood, tally sticks, in a furnace unsuited for such purpose. The resulting chimney fire ignited the woodwork, and, in quick succession, the House of Lords and St Stephen’s Chapel were destroyed, and the House of Commons devastated. And then during the war unleashed by Hitler, more than a century later, the House of Commons was set on fire by incendiary bombing, one of 14 such air raids which hit Parliament.
Of the personal, I thought back to all the history I had witnessed from the football-stadium like National Assembly: the FW de Klerk speech of February 1990; the Mandela presidential election in May 1994; and the link between those two epic events: the enactment of the Constitution two years later in 1996. Before I joined the chamber, there was, of course, the assassination in the Old Assembly in September 1996 of HF Verwoerd and back in September 1939, the fateful and narrow decision to enter World War II. The ghosts of history loomed large over the place.
My very first day in Parliament, having been elected MP for Houghton the previous September, was in fact on 2 February 1990, the day De Klerk turned South African history, and the National Party’s (NP’s) 46-year argument against it, on its head. Many other addresses followed in its wake, but few had the thermo nuclear intensity of that single 40-minute opening address.
Ironically, my last visit to Parliament, just two weeks before the fire gutted its premises, was on 12 December last year to its visitors’ centre to receive accreditation for the memorial service for De Klerk who died in November. I had no idea that 120 years of institutional and architectural history would end so soon in the fury of fire.
The editor asked for some memories, for that is what remains from the embers of Parliament’s immolation, of some of the Jewish MPs who served there. Today, South African Jews have practically disappeared from public life in the country, the fine example of veteran Gauteng MPL Jack Bloom notwithstanding, and there are likely no more than two national MPs from the tribe.
Back at the dawn of democracy here, and before then at the time of the De Klerk speech, there were many more. I was the only Jewish MP who served as leader of the opposition, but the liberal opposition cause was exceptionally well served by stand-out legislators Helen Suzman and Harry Schwarz and before the current era by Bertha Solomon and Morris Kentridge, for example.
Before the African National Congress’s advent to power, which resulted in several Jewish originating members – Joe Slovo and Ronnie Kasrils – obtaining cabinet rank and Gill Marcus being appointed a deputy minister, there were only two Jewish members of cabinet ever appointed: Henry Gluckman for the United Party before the war, and Louis Shill in the dying days of the NP government. Shill was also emblematic of an under reported aspect of the apartheid era: the fact that the Jewish community generally voted against the NP government didn’t prevent some leading members from its ranks serving as NP Members of Parliament.
If the official version, or what passes for it here amid a welter of contradictory and half-baked explanations for the fire which gutted our own Parliament, is to be believed, a single Cape Town vagrant put the National Assembly to the torch.
John Maytham, the talk radio host on Cape Talk, precisely demarcated the twin tracks on which the current catastrophe should be railed: the first is who did it and why? Was the ever-handy alibi of some destructive “third force” or “counter revolutionary” element operating as a sinister hidden hand behind the blaze?
The second track is how could it be that a national key point, the structure which houses our democratic legislature and pinnacle of our constitutional order, was so open to attack: where were the guards? Why did the fire alarm not operate? Why did no sprinklers activate to douse the flames and cauterise their spread? Why did the fire doors, recently installed, not close?
There are no ready answers to these essential questions. Or the answers to hand suggest that the immolation of Parliament is simply the latest, most destructive example of an incapacitated state, peopled by absentee incompetents, and littered with negligent disdain by the officials charged with safeguarding our vital institutions.
In a strictly political sense, our invertebrate president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is guilty of some culpability. He, either deliberately, or more likely with utter carelessness, simply allows one underperforming or grossly negligent minister or another to hopscotch from one portfolio to the next, heedless of the destruction which follows in their wake. Lacking the will or the courage to fire ministerial miscreants, he allows them to continue to re-enact their incompetence or worse at a different site of power. More concerned with retaining power than using it for the public good, Ramaphosa bares considerable blame for the decimation of the state and its finest institutions, such as the 120-year-old seat of Parliament in Cape Town.
The key figure in the parliamentary fire saga is of course the speaker of Parliament. She is charged directly with superintendence of the institution. According to Parliament’s own website, she is both the “custodian” and the preserver of “the integrity of Parliament”. The destruction of literally the bodily integrity of the legislature might on any reading be high on the list of a failure of core function for the speaker. She simply shrugged off any accountability.
History offers a voice from the past relevant to the smouldering ashes from our latest site of ruin. In 1790, reflecting on the French Revolution and its men of zeal and their destructiveness, Edmund Burke suggested: “You had all these advantages … but you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society and had to begin everything anew. You began ill because you despised everything that once belonged to you. You set up your trade without capital.”
In our case this includes the Houses of Parliament, now a burnt-out memory.
- Tony Leon was a Member of Parliament from 1989 to 2009, and served as leader of the official opposition from 1999 to 2007, the only Jewish South African to occupy this office. He was leader of the Democratic Alliance and Democratic Party from 1994 to 2007.
Lithuania, admit it, my grandfather was a monster
The woman I thought I was prior to beginning my research for The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal no longer exists.
That woman was proud to be a Lithuanian, basking in the can-do attitude of the people who overcame so much to be who they are today – a free and independent nation that’s part of the European Union and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).
While growing up in Chicago in a Lithuanian community, I was raised to love Lithuania and to do all I could to help the country that was then occupied by the Soviet Union. It’s one of the reasons I decided to become a journalist – it fed my fantasy of writing about this small country so the rest of the world could hear about it.
I started out as the granddaughter of Jonas Noreika, a Lithuanian hero who fought against the Communists in 1941 and won, and who fought again against the Communists in 1946, and lost.
He was arrested by the KGB, taken to their prison, tortured, and then shot twice in the back of the skull. Having died a martyr for Lithuania’s freedom, he has a school and streets named after him as well as the Cross of the Vytis, the highest honour anyone can receive posthumously.
As a young girl, I believed my grandfather to be one of the most splendid heroes of all time. As an adolescent, I was proud to be connected to his glorious name. But then, as an adult, the unspeakable truth of my grandfather’s role in Lithuania’s Holocaust was revealed to me.
It started out as just a whisper of a rumour that Jonas Noreika was involved in killing Jews, and eventually, I reluctantly confirmed that it was much more than hearsay.
I looked at countless documents, spoke to his colleagues and family members, and pieced his life together, careful to take note of what was going on around him while he was in charge. To my dismay, I concluded that everywhere he was in charge during the Nazi occupation, thousands of Jews were murdered.
The woman I have become after diligently conducting an investigation into my grandfather’s life is radically different. Today, I have come to accept that I’m the granddaughter of a Lithuanian monster, one who participated in the murder of 8 000 to 15 000 Jews in Plungė, Telšiai, and the district of Šiauliai.
While in Plungė, he was the komandantas (commander), and ordered the killing of 2 000 Jews. He was also in charge in Telšiai, and sanctioned the killing of 2 000 Jews there. While governor of the Šiauliai district, he facilitated the murder of 4 000 Jews as well as working to distribute their property.
The government of Lithuania is engaged in Holocaust denial and revisionism, and heralds him as a national hero. He enjoys mythological status in the country. An intricate web of lies has been written about him while totally negating his horrendous deeds. What the government of Lithuania has done regarding my own grandfather is one of the greatest criminal cover-ups in history.
Truth and reconciliation
As a practicing Catholic, I simply had to do the right thing – write the truth no matter how painful and shameful it was. My greatest hope is that this book will light the flame of truth for Lithuania to recognise the terrible history of the Shoah as it unfolded in 1941.
Once this is truly recognised, and it will take time, it will allow the crucial healing process to begin for all Lithuanians. True reconciliation between Lithuanians and Jews can be based only on truth.
I know that I’m not responsible for my family and national guilt. Nonetheless, I feel humiliation, guilt, remorse, and overwhelming sadness.
I promise I’ll do everything I can to make certain that the truth about my grandfather will be the only story of his life. The little girl that never met her grandfather but was raised to idolise him is now grown up and willing to tell the truth.
I implore the Lithuanian government to do the same. The cover-up and rewriting of history must be brought to an end.
United Nations report on Holocaust denial
In a related development, The United Nations General Assembly released a report on Holocaust denial on 13 January 2022. Lithuania signed this report, thus agreeing to the following points:
- To reaffirm its resolution 60/7 of 1 November 2005 that remembrance of the Holocaust is a key component of the prevention of further acts of genocide, and to recall that ignoring the historical facts of those terrible events increases the risk that they will be repeated;
- To note that distortion and/or denial of the Holocaust refers, inter alia, to intentional efforts to excuse or minimise the impact of the Holocaust or its principal elements, including collaborators and allies of Nazi Germany; and
- To urge all member states to reject without any reservation any denial or distortion of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part, or any activities to this end.
My hope is that Lithuania will stop excusing and minimising my grandfather’s role in the Holocaust as a collaborator of Nazi Germany who worked enthusiastically to murder thousands of Jews under his watch.
- Silvia Foti is author of the memoir, The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal, released by Regnery History in March 2021. The paperback is coming out with a new title in June 2022: Storm in the Land of Rain: A Mother’s Dying Wish Becomes Her Daughter’s Nightmare. The book is also being released in Lithuanian in February 2022 during the Vilnius Book Fair, titled Vėtra Lietaus šalyje: Jono Noreikos anukės pasakojimai.
If there were distinctions for character, we would have a full house
Matric results. Words that conjure up a plethora of emotions within the Jewish community – the students, their families, teachers, and many excited onlookers. It’s these results that are the culmination of a 12-year journey through the schooling system, representing graduation from one phase of life to the next. For many students, it’s these results that dictate the career path they take. High stakes indeed.
This has been the status quo of matric for decades. It would have been inconceivable two years ago how the educational landscape would change and how matric students would have faced this most important year compounded with additional challenges unlike any group before them. The class of 2021 had their entire Grade 11 and Grade 12 years within a pandemic which was disruptive to say the least. Unpredictable educationally, unsettling socially, and often traumatic emotionally. These results are historic. These students have made history.
Though the results are a testament to the immense talent we have in our community and the superb instruction in the Jewish school system, they speak volumes about the tenacity, will, resilience, and commitment of our youth. They reveal the real success of matric, which is often overlooked.
Matric isn’t a factory for results that adorn the papers and gives parents nachas and schools pride. Matric is a training ground for character development.
This generation is often derided as lazy, self-centred, entitled, and fickle. They are immersed in their screens and their social lives take place primarily in the virtual realm, robbing them – so we say – of meaningful, deep relationships and the ability to connect.
However, perhaps we’re viewing them and the importance of school through a distorted lens. Perhaps this matric class and this generation have the exact temperament and skill set needed to progress, lead, and change our world. Particularly a post-pandemic world.
The pandemic has thrust the world into a state of flux. Our new reality of unpredictability has exposed the fallibility and frailty of governments and industry leaders as they scramble for solutions to contain and reassure their anxious populations and stakeholders. The systems and processes that provided security and predictability for so long no longer do so.
Another critical failing that has been exposed over the past two years is inequality. Rich nations have monopolised vaccine supplies to the detriment of poorer countries. Wealthier citizens have had the ability to respond to the educational, financial, and social consequences of COVID-19, while those below the poverty line continue to languish in its wake with little sign of redemption from these hardships.
This is the context in which our superb class of 2021 is graduating. A world that’s confused, rudderless, and deeply unequal.
When I reflect on my matric experience, it looked fundamentally different to that experienced by students today. I worked hard, but not as hard as them. Acceptance to the course of my choice was a virtual guarantee, not because I was smart, but because there was little competition and there weren’t rigorous quota requirements. I recognised that we were privileged to have attended excellent schools like King David, but I don’t think I was aware of South Africa’s complexity and the challenges it would face as a new democracy. There was a sense of optimism for the future.
Today’s matric students in our Jewish schools work harder then all those that came before them. They face stiffer competition, quota systems, a tougher job market, and a world of uncertainty. They constantly push themselves to achieve greater results, often experiencing tremendous pressure, to ensure that they increase their chances of future success (we will leave discussions about extra-lessons for another time). They have navigated a pandemic and managed to learn online, socialise, and collaborate online – something that has no precedent in modern times.
They have grown up in South Africa, a country in desperate need of leadership. The headlines of corruption, state capture, poverty, inequality, and poor service delivery have been their reading material and Shabbat table talk. They are aware of and encounter this reality daily.
It’s with this perspective that I believe that today’s students are poised to make their mark on society – aided by their matric experience and what it is at its core.
Their social-media exposure has increased the social challenges they have faced, but also, paradoxically, it has helped to develop character. They have been exposed to the entire world – its opportunities and shortcomings – and are more in touch with trends in technology, business, social welfare, (and selfie technique), all in the palm of their hands, more than their parents ever were.
The combination of tenacity and determination needed to pass matric in the face of historic obstacles, the rapid development of digital skills, a flexible mindset, and the awareness of the problems the world faces have truly created – by default and design – a group of young people who have the skills to be the future leaders of our world.
We need a new generation of leaders who understand the digital world and its unlimited promise. Leaders who are empathetic to the plight of others, who are moral and ethical. Leaders who are entrepreneurial and flexible. Leaders who aren’t afraid to work hard, who roll up their sleeves to get the job done.
It’s hard to predict what matric might look like in the future once this pandemic has left us. What we can know with certainty is that our students will need to work harder than ever before, and they will need to be supported by their families and our schools to do so. They will need to increase their skills in the digital sphere and in entrepreneurship, to have more opportunities to do outreach, and more opportunities to develop character and empathy.
Our students have developed these skills on their journey through our Jewish schools, but particularly in matric. While their amazing results are the metric for their hard work and the dedication of their teachers and parents, there’s sadly no objective measure of the character, empathy, and flexibility they have gained over the course of this year. We cannot give them distinctions for being outstanding people of immense potential – but if we could they would get a full house.
Rabbi Chanina in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 3:14) says, “Whoever is fear of sin precedes their wisdom, then their wisdom will last. If their wisdom precedes their fear of sin, their wisdom will fade.” These wise words indicate that in the eyes of the Torah, character and ethical behaviour are both a prerequisite for and the foundation of sustained wisdom. Only results built upon character have lasting value.
I have often been asked whether matric is easier now than it was back then due to the high number of distinctions. I believe that it’s harder than ever. Our kids from this oft-derided generation are just better than we were in more ways than we realise.
- Rabbi Ricky Seeff is the general director of the South African Board of Jewish Education and former principal of King David Primary School Victory Park.
Israel’s path from dream to fear and back again
The dream was simple: Israel’s victory in the 1967 war would lead to victory over war itself.
Many back then believed that the trajectory of the Jewish people would undergo an enlightened shift after the 1967 Six-Day War. The Golan Heights, as well as Judea and Samaria and the Sinai Peninsula, were now in Israel’s hands. Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, which had previously held these territories, now demanded their return. Many saw this desire on the side of the Arabs as an opportunity for the Israelis: for the first time in history, we held solid bargaining chips that if acted upon wisely, could be traded in as part of a peace agreement. The dream was simple: Israel’s victory in the war would lead to victory over war itself.
Peace was thought to alter not just Israel’s fate but also the fate of the Jewish people. Israel would cease to be an isolated state, rather becoming an integral part of the Middle East, and once completely integrated, would also be fully accepted by Europe and the entire West.
By taking destiny into our own hands, Jews’ two-millennia-long estrangement from humanity would finally come to an end, and we would be accepted into the family of nations.
However, it appeared there was another way to reap the benefits of victory. Israel could settle the land rather than exchanging it for peace. Many felt this would transform Jewish history from the bottom up. According to this perspective, a nation isn’t connected to itself when it lives outside of its own land. In other words, there will be a crack in the nation’s soul if the nation’s present doesn’t unfold in the same places as its history.
The early memories of the Jewish people were forged in places like Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, and Nazareth, and Israel’s triumph in the 1967 war allowed Jews to return to these areas of the historic homeland. This would establish a living link between the past and the present, and was seen as a process allowing the Jewish people’s wounded and traumatised psyche to heal. It was thought that repairing the nation and settling on ancient soil would also cure the future.
The conflicting ideas behind these two dreams is noticeable, yet they were both supported by a fundamental agreement. Both parties felt that by properly leveraging wartime victory, they could alter the future of the Jewish people.
They had one more thing in common: they were both proven incorrect.
This isn’t a statement to be taken lightly. Israel’s inability to achieve peace by no means fell solely at the feet of the Jewish state. In fact one could argue successfully that continued Palestinian rejection of any two-state solution on offer is what has led to the status quo. Regardless of one’s view, as time passed, these dreams began to fade and more and more Israelis broke free from these two beliefs.
So, what happened to the dreams? To begin with, both the Israeli left and right shifted. Many on the left gave up hope that a peaceful diplomatic solution to the Middle East’s problems was on the horizon. The right was likewise altered. The majority of the right no longer thinks that settlement, even if it fulfils prophecies, will result in tomorrow’s redemption.
There’s another distinct difference – the “blame-game”. Ever since the Second Intifada, many on the left have talked less about peace and more about the harm done by the occupation. Also ever since the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the right has talked less about redemption and more about the security threat.
Essentially, in spite of your views on settlement, solution, peace, and security, which traditionally placed you on one side of the aisle or the other, today’s divisions are often based on who is deemed more responsible and essentially to blame for the conflict.
The left’s prevalent position today is that if Israel remains in the territories and continues to govern over a Palestinian civilian population, it will suffer three consequences: moral degradation, diplomatic isolation, and demographic loss.
Most demographers anticipate that the day will soon come when Jews will no longer form a majority in Israeli-controlled territory. Hence, once the Jews become a minority in their own land, it will cease to be their land.
The right frequently responds to this demographic argument with denial, citing alternate demographers which estimate that the Jewish majority isn’t in jeopardy. Even if that’s true, and Palestinians account for “just” 40% of the country’s population, it would be difficult to designate such a country as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
In other words, the desire to cling to the land of Israel defies the self-definition of the state of Israel. One is inclined to admit that this argument possesses tremendous weight.
It’s fascinating to observe how the right and left have become mirror images of each other. The right no longer believes that settling the land will bring redemption, but says withdrawing will bring disaster. The left no longer believes that withdrawing from the territories will bring redemption, but says remaining there will bring disaster. The left and right have undergone similar processes: they have both moved from dreams to fears.
However, new processes have begun to form, the Abraham Accords for one. Those at the centre of the “dreams and fears” debacle seem to have found mutual ground by attempting to replace paralysis with pragmatism.
Though this is based less on a romanticised vision of peace or redemption and rather economics and mutual agreement of the military threat Iran poses to the region, this too, if acted upon wisely, could lead to Israel becoming a fully integrated and accepted part of the Middle East.
As divided as Israeli politics appears, one finds a basic consensus in the needs, desires, and demands of the everyday person on the street regardless of their affiliation.
So, perhaps the dreams aren’t dead but in a process of renewal. Maybe they’re less philosophical and more based on realism, which could be argued is a positive step. Maybe the romantic dreams lie not in political ideology but in the daily exchanges and normalisation between Israeli and Arab citizens from countries that currently constitute the Abraham Accords, and in the hope that more will join soon.
- Samuel Hyde is a political writer based in Tel Aviv, Israel. As an op-ed columnist he has been published in publications both within Israel, the United States, and South Africa focusing on topics such as Israel’s political climate, antisemitism, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Jewish world, conflict resolution, and Jewish pluralism.
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