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Heroes amidst horror: Pretoria commemorates Wesseloo family



As six lamps were lit by the heads of Pretoria’s Jewish community on Monday evening, 6 May, to remember the six million who died and commemorate Yom Hashoah 2024, the stirring soundtrack to Schindler’s List was played by violinist Anne Thill and sung by the Pretoria Hebrew Congregation choir.

A seventh lamp was also lit on behalf of the next generation by Barend Benayahu Wesseloo, the great-grandson of Barend and Lipjke Wesseloo, the recipients of a Righteous Among the Nations award by Yad Vashem in 1996.

Wesseloo converted to Judaism a few months ago. He told the community along with a large delegation of diplomats and political representatives that he had “come full circle”.

His great-grandparents had saved the lives of nine Jewish children, one the daughter of a rabbi and another, Rob, who became the “twin brother” to one of the children living in their home, and he saw it as a wake-up call to today’s generation to not be bystanders at times of baseless hatred.

Wesseloo told of miracles that his ancestors experienced, including one in which Germany bombed their town and a bomb landed on their porch but never detonated. “Inside, my great-grandparents found all their children, including Rob, huddled in a protective shield over my infant grandfather, Barend, who is present here this evening.”

He spoke of his great-grandparents having shown resilience and bravery, surviving through the fear, hunger, and loneliness, with grace. When the war ended, he said, Rob was reunited with his parents, brother, and sister, who also miraculously survived the war.

In 1955, Wesseloo’s great-grandparents relocated to South Africa and built a life here. They lived well into their 90s, and were around for the birth of 36 grandchildren and 57 great-grandchildren. Wesseloo’s great-grandfather was alive when he was born.

Gary Nowosenetz, the chairperson of the Pretoria Council of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, recalled the words of General Dwight Eisenhower after he drove his jeep into the first camp to be liberated in 1945. He called every journalist and photographer to “take pictures, because in 70 years’ time, the world will have forgotten”. Nowosenetz then held up the original Rand Daily Mail newspaper dated Tuesday, 24 April 1945, with the photographs on the front page depicting these horrors.

The intentional mass annihilation of millions of Jews was irrational, unbridled hatred, said Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation. We have a duty to remember it, be constantly vigilant, and commit to fighting this scourge whenever and wherever it surfaces.

Having just celebrated Pesach, we should heed the words in the haggadah stating that, “In every generation, they rise up to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands,” Polovin said.

“History has confirmed the sobering truth that the sages who compiled the haggadah weren’t engaging in poetic exaggeration but simply describing reality. The faces of the perpetrators and reasons for their prejudices may have differed over the centuries, but extreme hatred of Jewish people has consistently featured wherever Jews have settled.”

Reminding participants that it was seven months since 7 October 2023, when more Jews were massacred then than at any time since the Nazi death factories, Polovin said, “We came to think of such pogroms as something that happened to our forebears back in Europe, not as something that could happen in our own day.”

Ironically, Theodor Herzl’s campaign for the establishment of an independent Jewish state, which he believed would result in antisemitism dying a natural death, had become the preeminent cause of Judeopathy in our own day. “Yet it would be naïve to imagine that were Israel to cease to exist, antisemitism would perish with it.” The Jewish world today feels betrayed by the civilization in which it had once placed its trust, Polovin said, including by the genocide case at the International Court of Justice.

However, the overall picture wasn’t bleak. “Jews today are no longer a homeless and helpless minority subject to the whims of tyrannical governments. Our ancestral homeland, the land of Israel, continues to survive and thrive in spite of the unending attempts by its enemies to eradicate it. Importantly, the world at large isn’t against us. We’ve experienced support for Israel and Jews in general by many, including by the governments of many countries, foreign embassies, political parties, religious leaders, and individuals.”

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  1. Joseph

    May 9, 2024 at 11:57 am

    I fail to understand why the Jews who have suffered and been oppressed by the Nazis, are able to inflict pain and sufferings on innocent Palestinian.
    I watched the movie The Nuremberg trials as a teenager, this left a lasting impression on me as well as sympathy and support for the Jewish cause.
    Right now I am horrified at the way they are treating Palestinians

  2. Anne Roux

    May 10, 2024 at 8:24 am

    I am a Christian who comes from Jewish ancestors traced back to Spain. My Jewish ancestors fled from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and settled in Lithuania. It saddens me that so much hatred is still alive and well between Jew and non Jew today. The conflict between Israel and Palestine and killing of innocent children, women and men on both sides is totally unacceptable. We as human beings should hang our heads in shame before God.

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