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Holocaust parody at UCT ‘intended to offend Jews’



South African Jews were horrified this week at the erection of a deeply offensive sculpture on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus on 2 April that mocks the horror inflicted upon Jews during the Holocaust.

Fine arts student Ylara Salie made a copy of the bronze memorial plaque at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, which said, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.”

On her version, she placed the word “Israel” over the words “the Nazis”, the number “28 000” over the words “one and a half million”, the word “Muslim” over the word “Jews”, the word “Gaza” over “various countries of Europe”, the word “Palestine” over the words “Auschwitz-Birkenau”, and the date “1948-” over the date 1940-1945, implying that her version of a “Holocaust” began in 1948. She then called on students to adopt the Jewish memorial custom of placing pebbles on the plaque, which she titled, “Never Again”.

This sculpture appeared a week after anti-Israel students and members of the public harassed and hurled abuse at Jewish students during so-called “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW).

“The sheer unapologetic antisemitism at UCT has gone too far,” said South African Union of Jewish Students Western Cape (SAUJS WC) Chairperson Erin Dodo, speaking in her personal capacity. “How do you expect Jewish students to react to seeing their history literally erased for the purpose of an art project?”

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism used by most countries in the world makes it clear that “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is antisemitic.

“The parody of the Auschwitz-Birkenau monument that appeared today on UCT campus goes beyond merely falsifying history for ideological purposes,” read the SAUJS WC statement released on 2 April, calling for the sculpture’s permanent removal. “It’s a deliberate distortion of past realities with an aim of causing maximum hurt to Jewish people.

“When protests against Israel take so ugly a form, it’s clear that anti-Jewish bigotry is at the core of these protests rather than any valid concern about justice and human rights.”

The sculpture has since been removed. It’s unclear if Salie had permission to erect it, but Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies (Cape SAJBD) Executive Director Daniel Bloch said the Cape SAJBD was investigating the matter.

“The Cape SAJBD believes in freedom of expression,” said Chairperson Adrienne Jacobson. “However, the student at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts, which is part of UCT, has crossed the lines between innovative artwork and that which is offensive and hurtful.

“The use of the Holocaust plaque is highly insensitive and is disrespectful to the memory of the six million Jews who were systematically executed by the Nazis,” said Jacobson. “While we mourn all loss of life and believe the death of Palestinian civilians is tragic, it doesn’t give anyone the right to diminish the atrocities of the Holocaust. We’re engaging with Michaelis, and will be investigating this matter further.”

Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies, said, “The ‘artwork’s’ message is doubly offensive. It invokes and literally overwrites the sacred memory of those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And it lays the terrible price of the war in Gaza at the feet of the Jewish people – not Hamas, not Israel, but Jews. Given that UCT commits to principles and policies designed to advance inclusivity and respect and is otherwise intolerant of prejudice, I trust that the university will take appropriate action.”

Jakub Nowakowski, the director of the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre, said, “While the creator of this art project claims in her ‘artist statement’ that history repeats itself, we must make it clear that actually, it doesn’t. In spite of the fact that after Auschwitz, the world witnessed other acts of genocide, never ever again was a site like Auschwitz-Birkenau created.

“The plaque that the project is based on is situated at the very end of the train track, which was purposely built in 1944 to allow for a more efficient process of killing more than 400 000 Hungarian Jews. It was almost 80 years ago, in May of 1944, when that mass-murder process began. The process of killing took place in gas chambers, which served no other goal but killing. The bodies were burned in crematorium ovens that served no other purpose than burning bodies. In such a way, 400 000 Hungarian Jews were killed in less than three months.

“Using the memory of those who suffered and died in such a place for an art project distorts history and reveals the author’s lack of understanding of basic historical facts. It’s also problematic because today, we understand how damaging it is to appropriate anyone’s suffering. There’s no doubt that the innocent victims of every conflict deserve remembrance. However, this shouldn’t come at the expense of the memory of anyone else, including the more than one million Jews and tens of thousands of other victims who are remembered at Auschwitz.”

Benji Shulman, the director of public policy at the South African Zionist Federation, said, “One of the cruellest aspects of the new antisemitism is its perverse use of the Holocaust as a stick to beat Jews. Our enemies make use of the Holocaust to criticise Israel and the Jews by equating Israel with Nazi Germany, and to characterise the Holocaust as a moral lesson from which the Jews have failed to learn.

“The accusation of genocide during the Israel-Hamas war is a false narrative,” he said. “According to retired British Colonel Richard Kemp, the average combatant-to-civilian death ratio is about 1 to 1.5. This is astonishing since according to the United Nations, the average combatant-to-civilian death ratio in urban warfare has been 1 to 9. It’s concerning that the artist, who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, is unable to differentiate genocide from war.”

“My inspiration came from Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Salie, a third year sculpture student at UCT, wrote in her artist statement. “I visited the camp in December 2023. I couldn’t understand how the same group of people that endured the horrors of the Holocaust was perpetuating the same violence against another group of people. The piece was created with the intention of showing the irony of the plaque I saw at Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

Salie saw no irony in the fact that the war was started by Hamas after it perpetrated the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, on 7 October.

Responding to SAUJS’s statement, she said she was “being silenced” by “the weaponisation of antisemitism”.

The virulently antisemitic and terrorist-supporting UCT Palestinian Solidarity Forum (UCT PSF) said the artistic statement wasn’t “meant to offend anyone besides the genocide supporters and Zionists in disguise. If the shoe fits, wear it.”

On the same day, the UCT PSF said it supported a post titled “Reject normalisation, support the resistance: we don’t want peace, we want freedom. We don’t want to live side-by-side, we want the settlers to leave our land. There’s no conversation to be had.”

Along with abusing Jewish students during IAW, the UCT PSF invited Hezbollah and Houthi leaders to address UCT students via video calls. The Cape SAJBD continues to engage with the university to investigate these events.

UCT told the SA Jewish Report it was looking into the matter, but wasn’t able to respond by the deadline given.

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  1. CJB

    Apr 4, 2024 at 11:31 am

    Charge her with hate speech. Simple

  2. Gary

    Apr 4, 2024 at 3:06 pm

    What a disgusting piece of work this ”artist” Salie is. and the same gos for the PSF, If they dont want peace then they mustn’t whine they feel the effects of war

  3. Abigail Sarah

    Apr 4, 2024 at 6:59 pm

    I will never set foot on the piece of garbage that UCT has become, along with all institutions in this wretched country

  4. Abraham Birkenhau

    Apr 5, 2024 at 8:32 am

    There needs to be much more criticism and satire on Jews in art.

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