Holocaust remembrance becoming a political football
Israel hosted on Thursday its third-largest ever gathering of international leaders after the funerals of former leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. More than 45 world leaders and senior diplomats, including 26 presidents, four kings (from Spain, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg) and four prime ministers were in town to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
But the day wasn’t only about remembering the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis. Politics and power played their part.
Until this week, not many people – Israelis included – had heard of the World Holocaust Forum Foundation. It is headed by Russian billionaire, Dr Moshe Kantor, also president of the European Jewish Congress, who bankrolled the event.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the gathering as a diplomatic triumph for Israel. President Reuven Rivlin, as the official host alongside the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, held a reception and dinner for delegation heads.
The timing couldn’t have been more opportune. Hateful and violent expressions of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, continue to climb, and the event’s message that anti-Semitism has no place in our global society is more relevant than ever.
Israel hopes world leaders will adopt the official definition of anti-Semitism as formulated by the American-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It states that criticism of Zionism or the existence of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic. In recent years, Israeli leaders have worked to promote this definition as well as laws against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
On Monday, a ceremony will take place in Poland, as it does every year, to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz. I reported from the ceremony five years ago, when Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t invited to attend. Moscow saw it as a slap in the face as it was, after all, the Red Army that liberated the camp.
This week, it was Polish President Andrzej Duda’s turn to be outraged. He refused to attend the gathering held at Yad Vashem after his request to speak was turned down. In its defence, Yad Vashem said that time was short, and few world leaders addressed the gathering.
Netanyahu very much wanted Duda to attend. Israeli-Polish ties are currently fraught after the Polish parliament two years ago passed a law making it a crime to criticise Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Poland is trying to downplay – and even negate – its role in the Holocaust and the collaboration between some Poles and Nazis. The country has since revised the law, but Holocaust experts say it’s still problematic.
Duda said he was astonished that Putin was invited to talk while he was not. You might call it sweet justice, although surely a Holocaust-remembrance event isn’t the place for this. Critics say the truth is much more sinister.
Kantor, who paid for the event, is known to represent the interests of Putin in large Jewish global forums. He has brought leaders of Jewish communities throughout Europe to meet the Russian president at the Kremlin. For someone so close to Putin to be bankrolling such a forum, argues its detractors, raises suspicions as to its agenda.
They have a point. Perhaps less important for the leaders who visited Israel this week was diplomacy and relations with the Jewish state; more important was commemoration of the Holocaust and their relations with Kantor.
Some have even gone so far as to suggest that such a forum allowed Putin to present Russia as some kind of haven for Jews while portraying her rivals – the Ukraine and Poland in particular – as anti-Semitic hotspots.
But in truth for many decades, the Soviet Union didn’t mention that Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Instead, its narrative was that everyone who died was a victim of fascism and the West was fascist, not just the Germans. It was a very selective, politically convenient narrative.
In the past few years, remembrance of the Holocaust has left the realm of history and become politicised. The act of remembering is in itself political – what does one emphasise? What does one forget? How do we remember what happened?
It was former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said, “History is written by victors.” An increasing number of particularly former Soviet states are attempting to do precisely that – rewrite history.
In reality, every victorious nation has a narrative that it wishes to push. This week, Israel basically adopted Putin’s by hosting him and allowing him to be one of the main stars of this event.
For very necessary reasons, Israel needs to be on Putin’s side right now because the United States is slowly but surely withdrawing from the region, and Moscow controls the skies over Syria. Israel frequently attacks Hezbollah and Iranian Shia targets in her northern neighbour, and needs Russia to continue to turn a blind eye.
There’s also other politics at bay. Naama Issachar is an Israeli-American woman who has been held by Russia since April last year on drug charges. About 10g of cannabis was found in her luggage during a stopover in Moscow as she flew from India to Israel. She was sentenced to seven and a half years for drug smuggling, a charge she denies.
According to Israeli media, Moscow has put forward several concessions for Issachar’s freedom, including a resolution to a building dispute in Jerusalem that houses Russian pilgrims. Additionally, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Russia is seeking some sort of backing for its own narrative regarding World War II. Should Israel announce such gestures (at the time of writing it hadn’t), it won’t be long before we find out whether this was indeed the deal.
The Lithuanian president has also announced that he won’t be attending. Although he didn’t give a reason for the last-minute cancellation, it’s believed to be a gesture in support of Poland and against Russia.
The murder of Ashley Kriel
Forensic investigator David Klatzow, who for three decades campaigned to reopen the investigation into the death of anti-apartheid activist Ashley Kriel in 1987, welcomes the news that the case is being reinvestigated. He gives his opinion.
There were many crimes committed by the police in the 1980s which cry out for justice. Some made it into the headlines, but none resulted in the prosecution of the policemen who committed these crimes. Not even in the case of Steve Biko were the police sanctioned for his death. It took years to get Biko’s doctors Benjamin Tucker and Ivor Lang to be censured by the deeply apartheid medical council.
The case of Ashley Kriel is no exception to this toxic and melancholy state of affairs. Ashley was an effective political organiser in the Cape, and his activities brought him to the attention of the security police. He was a wanted man.
One day in 1987, the police received information that Kriel was hiding in a house in Athlone, and they sent Sergeant Anthony Abels and Warrant Officer Jeff Benzien to survey the house, but not to take any further action. Disobeying their orders, they knocked at the door, and when Kriel opened it, a struggle allegedly ensued.
During that struggle, according to the police, Kriel produced a firearm and, in the process of subduing him, a shot was discharged and Kriel was fatally wounded. So much for the police version.
I gave evidence at the inquest. On the bench was inquest Magistrate G Hoffman and sitting as an assessor was Theo Schwër, who was the head of forensic medicine at Stellenbosch.
Crucial to the case was the fact that there appeared to be a contact wound on Ashley’s back just alongside his shoulder blade. However, there was also a hole in the tracksuit top he was wearing. Herein lay the problem. The hole in the clothing was small, about three millimetres. Tests done by me with the same weapon and the same type of clothing using a dead pig as a backdrop, produced a significantly larger hole, about 30 millimetres in size.
Thus, the hole in the clothing didn’t match up with the alleged contact shot that was central to the police version. The police brought in their ballistics “expert”, one Willie Visser, who essentially found that a contact shot with pig skin as a backdrop produced the massive hole. This was no problem for Visser. He went about manipulating his results until, by using a sandbag as a backdrop, he could achieve the size hole in the clothing that he desired.
My comment to the court was that the only thing that this proved was that the deceased was a sandbag – the so-called reductio ad absurdum argument (a method to disprove an argument by illustrating how it leads to absurd consequences). The state pathologist, the late Deon Knobel, was no better. He performed equally fatuous and scientifically illiterate experiments to prove the police version.
What actually happened was that Kriel was shot from some distance away and Benzien, realising that this would be difficult to explain, pulled up Kriel’s tracksuit top and fired a second shot through the same entrance wound. This is the only explanation which can explain the discrepancy in the bullet-hole size in the tracksuit.
Of great sadness to me was the assessor. He should have known better. He sat through this parade of scientific nonsense without raising a question.
The failure to act fairly and to see to it that justice was administered will stand for evermore against the name of Theo Schwër, and rightly so. The magistrate, Hoffman, was typical of the apartheid apparatchiks who were all too common on the bench at the time.
Thus, the take-home message of this whole parody of an inquest was that Ashley Kriel was murdered by Benzien and Abel, and the justice system let him down.
The application by Benzien at the amnesty hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was similarly a travesty as far as the truth was concerned. The person who represented the family never thought to properly prepare any cross examination for Benzien.
The result was that Benzien continued with his false narrative, and got away with it again. That lawyer now inhabits the Cape Bench.
The climate of our courts has changed, and the re-opening if the Ahmed Timol inquest and the inquest into the death of Dr Neil Aggett have set the scene for more investigation to find the truth and punish the wrongdoers. It would be a good example to set for the current crew of corrupt policemen.
- David Klatzow was one of South Africa’s first private forensic scientists and was involved in most of the high profile cases of the 80s and early 90s, including the Helderberg plane crash, the attempted murder of Dr Frank Chikane and the murder of the Gugulethu 7.
The artist, the ConCourt judge, and RBG
The last time retired Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs saw his dear friend, United States (US) Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg was when he delivered a unique lace collar created by acclaimed South African artist Kim Lieberman at the end of 2018.
Bader Ginsburg died, aged 87, on 18 September after a long illness, and the world is mourning this political and feminist icon. Since she became the second woman ever to serve on the US Supreme Court in 1993, RBG (as she was affectionately called) has been a leading voice for gender equality, women’s interests, civil rights, and liberties.
Lieberman learnt about RBG in July 2018 and was taken with all that she stood for. Once she realised that the US judge collected and wore lace collars, she was determined to make one for her.
Lieberman described RBG as having challenged and transformed gender-based laws and perceptions for decades. “She must have been pivotal at the start of the feminist era,” said Lieberman “She continued to press issues of that nature. People celebrate her integrity and her stance, and what must be the dignified yet fierce way she had to uphold and place her value system.”
Lieberman contacted Sachs as soon as she could because she knew he was a close friend of RBG.
“I emailed him [in August 2018] about my idea, asking him if he had a route to get the lace collar to her. He said he would gladly take it to her himself if I could make it by November, as he was going to Washington DC then,” said Lieberman. She made it and delivered it to Sachs in Cape Town, and he personally took it to the already ailing US judge.
Sachs had been friends with RBG for about 20 years at the time, having met her at the US Supreme Court when gathering ideas for building the Constitutional Court in South Africa. After being introduced to her and invited to her chambers, visiting her became a “must-do” whenever he was in Washington DC.
RBG and her late husband, Marty, then came to visit Sachs in South Africa to see the Constitutional Court about 10 to 15 years ago. “She adored our court, loving the warmth and friendliness of the building,” he said. Her delight in the court Sachs was so involved in developing was his all-time favourite memory of her.
Because of him, RBG went on to write the foreword for Art and Justice, a book on the art collection of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. It turns out that an artwork of Lieberman was featured in the book.
When Sachs took Lieberman’s collar to RBG, he recalls having to wait a while to see her because, in spite of her ailing health, she was working out with her trainer. He smiles at the memory of how RBG “looked like this tiny person who would be blown away by the wind, but she had a vice-like grip and was incredibly strong”.
He recalls her opening the box with the collar in it, and her eyes lighting up. “She gasped, literally gasped. She said she was thrilled, and felt and touched the collar, and put it back on the soft, dark cushion and said, ‘Albie, I can’t wear this, it’s a work of art. I’m going to rather frame it’.”
Sachs told the SA Jewish Report this week, “Ruth was very careful that we shouldn’t take photographs of her wearing the lace collar as she didn’t want her station to be involved in anything commercial as in to promote Kim’s work.”
However, he said he was “so happy” to take the collar to RBG because he knew that Lieberman had created it for her out of deep respect for all she stood for. Also, he said, it was no coincidence that Lieberman was working in lace, and RBG was interested in lace collars. It made sense to him that she would want to give her this gift.
For Lieberman, the mission that connected her to RBG began in a mud bath on the Italian island of Vulcano. “I was chatting to an American woman I’d just met, and I mentioned that I make conceptual art and lace,” recalled Lieberman. “She asked if I’d heard of Judge Ginsburg. She told me that she wears lace collars to make political, feminist statements. You can just imagine the shivers I had. So many of the concepts she spoke of I embed in my lace works. I knew I had to make RBG a lace collar. I immediately also knew how it would look, and the concepts it would convey – the same concepts with which she imbues her own collars.”
Early on as a judge, RBG decided that as her male counterparts wore ties, she would wear feminine collars as a feminist stand. But feminism was only one part of this complex and fascinating woman, who also loved art and opera.
Sachs described his late friend as “very solid, grounded, firm, and decent” about being a judge, a woman, and a dear friend. “She had an extremely sharp mind, quick but not witty and smartassed – that wasn’t her style.
“She had a deep and profound sense of justice, being there to protect the vulnerable. So, although she became famous as a feminist legal advocate and strategist, which was central to her work, it didn’t stop her from engaging in other areas where people were being unfairly treated by the law.”
RBG recognised that people thought she offered a different vision of the world to that of Donald Trump, Sachs said. However, she “lacked bravado, and instead was thoughtful and modest and very determined to do what was right”.
September 11 indelibly imprinted in our minds
Greg Baron will never forget 19 years ago looking up after being evacuated from his hotel room in the World Trade Center complex in New York and seeing people jumping from the North Tower.
“They kept telling us not to look up, but of course we did just that,” said this Sandton resident who survived the horrific 11 September 2001 terrorist attack. “We could see people jumping from the North Tower. We heard another noise and watched as the second plane hit the building. I knew we had to get out of there as fast as possible.”
So many years later, this memory is still indelibly imprinted on this Sandton resident’s memory because he and his sister Elise survived this terrible tragedy in which 2 977 people lost their lives.
Like so many others who lived to tell the story of the collapse of New York’s iconic World Trade Center, he still asks himself why he emerged from the disaster in which terrorists forced American pilots to fly into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
This Friday marks the sombre anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies of the past two decades.
“I can still see that destruction, the plane hitting the building and solid structures disappearing in a few moments in front of my eyes,” says Baron. “I don’t think people actually comprehend the extent of what happened, the damage which was actually done and how lucky some of us are to still be here.”
Baron was visiting New York with his sister in September 2001, following their stay in Chicago where they had celebrated the wedding of their brother. The two flew to New York on 10 September, looking forward to spending a few days in the ‘Big Apple’ before returning to South Africa.
“A friend was working in the city and invited us to stay at the World Trade Center’s Marriott Hotel where he had accommodation. We took rooms on the 15th floor,” he says.
Baron and his sister spent the evening of 10 September out on the town, returning late to their hotel room. They were awoken the following morning by vibrations felt across the room and the sound of the hotel alarm system at 08:45.
“Initially, we were told to stay in our rooms,” Baron recalls. “We looked outside and noticed that the windows were cracking. I called reception, but they insisted we stay put. Suddenly, we were told to get out as fast as possible and evacuate the building.
“We ran down those flights of stairs. When we arrived at the lobby, I remember a woman still in her nightgown and hair curlers saying that she’d seen a body bounce off her room window. We were stunned.”
The lobby was soon evacuated, and guests ushered quickly outdoors where dozens of police cars and fire engines were arriving.
Baron navigated to the nearby Battery Park, located at the southern tip of Manhattan about 1½ kilometres from the site of the disaster.
“We sat at the edge of the water, and I thought that if things got really bad, we could jump in and swim towards Ellis Island,” he says. “I could see the building from where we sat for a moment, but suddenly it just vanished behind other buildings.”
The two were soon blanketed in thick dust from the collapsed building, while overhead American fighter jets roared towards the scene. Unable to contact anyone, they boarded a ferry for Staten Island and managed to make for New Jersey before heading back to New York.
After a grim week in the city, they boarded the second international flight out of New York and travelled back home to South Africa, escorted by fighter jets until they were clear of American airspace.
“I didn’t often think about what happened until recently,” Baron says. “I compartmentalised the event in the back of my brain. I don’t know why I’m still here today.”
Tragically, others from our community lost their lives in the events of that day. One is Zambian-born Edmund Glazer, a graduate of King David Linksfield who had moved to America after completing his schooling. An accomplished accountant, husband, and father, he lived in Boston with his family.
“Edmund was flying to Los Angeles on the day of 9/11,” recounts his sister, Beatrice Carter, from her home in North Carolina, USA. “He flew all over the world for his job. His wife insisted he not fly to Israel at the time because it was dangerous, but tragedy ended up happening in his own backyard. Nobody saw it coming.”
Glazer was aboard American Airlines flight 11 which was hijacked 15 minutes after take-off and flown into the North Tower at 08:46 local time. The flight manifest later showed that he was seated beside Daniel Levin, an American Israeli mathematician who was murdered when he tried to overcome the terrorists.
She continues: “Edmund always flew out on the first flight of the day, and always called me and his wife before take-off and after landing. That morning, he didn’t call me. I watched what was happening in New York, contacted his wife, and said I refused to believe it.
“As the day went on, I got the feeling that something had happened to him. Later, the FBI visited her home and confirmed that Edmund had died.”
It fell to Carter to notify her parents in Toronto, so she drove to their home and broke the difficult news in person. After spending time with them, she headed to Boston to be with her sister-in-law and four-year-old nephew. A memorial was arranged for Glazer and, although Carter anticipated a maximum of 50 people, some 500 attended the ceremony.
“He was so loved and respected within his industry,” she says. “Nobody called him an acquaintance – he was always a friend. My brother had a way of touching everyone he met, walking into a room and making an impression. He was a special soul.”
Only two bones were ever recovered of her brother’s remains, and these were flown to Toronto for burial, transported with full ceremonial honours. Carter recounts visiting his grave yearly on the anniversary of his death, sitting down to speak with him and enjoying their shared favourite, a tuna sandwich and coffee.
“I always feel his presence at this time of year,” she says. “I’m older, and we were connected from the day he was born. It never gets easier. You learn to cope, and life does go on, but I lost my closest friend that day. Over 2 000 people died that day but, to me, only Edmund died. I will always miss him.”
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