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Holocaust remembrance more poignant than ever




Granted this year was a milestone, being the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps. Social media was alive with posts about the Holocaust from Jewish and non-Jewish people. I don’t recall such a response before.

I was asked by people from outside the community whether we were writing about remembrance day. One of the most startling memes I saw (and posted) was a photograph of a sweet, smiling little boy named Istvan Reiner from Hungary who was said to have been murdered in Auschwitz a few days after the photograph was taken. Under the photograph were the words, “If we held a moment of silence for every victim of the Holocaust, we would be silent for eleven and a half years.” It’s so accurate and chilling. The vast number of Jews killed – six million – is so hard for our brains to compute because it’s just so many innocent souls taken from us.

On Monday, I read a Facebook post by South African photographer Eric Miller describing his visit to Auschwitz a number of years ago. He describes “a room filled with brushes. Hair brushes, tooth brushes, shaving brushes, countless types and shapes of brushes”. Then, there is the “room filled with worn leather suitcases, each neatly, meticulously labelled with the owner’s name, place of origin, and camp number”.

But the enormity of the horror and loss hit me most when he wrote about the “room filled roof high with hair, used by the Germans for making mattresses. The hair is all grey.” Miller wrote that his guide explained the hair wasn’t grey because it belonged to elderly people, but from the Zyklon-B gas used in the gas chambers.

The inhumanity of this is impossible for me to understand. What makes people able to do this to other people? How did they not see the humanity in the eyes of those they were about to kill and stop doing so? How did they not have nightmares after the first time that made it impossible to carry on?

I have always believed I was quite fortunate not to have lost family in the Holocaust, as my grandparents and great-grandparents came out to South Africa from Lithuania before the war.

However, on Tuesday morning, that myth was dispelled when a cousin a few times removed in America posted on Facebook the names of 15 members of our family, all with the surname Krost, who she knew to have been killed in the Holocaust. “There are at least a dozen more that we are unable to account for who were still in Lithuania in 1941,” she wrote.

I went cold reading the rest of her post, but then I realised that actually it isn’t possible to be Jewish and untouched by the Holocaust. When 6 000 000 are removed from a minority group, two-thirds of all the Jews in Europe, it has a permanent impact on all of us. Today, there is estimated to be 14.6 million Jews in the world, a bit more than double those who were annihilated in the Holocaust.

And yet, there are people who get tired of hearing Jewish people discussing the Holocaust. Some say we should get over it.

And now we are at a precipice again, with anti-Semitism increasing around the world.

This is another reason for this year’s commemoration being so much more poignant and distressing. It seems like humanity is fast forgetting the horror of what was done to Jews. Surely, the world will never let it happen again?

On Tuesday, I stumbled onto a post written by a fellow South African journalist, someone I had worked with at Independent Newspapers years ago, who wrote, “I wonder if those people who get irritated by black people talking about white racism get as irritated when the world (not just Jews) talks about the fact of Nazi death camps, as it is happening now. Do they tell the Jews to ‘get over it’, like they tell us?”

Without getting into comparisons, I told him that not only do people tell Jews to get over it, but there are many who deny the Holocaust ever happened, or laud Hitler for what he did to us.

He didn’t believe that anyone said those things publicly in South Africa. Would that he were correct, and all those ugly cases we write about, and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) takes on, would go away!

However, the truth is that while the world is feeling the rise of this ugly scourge, the SAJBD has recorded a reduction in anti-Semitic attacks in South Africa. This is really good news! Does it mean anti-Semitic sentiment is dropping off in South Africa? I’m not sure, especially when it come to the so-called “new anti-Semitism”, namely hatred of Jews through what appears to be politically correct demonisation of the Jewish state.

May we find a way to get rid of all racism and hatred. It certainly doesn’t serve us or anyone else.

Shabbat Shalom!

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