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Holocaust survivor makes case for recognition of Armenian genocide

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Nearly 100 years later, Armenians continue to struggle for full recognition of the genocide inflicted upon their nation and, in a poignant twist, one of the most profound contributors to their cause was Holocaust survivor and author, Edgar Hilsenrath.

Hilsenrath, a German-Jew who survived a Ukrainian ghetto, was responsible for a seminal novel, The Story of the Last Thought. The work spans centuries of Armenian life in contextualising and portraying the genocide that took place between 1915 and 1916, when about 1.5 million Armenians were murdered in the Ottoman Empire.

The epic novel, for which Hilsenrath received many prizes, is “regarded as one of the most important books about this history”, said University of Leeds Professor Frank Finlay in a seminar last week, held by the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre in conjunction with the Armenian Youth of South Africa.

“This book can be regarded as making a literary case for recognition of the massacres in Armenia as being a genocide.”

Its stance remains so potent, that staging it as a play in Germany in 2014, particularly the use of the word völkermord (genocide) on posters and on the theatre website, drew protesting crowds of Turkish nationals and a letter from the Turkish consul general.

Hilsenrath’s sensitive devotion to recognition of the Armenian genocide was intertwined with his own life experiences. Born in Leipzig in 1926 when the Nazis began to rise to power, he, along with other family members, tried to flee to Romania, but later were deported to the Mogilev-Podolsk ghetto in Ukraine.

After surviving the war, Hilsenrath made his way to what was then the British protectorate of Palestine, before later reuniting with family in France.

“This was quite a traumatic time for him. He started to work through the experience he had at the ghetto and at the same time, he was trying to write about them. He fell into a deep depression. Amongst other things, he arranged to have electroshock therapy.”

Hilsenrath wrote of these experiences, saying that at the heart of his struggle was the impossible guilt of having survived.

He worked doing hand-to-mouth day jobs while writing feverishly at night. His initial works were experimental craftings that dealt with his experiences in the Holocaust.

From 1951, he moved to New York until 1975, when he settled in Berlin.

His first novel, Night, was published in 1964, and caused controversy for unflinchingly detailing some of the harshest realities of the victims of the ghetto. In 1971, he published the novel The Nazi and the Barber about an SS member who pretends to be Jewish after the war in order to escape prosecution. Its use of “grotesque” humour to tackle the subject brought him fame and controversy.

Hilsenrath continued to write until his death in 2018. Out of his oeuvre, he regarded The Story of the Last Thought, published in 1989 and 20 years in the making, as his best book.

“He referred to it as his most poetic book. It was really the culmination of a lifelong study and preoccupation with Armenia; with its history and, in particular, that of the genocide,” said Finlay.

More than simply using his writing to present a historical account of events, what the author really does is “perform an act of restoration, conjuring up and memorialising a lost world through words and stories”.

Furthermore, Hilsenrath chose a particularly unusual form for the novel, titling it in German as a märchen (fairytale). Yet, he combined this with a subtitle, “Ein historischer Roman aus dem Kaukasus” (a historical novel from the Caucasus).

Finlay said that while the two genres would conventionally “appear to be at odds with one another”, in fact, they have a powerful interplay.

Indeed, Hilsenrath conducted meticulous research into every aspect of Armenian history and culture in preparation for writing. Yet the final plotline, based on the journey of “the dying 73-year-old Thovma Khatasia, as old as the genocide and one of only two members of his family to survive it” is a “kind of a magic carpet ride through time and space. We eavesdrop on conversations of historical personages and inhabit the past as it happened.”

Guided by a meddah, a genie-like magical helper, and with a refrain both in Turkish and German of “once upon a time”, the novel’s protagonist “seeks not to punish or demand retribution, but rather to uphold the monitory potential of the Armenian genocide in order to prevent similar atrocities in future”.

By the end, it fulfils the promise of its unusual paradoxical form, proving “the didactic moral purpose of all good fairy stories: while the family story is a fiction, the reader is shown that the genocide did, indeed, take place, that it meets the United Nation’s legal definition of the term and, as such, that Armenian claims for restitution are justified”.

Finlay said the work was a remarkable achievement of literature as justice. “Hilsenrath manages to convey the acts of the perpetrators and the magnitude of the suffering in a way that blends meticulously researched history with fantasy and imagination that opens up a new way of engaging with the material. It’s a way that encourages empathy.”

Indeed this “post-Holocaust depiction of a pre-Holocaust genocide” is a contribution to the ongoing exploration of and inquiry into “how we speak about the unspeakable”, posits Finlay.

In trying to grapple with the atrocities of world history, the question for writers remains, “Do we surrender before the challenge of representing that, or do we strive to find adequate literary forms to express various things that have happened?”

Hilsenrath strove to do so. As The Story of the Last Thought itself self-reflectively declares within its pages: “Sometimes one has no other choice than to seek the final truth in the imagination.”

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The miracle of the maroon handkerchief

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Seventy-eight years ago, a Jewish man gave his 17-year-old daughter a maroon handkerchief as a way to remember him. She never saw him again – he died in the Holocaust. But she survived, went to America, and recorded her testimony in 1984.

Fast forward to 2020, and 14-year-old King David Linksfield pupil Noa Nerwich is asked to write a poem for a competition based on a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. She came across Ruth Halbreich’s recording, which includes mention of the handkerchief. Nerwich wrote a poem about the handkerchief and won the competition.

A year later, Halbreich passed away. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Reg Tigerman, came across the poem in a newsletter he received, and realised it was about his grandmother. But that’s not all: soon after that, he also found the maroon handkerchief. He made contact with Nerwich [who is now 15], bringing a story that has spanned generations and continents full circle.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Los Angeles, Tigerman says, “When I discovered the poem, I was shocked. Ruth, who we affectionately called Nanny, had just passed away a few months ago. The maroon handkerchief had been a topic of conversation within our family because my wife and I revisited her testimony right after she died and talked about trying to find it.

“My mom, who was going through Nanny’s things, did end up finding it. So, not only did Noa write a poem inspired by my grandmother’s testimony, which is an honour in and of itself, but she picked up on an item she mentioned at the very end of her testimony (proving that Noa was paying very close attention), and it was something that a lot of time and attention had been spent on recently. It was a series of dayenus [it would have been enough]. A true miracle. It felt like the world was telling us how important Ruth and her story is, and how important it is to continue to share her story.”

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Halbreich was born in 1926 in Warsaw to a well-to-do family of three sisters and one brother. In 1939, their father fled with them to the Russian part of Poland, where he continued his work in the paper business. She, her father, and one sister crossed back into Warsaw, but her mother and two other siblings were sent to Siberia.

Halbreich and her family moved into the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. When the Germans started sending people from the ghetto to the camps, she and her sister were sent outside the ghetto to live in a convent. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Halbreich and her sister were sent to a slave labour camp in a small town in Germany. They were liberated in April 1945. She found out that her father had died in the ghetto in 1943, fighting in the underground. She met her husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor, at a displaced-persons camp. She also found out that her mother and two siblings had survived in Siberia.

In her testimony, Halbreich says, “The uprising was in April 1943. My father had left the ghetto in the trucks carrying merchandise. I met him in his office. He gave me a handkerchief of his to remember him by. My father’s biggest wish was to be able to save his children, and he was able to do this. He went back into the ghetto, and no one really knows what might have happened to him.”

A million miles away from that time and place, Nerwich entered the 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest run annually by Chapman University and The 1939 Society (a community of Holocaust survivors, descendants, and friends). “The brief was for a piece of creative writing based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

The poem describes the handkerchief as the only thing Halbreich has left from her father as her world is destroyed, and how it symbolises the flames of destruction and her father’s deep love.

“Hearing her story and writing the piece itself was an enriching experience,” says Nerwich. “I was thrilled when I was awarded first place, a first for King David High School. I always smile just thinking about my poem. However, a small part of me always wished that Ruth would be able to read the poem and know that her story is being shared, that she is being heard.”

So, when she received the email from Tigerman on 15 July, “it changed my life. I read it and re-read it because I was sure my eyes were deceiving me,” says Nerwich.

She was shaking as she read the email. “I felt a deep sense of loss to learn that Ruth had passed away, but I was also deeply moved to learn that her family had the gift of this poem and that Ruth’s story continues to be told. Seeing the actual picture of the maroon hankie – the last memory that Ruth had of her father, the piece of fabric that guided her throughout the horrors she endured – is an image that will be permanently engraved in my mind.”

She says she chose to reflect on this story in her poem “because I could relate to Ruth. I’m a very sentimental person. Just like Ruth’s dad gave her a red handkerchief, my dad made me red roses out of Lego, which I keep in my room. So, the fact that she mentioned the maroon handkerchief that her dad gave her really resonated with me. It made it so much more real. It’s a symbol of her story, and what she and so many others went through.”

Her mother, Daniella Nerwich, says she felt breathless when she read Tigerman’s email. “All this really shows the value of Jewish education. We are so fortunate that King David creates opportunities like this [to enter the poetry contest]. This just shows how it can be so far-reaching. So huge credit must go to King David for creating this opportunity. It has been life changing.”

Because of the pandemic, Nerwich was unable to travel to the United States to collect her prize, but Tigerman’s message has made up for that disappointment. They hope to meet in person one day, and possibly even work together to share the story of the maroon handkerchief as a form of Holocaust education.

Says Tigerman, “While my grandmother didn’t often share her story (she would if you asked, but she wasn’t very proactive about it), my grandfather [Siegfried Halbreich] was a regular speaker. He was a survivor of multiple concentration camps over the course of five and a half years. He served as president of The 1939 Society, the organisation that published Noa’s poem, and was a founder of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. Everyone’s story is worth telling and remembering, which has made the oral histories and recorded testimonies so important.”

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COVID-19 vaccination could be compulsory at workplace

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As vaccination becomes more freely available in South Africa, questions arise such as can you make vaccination compulsory and can you dismiss someone if they refuse? Do you have to allow time off to get vaccinated, and what happens if an employee has an adverse reaction? These questions and many more are new to our labour law, and will be subject to litigation over the next many years.

In terms of the department of employment and labour’s latest regulations, the minister has recognised that employers may in terms of their own internal rules make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory.

Obviously, the compulsion must be subject to certain oversight, and must be reasonable in all circumstances. The employer would have to take into account their own operational requirements, and must be able to justify that in terms of these requirements, they would expect employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Over and above this, each case must be carefully explored, discussed, and subject to proper consultation, taking into account the employee’s circumstances. These circumstances can include medical, religious, bodily integrity, and any other factor reasonably raised by the employee or the employee’s representative.

Obviously, each particular employer would develop a set of guidelines and rules which would be read with the disciplinary code and would be properly implemented after consultation with the employees or their representatives.

These rules must be made subject to the above-mentioned criteria, and would probably be differently implemented in accordance with the operational requirements of the position of the actual employee.

For instance, if a buyer for a company has the duty to travel abroad and can do so only if vaccinated, then there would be a compulsion to be vaccinated. It would be incumbent upon the employer to explore whether there are other ways of doing the job or whether an employee is willing to accept another position which doesn’t require vaccination.

It’s absolutely vital for every employer to read the regulation, and to advise all the necessary parties within the next three weeks of their intention to make vaccination mandatory and which employees will be affected.

Obviously, even once vaccination has been made mandatory, it would be subject to the employees being able to obtain the vaccination, and might require the employer to help obtain them. The employer’s policy will take into account various factors such as consultation with all the representatives at the workplace, and will respect bargaining council agreements and any other collective agreements with trade unions.

If there is an informal committee representing the staff and/or a workers forum, these bodies must also be consulted.

The minister of health has published draft regulations for the establishment of a no-fault compensation fund for injuries caused by the COVID-19 vaccination. The Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund will be established in terms of the regulations as an amendment to the regulations of the Disaster Management Act of 2002.

Although this compensation fund for vaccine injury hasn’t been formed yet, the various ministers involved are taking into account commentary from the public, and will be getting legal advice from parliament’s legal advisors.

The injury must be related to vaccination. An injured person may not institute a claim through the court process against the national or provincial government until the claim has been adjudicated by the relevant panel through the compensation fund.

Only if the person is dissatisfied with the outcome of the adjudication or the amount awarded can that person lodge an appeal, and the appeal must be determined by the relevant decision maker. Only after pursuing a claim with the scheme can a person look to the courts if that person is still dissatisfied.

Businesses are urged once again to warn their staff that protocols are in place, and breach of COVID-19 rules and regulations will lead to spread of infection and almost inevitably disciplinary action.

I’m involved in no less than a dozen cases where employers have reported and taken action against recalcitrant employees. It’s time, once again, to reiterate the fundamental, basic rules such as social distancing, mask wearing, and sanitising. Over and above this, any staff member exhibiting symptoms must report these symptoms to their health officer or senior management, and should immediately take sick leave.

The consequences of a staff member remaining silent could be loss of their position and more seriously, the spread of infection.

Employers will have to educate staff about the value of vaccination along with normal social distancing, masks, and hand sanitising. Education in these circumstances, I believe, will be the strongest factor in convincing all staff to get vaccinated.

A consolidated direction on occupational health and safety measures in certain workplaces was gazette on 11 June 2021. This contains new requirements with regard to vaccination.

It’s clear from this that an employer must give employees time off to be vaccinated. The employee may be required to provide proof of an appointment to be vaccinated. Time off shouldn’t be regarded as sick leave, but should be given as a form of special leave.

If there are negative effects from vaccination, the employer will grant paid sick leave in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. If the sick leave has been exhausted, there could be a claim in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. Employees will produce the vaccination certificate thereafter, and a medical certificate if they’ve had complications.

  • Michael Bagraim is an attorney specialising in labour law, and advises nationwide on the restructuring and management of labour forces. He is also a Democratic Alliance member of parliament.

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Pop-up vaccination site sets record

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A pop-up vaccination site in Glenhazel carried out just more than 11% of the total 27 053 vaccinations administered across the country on 25 July, setting what is believed to be a record.

Three thousand COVID-19 vaccinations were administered at the volunteer-run site at The Base Shul on Sunday.

“Discovery has exceeded the number of vaccinations we did at The Base in a day, but the district manager of Joburg told me at the site that they haven’t exceeded more than 1 200 in any one of their sites in Gauteng,” said 27-year-old Dr Menachem Hockman, popularly known as “Dr Menoosh”.

Menoosh attributes the speed and efficiency of the process to the many volunteers who did the administration and all the other necessary procedures for vaccination.

“This is an initiative that we are trying to roll out at the moment, and it just shows the impact of having those extra hands to volunteer,” says Menoosh. “Bara [Baragwanath Hospital] and other sites have as many nurses as we have, they just don’t have those volunteers, and it shows what a difference they made. It was also something special at the site to show the impact of all our volunteers.”

One of the volunteers, Dalya Gerson, a dietician, said, “My role prior to the day was recruiting volunteers, organising them, showing them what they would have to do on the day, and giving them specific roles. I was also a volunteer for the day.”

According to the messages Menoosh has received, everyone was in and out within half an hour, including the 15-minute waiting time. “That’s brilliant for any vaccination site,” he said.

The speed came from the strategy of divorcing the administrative role from the vaccination role. “All the vaccinators had to focus on was administering vaccines, so they could push people through much quicker. That was our strategy.”

To help other government sites achieve a similar speed, volunteers may be dispersed through Gauteng VAX Volunteers (GiVV), a programme that operates at vaccine sites. These volunteers assist with, among other things, administrative tasks, filling out vaccination cards, registering individuals that are eligible for vaccinations, and updating and processing information once vaccinations have been administered.

“Running these sites is how we are helping the health department, which provided us with the vaccines,” said Menoosh. “We want to maintain that close relationship with it to allow us to do more. I want it to be given the credit for allowing us to do it, and it’s very important for it to continue to allow us to do so.”

  • To help out or be a part of GiVV, apply by completing the sign-up form on www.givv.co.za. GiVV can also be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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