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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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Zaka honoured for bravery in Bank of Lisbon inferno

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Jewish rescue and recovery organisation Zaka SA has been awarded a medal of bravery by the Gauteng province for its assistance with the fire in the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD more than two years ago.

Zaka SA was honoured on International Firefighters Day on 4 May, a day in which the City of Joburg remembered all firefighters who had “courageously put others’ lives before their own, saluting them for their selfless dedication and bravery”.

Three firefighters lost their lives in the blaze, one plunging to his death on the pavement below, after trying to put out the fire near the top of the high-rise building. The building was subsequently found to be only minimally compliant with health and safety regulations, and firefighters faced a lack of water and oxygen. It has since been demolished.

Zaka SA “rescued the rescuers” by offering psychological support to devastated and exhausted city firefighters, and food for 100 firefighters, with the assistance of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

However, when they reached the scene, Zaka and the SAJBD discovered that 700 students housed in a building next door needed to be evacuated for fear of smoke inhalation, and more food was urgently required to feed them. Zaka was honoured for assisting with the evacuation of these students, and for providing necessary relief.

“Bank of Lisbon was a complicated story,” said Daniel Forman, the head of Zaka SA. “There was a vacuum of resources including water availability, and we encountered a challenging scene as the three firefighters lost their lives soon into the crisis but firefighters had to continue to fight the fire. The biggest challenge was that the fire was so high up in the building, so firefighters had to preserve their oxygen supplies going up.”

Zaka SA was set up in 2015 to assist the community with emergency search and rescue, body identification and recovery, and fire-containment services. Like Zaka around the world, it’s entirely staffed by volunteers, and relies on communal support to keep going.

It has two trailers which each hold 600 litres of water, and is often the first responder in suburban fires, where early detection and response can eliminate the need to call city firefighters. However, Forman cautions that 600 litres is used up in just seven minutes, and a house can burn down in minutes, making additional resources mandatory.

Zaka is sometimes called on to fight more than six fires a month, he said, particularly in the winter months when people rely on heating devices in their homes, and fires are lit by the homeless and security guards to keep warm.

“Zaka’s fire-containment unit came about through challenges which exist in the system,” Forman said, “including the long wait for firefighters.” Another of these challenges is theft of brass parts from neighbourhood fire hydrants, rendering them ineffective.

However, he stressed that the City of Joburg had been involved in a major upgrade of these hydrants, and was amazingly supportive of Zaka generally. He praised the Gauteng government for exposing the organisation’s communal efforts.

“Not once have they not responded to our call or thanked us for our help,” he said of Joburg’s firefighters. “They do an amazing job.”

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Yummy Shavuot from Yaddies

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Seven hundred families in financial difficulty in the community can now enjoy Shavuot treats including cheesecake, mac n cheese, and pizza thanks to generous monetary and food donations from the community, Jewish schools, and the Rabbi Kraines Chessed Challenge (RKCC).

Their generosity made it possible for Yad Aharon to distribute these special treats, as well as healthy, nutritious food, to community members to make sure that they also have a joyful chag.

RKCC is an initiative which has challenged the community to maximise acts of good deeds and loving kindness during the 49 days of the Omer.

The initiative was formed in honour of Rabbi Kraines (zt”l), whose untimely passing left a void in the Johannesburg community. It celebrates the legacy of a man who was known to be a champion of the mitzvah of chessed.

In addition to the RKCC, Yad Aharon’s Shavuot drive has involved more than 20 Jewish schools as well as local and international donors who realise the importance it plays in alleviating nutritional insecurity in the community.

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A portrait of PE through a life of service

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As Port Elizabeth community stalwart Isaac Rubin reflects on his 90th year, his life story emerges as a portrait of this once thriving, now diminishing, but always impactful, Jewish centre of life.

Having offered decades of service as head of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Benevolent Society, as well as a vice-chairperson and member of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation Council and serving as its choirmaster, Rubin has lived a life firmly entrenched in service. His has been a contribution that has helped ensure that Jewish tradition continues to be fulfilled in this small seaside town.

“My best saying is, ‘Zeh hayom asah adonai, nagila v’nismicha bo.’ (This is the day that G-d created; let us be happy and rejoice in it.) To rejoice and be happy, you have to have your health, financial resources, a partner, a family.”

He hopes that he has been able to assist in making this a little more of a reality for those around him.

“It’s a blessing that Hashem has given me, to have the strength to do mitzvot,” he says.

The history of Port Elizabeth can be traced back to a group of at least 16 Jewish families that came with the 1820 British settlers. Later, a wave of German immigrants also arrived. Rubin’s family, from the town of Ludza in Latvia, were part of a wave of Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and antisemitism in the latter part of the century into the 1900s. His uncle came first, followed by his father. Later, his mother and oldest brother, Solly, arrived – both speaking only Yiddish.

Rubin, born in 1931, was one of four siblings born in Port Elizabeth itself. Building a life in this foreign country was difficult for the family especially as they hit the Depression years; yet his parents, both tailors, persisted throughout.

When it came to Rubin’s first day of school, he remembers how his father couldn’t come because of work and his mother because she didn’t speak English. A friend came with to help settle him in.

During the war years, he recalls having bomb drills at school where “we had to duck under our desk and put a cork between our teeth in order to prevent our jaw breaking in the event of an explosion”.

Rubin also attended cheder from the age of eight until matric. He was inspired by his studies there to complete Hebrew as a matric subject at school.

His family, in spite of financial struggles, persisted in maintaining cultural traditions. “Hard as it was, every Rosh Hashanah, we would get a new suit of short pants and a jacket. My father would close the shop on all major Jewish holidays, and we would go to shul. We kept a kosher home.”

Community life flourished in these years, with a Jewish population of about 5 000 people. “I was a troop leader in the Jewish Boy Scouts in the 1940s,” Rubin says. Always a keen sportsman, he established a Maccabi Jewish cricket club in the city which eventually had so many members, it played across three leagues. He also played in Port Elizabeth’s Jewish rugby team.

Rubin remembers some antisemitism at one school he attended – where the Jewish children were called “porkers”. Yet, he recalls proudly how when his own grandson attended the same school decades later, the outcome of such provocation was very different.

“My grandson’s teacher made a remark about how ‘you must look after your money, and be like the Jews’, and my grandson went straight to the teacher and said, ‘You aren’t allowed to say that.’” A meeting was held with the principal and family, and the teacher had to make a formal apology.

Meanwhile, after his own schooling, Rubin went on to become a pharmacist and travelled around the world, working at one time at a catering facility for the American army in the Arctic Circle. “I had a contract as a dish washer, and graduated to become a waiter,” he laughs.

Later, he married and settled back in Port Elizabeth with his wife, Shirley. They had a daughter who sadly died at age 37, as well as two sons and four grandchildren. Rubin opened his own pharmacy and his one son has followed in his career. Although Rubin retired at 67, he went back to work part-time 12 years ago.

Once a keen runner who completed 11 Comrades and 11 Two Oceans marathons, Rubin swims in the sea, does yoga, and walks. Both he and his wife are keen bridge players. Over the years, he also volunteered for Lifeline and Hospice. Yet, even this wasn’t enough for Rubin – at the age of 72, he decided to improve his musicality, and learnt to play the piano.

Always a committed member of the synagogue, over the years, he became increasingly active in communal leadership. Twenty years ago he became a member of the council of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation and then adopted his roles in the Chevrah Kadisha, Benevolent Society, and shul choir.

His love of liturgical singing stems from his father who also loved Jewish and Yiddish songs, and would “sing softly”.

Rubin decided to join the Chevrah Kadisha “when I saw what it had done for my mother, father, and daughter” on their passing. In his role, Rubin would respond to calls night and day, going to the homes of the deceased, comforting the mourners, and organising all the logistics of burials. It was only at the age of 80 that he stopped even helping to dig the graves.

Earlier this year, Rubin stepped down as chairperson, although the organisation then elected to appoint him honorary chair for life.

Gidon La Grange, his successor to the position, recounts once being with Rubin when a call came through from a family who had tragically lost a loved one. “He couldn’t speak. For at least three minutes, he just sat. Silent. He took out his hanky, and wiped tears.” They then began discussing the practical arrangements.

“I remember thinking, this is the quality you should have in responding to people’s loss. This compassion is the way he deals with everybody. The whole community loves him because he carries everything close to his heart.”

Rubin stills heads up the shul choir and the Port Elizabeth Jewish Benevolent Society, whose role is to ensure that the basic needs of all members of the community are met. Although the community has shrunk drastically, its needs have increased.

While Rubin laments the diminishing numbers in the community – the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation now has 182 members – he says the community can hold its head up high. “We have a community that we can be proud of – we’ve upheld our yiddishkeit throughout.”

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