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Holocaust survivor makes case for recognition of Armenian genocide




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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Antisemitism the second global pandemic, says WJC president



There are two pandemics in the world, Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), told the South African Jewish Board of Deputies national conference on 17 October. COVID-19 is one, the other – antisemitism – has been with us for 2 000 years.

Speaking from the WJC’s headquarters in New York, Lauder said that he had witnessed these two “global viruses” coming to the forefront since attending an executive meeting in Johannesburg six years ago.

Described by the Jerusalem Post as “a rare voice of moral clarity in today’s world”, the American-born art collector has been the president of the WJC since 2007.

The WJC was founded in 1936 in response to the rise of Nazism and the growing wave of European antisemitism. It acts as the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people, and has international offices in six countries.

The WJC watches everything that happens around the world, including in South Africa, 24 hours a day, Lauder said. “We will be there for you if you ever need us.”

Today, the organisation is engaged in fighting the mighty wave of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. “I can promise you we will protect Jews everywhere. That’s why this organisation was formed in the first place,” said Lauder.

He said that the WJC was alarmed by the attacks on Jews in the streets of Paris, London, and Los Angeles, and mentioned that just more than two weeks ago, a bottle of water was thrown at a Swedish-based rabbi.

“These things shouldn’t happen at all,” he said. “Israel comes under constant assault through the United Nations and on social media, mainstream newspapers, and on college campuses.”

Lauder said the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa was an example of the “fabrications and complete falsehoods” that the world still believes because “unhinged hatred of Israel is simply the latest version of antisemitism”.

According to Lauder, Jews were hated for their religion during the Middle Ages. “In the late 19th and early 20th century, they were hated for their race. Today, we are hated for the national state of Israel.”

The former United States ambassador to Austria said such hatred was bizarre as Jews make up 0.2% of the world’s population. “Yet, Jews are the target of more than 50% of all religious crimes. These aren’t just isolated attacks. They have occurred in 89 countries.”

The WJC continuously notices baseless posts on social media being reported as truth by mainstream media, Lauder said.

“This was most evident with the attacks on Israel this past spring. If South Africa, France, Great Britain, or any other country other than Israel had been attacked by more than 4 000 rockets launched by terrorists, everyone would have hit back hard, and everyone would have every right to do so,” he said.

“Yet, the world’s press and social media charged Israel with crimes against humanity. That defies all logic. It’s ludicrous. It also gives you an idea of what the WJC is fighting every single day.”

Lauder said the WJC was seeking the people behind these “sickening” lies. “We will start making them uncomfortable. If I’ve learned anything about antisemites, it’s that they’re cowards. The only way to deal with bullies and cowards is to fight back even harder, and they get a taste of their own medicine. That is when antisemitism will start to disappear.”

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Minister hopeful about improved relations between Israel and SA



Israel Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai is hopeful that the relationship between Israel and South Africa will improve soon.

“I’m hopeful that things will get better and even hopeful that the South African government will finally recognise that it made some mistakes vis-à-vis Israel,” he told the participants at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) national conference on 17 October.

“It’s time for the South African ambassador to return to Israel and to renew full diplomatic relations. We do everything we can to improve their relations from our end,” he said, speaking from Israel as a guest of honour at the conference.

Shai is widely remembered as the voice of national calm when serving as a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces when Iraq fired missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.

He is a good friend of South Africa, and said he vividly remembers being part of a group of Knesset members who visited South Africa three or four years ago. “Needless to say, we appreciate your community, how much you devoted to Zionism and Israel, and of course to your Jewish life.”

Shai thanked the SAJBD National President Shaun Zagnoev and the SAJBD National Vice-Presidents Mary Kluk and Zev Krengel for their contribution to the South African Jewish community during the recent period.

“All of you have played a very important role, like Moshe,” he said. “If the Jewish people were in the desert without Moshe, where would we have been today?”

Shai noted that Europe had lost eight million Jews in the past 75 years. “On the eve of the World War II, nine and a half million Jews were living in Europe. Now there are just one and a half million. Six million were lost in the Holocaust. The rest just left Europe and went all over the world.”

Shai, who is the founder of the commercial Second Authority for Television and Radio in Israel, said Europe consequently lost a significant portion of its culture. He would like to help Jews return to Europe and foster Jewish life there.

He marvelled at how, first, a Jewish state was formed three years after the end of the Holocaust and, second, how Israel had led the world in combatting COVID-19.

“We were the first to be fully vaccinated,” he said. “To the great credit of this [Israeli] government, we decided neither to quarantine nor close down the entire country any longer. We did this to keep the country moving, not to lose billions of shekels. Now, the economy is still on track, and we are determined to return to normal life, including schools.”

As a parting gesture, he said,” We hope to see you in Israel. We are gradually opening borders and easing restrictions.”

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Heroes, mentors, and cancelled plans: the stories behind the SAJBD awards



Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, Uriel Rosen, the Kirsh family, and Viv Anstey were all honoured for their unstinting work for the good of others at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Conference at Investec in Sandton on 17 October.

The Eric Samson Mendel Kaplan Communal Service Award went to Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland. “Barry has been the person in our community who, over and above the incredible nachas that we receive from his global scientific accomplishments, has done so much for us,” said Mary Kluk, SAJBD national vice-president.

When the SAJBD leadership was grappling with how to protect the Jewish community during the early stages of COVID-19, it was Schoub’s quiet wisdom and vast scientific experience that steered them through.

“He’s become this household name, constantly appearing not only on our news, but also on international news networks,” said Kluk. “Yet, Barry has taken every call and every query from every one of us and all our organisations for the past 18 months. And he has made himself available to South Africa, but in particular to our community.”

Speaking after receiving the award, Schoub recalled how he and his wife were about to travel to Storms River Mouth in the Eastern Cape in March 2020, when his phone rang.

“Look, there’s no way you can go on holiday,” said Zev Krengel, SAJBD national vice-president, on the other end of the line. “Do you know that there’s a COVID-19 pandemic on its way to the country?”

With that, Schoub unpacked the bags, cancelled the booking, and began what he described as a “remarkable” journey.

“I’m indeed overwhelmed, honoured, humbled, and gratified to receive this very, very prestigious award named after two extraordinary philanthropists in our community,” said Schoub. “It will occupy a treasured place for me and on my study wall.”

Schoub paid tribute to his co-awardee, Friedland, describing him as a “tzadik” and saying he had learned so much from his former student.

Indeed, Friedland was lectured by Schoub during his third year of medicine.

“He [Schoub] was a mentor then, and he’s a mentor now,” said Friedland. “One of the great privileges of working now was to sit at the feet of such a master.”

Friedland was awarded for the contribution he made to the Jewish community during the pandemic.

He has spoken on many public platforms, participated in a range of consultative forums, and fielded innumerable queries from all sectors of the community about COVID-19. Through this, he provided up-to-date information, advice, and considered guidelines that the Jewish leadership could safely rely upon. Furthermore, Friedland took a personal interest in those community members who contracted the virus.

After receiving his award, Friedland said Schoub’s praise “greatly overexaggerates the role I played, which was merely a janitor”.

The Chief Rabbi Cyril and Ann Harris Humanitarian Award went to the Kirsh family for their contribution to South Africa, in spite of being overseas. Natie and Frances, their son, Philip, and daughters, Wendy and Linda, were praised by Krengel as “one of the unique families that did unbelievably well all over the world and never forgot their roots”.

Krengel said the family embodied the proverb popularised by Spider-Man comic books: “With great power comes great responsibility”. He said the family looked after the most vulnerable in South Africa and, during the pandemic, it stepped up to help young people and schools across the country.

The Eric Samson Mendel Kaplan Communal Service Award for a Professional went to Viv Anstey and Uriel Rosen. A board member of the Cape SAJBD, Anstey possesses an immense depth of communal knowledge, gives selflessly of her time, and constantly rolls up her sleeves to help with tasks of any size. She has a passion for including and reaching out to youth in the South African Jewish community.

“You have epitomised the model of a Jewish civil servant,” said Tzvi Brivik, the chairperson of the Cape SAJBD. “Numerous organisations have benefited from your qualities of vision, innovation, and initiative, combined with the highest standards of professionalism that you have consistently brought to every position you have held.”

After collecting her award, Anstey said, “As a serial social entrepreneur, I’m proud of all the initiatives I have spearheaded alongside lay and professional teams. For me, leadership is about vision, implementation, and people.”

Rosen is the man behind the Hatzolah Wellness Programme, recognised across South Africa as the epitome of community care. The programme has been a critical resource in tracking and managing COVID-19 in the community.

“Everybody who works with Uriel has nothing but praise for his unbelievable willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty to assist those in need,” said Professor Karen Milner, the chairperson of the SAJBD.

Rosen accepted the award on behalf of his team, which “dedicates every breathing moment to the welfare and healthcare of the Jewish community”.

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