Holocaust victims and the art of survival
Art assumed a central role in helping many Holocaust survivors come to terms with their ordeal and share their harrowing experiences with the world. In their drawings, paintings, and sculptures, we don’t only have a testament to what happened, but also a warning for future generations.
“Many Holocaust survivors used the language of art to express their trauma and embrace life and hope,” said Liz Elsby, an artist and educator at Yad Vashem. “Many of them rebuilt their lives and captured what they had experienced.”
Elsby explored the art created by those who survived the Holocaust this past Monday, 8 February, in an exclusive webinar hosted by the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.
“The [post-war] period of Holocaust artwork tends to be looked at a little less compared to the art created during the Holocaust,” she said. “After the war, people asked what it meant to be a survivor.
“Students like to ask survivors what they did first after being liberated. They perceive it like a TV programme, believing there’s an end to the ordeal. In reality, it was a long and arduous road, and we see this in the artwork of survivors.”
Images created by artists such as Zinovii Tolkatchev, a Soviet artist who accompanied the Red Army forces that liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, captured some of the euphoria of salvation.
“He captures people waving and smiling, celebrating the moment,” said Elsby. “That’s the way that many people think of liberation. That the gates opened, survivors greeted their liberators, and they went on to start a new life.”
This wasn’t always the case, as survivor Antek Zukerman wrote.
“The grief was never as great as on that joyous day,” quoted Elsby. “I wanted to weep, not from joy but sorrow. Suddenly, we were faced with the desolation of reckoning. What? Who? We had lived all the time with a sense of mission, but now? … It wasn’t easy to be the last of the Mohicans.”
Said Elsby, “For many, the moment brought questions: what was it all for? Why did we suffer? The first instinct for many was a fleeting moment of joy. Some were overwhelmed with despair; others were in utter disbelief. They were liberated, but not free.”
This was reflected in many art pieces at the time, illustrating that survivors had to grasp that while they had been suffering, life was going on outside. Images show people walking freely in the streets, disconnected from the suffering of so many others.
For some survivors, art expressed the euphoria of re-joining the world. Buchenwald survivor Jakob Zim, for instance, chose not to capture the horror of his experience, but the European landscape he could now be a part of once again.
Others, however, responded differently.
“David Friedmann writes about a sudden urge of artists to show what happened,” said Elsby. “It wasn’t enough to express joy, but that they could bear witness at last after having been unable to while in the camps. They wanted to draw what they went through.”
Often raw and unnerving, these paintings frequently show suffering victims, menacing oppressors, and a clear distinction between humanity and the inhuman. Penetrating expressions accuse perpetrators, artists often inserting their own sense of injustice into the image and asking how the atrocity could have been humanly possible.
“It was all very fresh,” said Elsby. “These people had just lost their families and had yet to rebuild their lives. Many of them used this as an impetus to draw what they went through. They’re saying, ‘This is the horror of where I was. This is what the world didn’t see and didn’t prevent.’”
The next notable movement in artwork dealt with yearning, loss, and longing, reflecting a nostalgia to return to places alive in memory only. As Elsby explained, many works showed the Jewish life of Warsaw and Vilna, the shuls, Jewish institutions, and communities that were no more.
“They expressed a sense of mourning, a need to remember,” she said. “They knew that these places were being replaced with something new, would be forgotten, and wanted to create an epitaph in their art. How do you really get over the loss?”
Guilt was also a central motif in much of the artwork that follows the war. Themes of identity play a central role, with artists trying to understand who they are now without their families and to live with the guilt of being alive. Abstract images, figures aged by horror, and images of wandering Jews are common.
This changed in the 1950s, however, when many survivors attempted to get on with their lives.
“Their bodies are healing, and they begin to trust in humanity again,” said Elsby. “They are trying to avoid dealing with what they have gone through, and don’t want their new families to know about the past. Again, they struggle with their identity, and we find them sometimes transported back to their experiences.
“The trauma won’t go away, and as much as you try to rebuild your life, everyday things can trigger you and take you back.”
Memory also changed, Elsby said.
“After a period of wanting to testify, memories begin to soften and become misty by the eighties. Images of Majdanek by Israel Kantor show something less menacing, with green fields, no people, no horror. Memory has softened.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, religion also featured frequently, with Christian iconography often included as an indictment against those who professed love and concern in the name of Christ but did nothing to help suffering Jews.
“Some survivors take years to express themselves, painting in the 1990s only,” said Elsby. “As we move further away from the Holocaust, there is more of a tendency to look at it as less of a historical event with dates and to focus instead on names and places. We see a desire to bring back humanity.”
These works of art are inspiring, she said.
“With so much pain, anguish, and memory, they could somehow still create and wanted to join the world of the living,” she said.
“As Tamara Deuel Sternberg wrote, ‘I feel that by my art I am helping to transfer my experiences and feelings to others to help prevent this from ever happening again. Every individual who survived that other world has a duty to leave documentation, art, music, and personal stories behind that future generations will never forget.’”
Action stations: Jewish politicians dedicated to making things work in their wards
A number of Jewish candidates are running in the upcoming local government elections. SA Jewish Report journalist Saul Kamionsky speaks to them in the second of a two-part series.
Johannesburg: Ward 72 (includes Linksfield, Fairmount, Sydenham, Glenhazel, Sandringham, Silvermont, and Sunningdale Bridge)
Captain Colin Morris is a man who has given his life to protect and serve the people of South Africa.
Earlier this year, he retired from volunteering, something he has done for more than three decades. While having a full-time job, he served as a police reservist for 33 years and an emergency medical practitioner for more than a decade. On top of that, he spent 20 years in the Child Protection Unit.
About five years ago, Morris became interested in standing for the Democratic Alliance (DA). He approached some senior people in the party, and they were interested in talking to him.
“But at the time, I was still actively involved in the South African police, so I couldn’t do both,” recalls Morris on 15 October 2021, his birthday. “As a result, I abandoned the idea of going down the political path, and relooked at it again about eight months ago after I had retired from policing at the age of 60.”
With municipal elections on the horizon, he once again approached the DA. “It said it had already made a decision [about its candidates]. I looked for a party with the same ethics and morals that I have, and ActionSA popped up.”
After conducting a process of elimination to identify the best candidate, ActionSA called Morris into a meeting with its senior members, and he was approved as its candidate for ward 72.
Since then, Morris has been in several online meetings hosted by the party. “Everything we talk about at the moment is focused on 1 November,” he says.
Morris shares a story that he tells regularly to explain why people should vote for him.
“Through the elections I have seen growing up in South Africa, I have noticed that the middle class, sort of northern-suburbs people, would always vote for the party that would be the best strong opposition. They didn’t vote for the opposition – a party like the Progressive Federal Party in those days – because they thought they could be in power, they voted because they wanted a strong opposition.”
As Morris describes it, “the beauty today” is that there could be a good party that not only stands as a suitable opposition to the African National Congress (ANC), but also stands a chance of being in power, certainly in Johannesburg.
“That party is ActionSA. It’s seen as a diverse party that’s able to produce results. Why should they vote for me, per se? I’ve brought to the community action that most other people standing in the area haven’t. I’ve got a strong community background and knowledge of what’s going on. And I’ve got a strong background in how to make things work. I’ve been involved with community matters for the past 30 odd years. I’ve also been an ambulance reservist, and I have worked for community-based organisations.”
Some of the highlights of his career include volunteering at the Holocaust & Genocide Centre and the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children.
“Is politics important? No, it’s about bringing results to members of the ward and members of the public. One of the mottos of ActionSA is ‘no politics’. We’re not politicians. We’re people who are committed to bringing action and change to Johannesburg, and certainly to ward 72.”
Freedom Front Plus
Cape Town: Ward 115 (includes Green Point, Zonnebloem, Vredehoek, and parts of Woodstock)
Lawyer Gary Trappler has become known as an outspoken activist in his area, ward 115.
In 2019, this martial-arts enthusiast acted as an amicus (friend of the court) against what he describes as the “broad and bold” applications that homeless people had brought against the City of Cape Town in the high court. Representing various ratepayers’ associations and other interest groups, he advanced arguments and won the case.
Trappler is currently involved in the second round of this matter but, this time, he aims to show that, according to the Constitution, homelessness is the city’s responsibility.
By being involved in these two cases, he gained significant insight into the success and failure of bylaws.
As a result, he became more interested in politics, and approached the DA a couple of years ago. “At that stage, it said I was too white for the party,” he recalls.
Trappler attended a few Freedom Front Plus (FFP) meetings with his friend, Paul Jacobson, who went on to be named as the party’s candidate for ward 54 in Cape Town.
In the first five minutes of one meeting, the questions Trappler asked resulted in one FFP member saying, “Gary, it sounds like you might want to be a ward councillor in your area.”
Trappler gave it 10 seconds of thought and said, “Ja, I’m interested.”
Dr Corné Mulder’s eyes went wide. The Western Cape FFP leader consulted with his second in command, and they looked through their papers to see who stood as their candidate in ward 115. Turning around, they told Trappler that he had got the position.
If Trappler is voted ward councillor in the upcoming municipal elections, the self-described “relentless fighter” is willing to fight for two causes in particular.
First, he wants to get the rates for electricity and water reduced.
“How the city determines these rates is shrouded in secrecy, murky water, bureaucracy, and closed-door administrative decisions.”
Second, he promises to address what he describes as an “egregious” sight only 300m off the shore of Camps Bay. “It’s a sewage pipe in which raw effluence goes directly into the sea, and it’s harmful to the marine environment and beachgoers.”
Although the pipe cannot be removed as it falls within territorial waters, Trappler envisions building sanitation plants inland to clean the effluence.
But Trappler’s main dream is for the Western Cape to become an independent country, and he says the FFP is dedicated to achieving that.
“I’ve been drooling about the idea of secession for years. It’s difficult to manage a country with so much diversity as we find in South Africa, and the wishes of the people of the Western Cape should be taken into account.”
Trappler believes that with sufficient pressure, the government will be forced to give Western Cape residents the opportunity to vote for secession in a referendum.
“The likes of me really want that to happen. I can no longer live with any degree of optimism in this country unless I feel free from the tyranny of the ANC, which I believe will soon form a coalition with the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters]. The future for myself and my children is bleak with that as a prospect.”
Johannesburg: Ward 72 (includes Linksfield, Fairmount, Sydenham, Glenhazel, Sandringham, Silvermont, and Sunningdale Bridge)
Politics has always interested Daniel Schay, who matriculated from King David Linksfield in 2006.
With a professional background in structural engineering, he has worked in the private sector over the past decade, watching how fewer and fewer people were investing in South Africa as a result of its politics.
Schay would regularly say to himself, “We’ve got to have better leadership, we’ve got to get more involved and capable people involved in running as politicians, because if capable people aren’t willing to put their hands up and be willing to change this country, we’re not going to see the change we need.”
Unable to bear the sight of South Africa on its current trajectory, Schay decided to enter politics to make the country better.
Having done a lot of research, as always, he chose to join the DA in 2016.
“I have a very capitalist view on life, and the DA’s values align with my values pretty well,” Schay says. “Also, it’s a party with an effective and proven track record in government. On a policy and implementation level, I completely agree with it.”
In 2017, Schay was elected deputy chairperson of the DA’s Youth Johannesburg Committee. Within a year, he was asked to be campaign manager for Johannesburg East in the 2019 election.
“I have stood on the branches since then, and ahead of the upcoming municipal elections, I put up my hand for the first time to be a public representative.”
Schay says people should vote for him as, in addition to his engineering background, he lives in ward 72.
“I understand the infrastructure issues that currently plague our ward. That’s my area of expertise. I can contribute to solutions for the area.”
He believes the ward will improve only if capable people stand up and commit to making it flourish.
“Literally, we need to drive the growth and renewal of this ward, otherwise there’s nothing left, and we’ve got nowhere to go. But I’m passionate about seeing the ward succeed, and I’ve got a vested interest in making sure it happens.”
One of the highlights of his career is “a very small thing” – hosting members of the DA youth from every constituency in Johannesburg for Shabbat lunch as part of a cultural-exchange event.
“To sit around the table and discuss our backgrounds, our religion, and learn from each other was such an amazing experience.”
Other moments that stand out for him are general day to day activities.
“Even now during this campaign, meeting people from all over the ward, learning about their background, seeing what we have in common, and having resident meetings in which residents put up their hand and ask, ‘How can we make this ward better?’, we have people taking ownership and wanting to grow and develop the area. They are being positive, and making sure that we succeed. These are huge moments. I mean, they can seem almost insignificant, but the fact that residents want to get involved in making things better is a massive moment in this ward.”
Johannesburg: Ward 64 (Berea)
Joshua Apfel is a man of action, not words, which explains why his responses to our questions are so short.
To encourage people to vote for him in the upcoming municipal elections, he would gladly take them on a tour of Berea, ward 64, where he is running for ward councillor.
“We could also go past the old shuls in the area,” he says.
The director of Joshua Apfel Attorneys worked for the DA as a volunteer before a friend of his convinced him to run for councillor. “I chose the DA because it’s the only party that represents the diversity of South Africa, and it’s the only party that I believe is capable of delivering services to the city.”
Apfel says people should vote for him “because, at the end of the day, that’s the only way they will receive a voice in council, and I’m busy doing the basic services which the municipality is supposed to do. I’m also the only one to care enough for residents to get what they want – a voice in council.”
He believes in representing all residents, including foreigners, and focusing on issues like safety, accommodation, employment, and litter.
For Apfel, helping his community is frustrating as he has to bear the brunt of the lack of service delivery and history of neglect in Johannesburg but, at the same time, it’s rewarding as there’s a lot of groundwork he can do to uplift others in his area. From a Jewish perspective, he has been able to encourage the Union of Jewish Women to contribute to events in Berea.
Moments that stand out for Apfel are when he tries to get things done for residents with service delivery complaints. “If I’m the effective cause of getting those services delivered, then that’s a highlight.”
The Civic Movement of South Africa
Johannesburg: Ward 72
Justin Kruger has never been involved in politics, yet he’s standing as a candidate for the Civic Movement of South Africa (CMOSA) in the upcoming municipal elections.
Established in 2018, CMOSA isn’t a political party. Its candidates have volunteered their services out of goodwill.
However, they can potentially have some sway in the council thanks to one of the organisation’s founding members registering it with the Electoral Commission of South Africa.
Kruger, a dog-lover, joined the CMOSA in 2019. “My reason wasn’t political,” he says. “It was purely out of goodwill.”
He started off by helping the organisation to assist the community. “We were mainly involved in townships and black communities, helping people who had neither received service delivery nor the houses the state had allocated to them.”
Ahead of this year’s by-election in Eldorado Park, where they were crying out for efficient services, Kruger used his own money to run an election campaign there.
“We didn’t win, but we did beat the ANC. So, I got a bit of a feel for the whole election vibe and the great work a councillor can do. And then, two other blokes told me, ‘Well, you know, you’ve done a bit of work in your area. Why don’t you run your area?’ So, we can give it a bash.”
Kruger says people should vote for him as he’s done a lot of voluntary work over the years. “The most voluntary work I ever did was to be a police reservist for more than 12 years. For most of that time, I’ve been working in Sandringham, where my ward is. I know Zulu quite well. I can speak the language, and understand it, so it’s a communication tool I have.”
Moreover, his time in the police has taught him to be strong, brave, and a leader. “I know how to navigate within state departments, and I understand the red tape involved – I’ve dealt with it for years and years.”
By nature, he’s an entrepreneur. “So, I’m quite a versatile fellow and I’m not married either, meaning I’ve got the time to serve the community.”
Asked about where he stands next to the other candidates vying for ward 72, he says, “When a community works together, you can solve any problem. I believe if I can organise other people who live in the ward to assist the area, then I’m doing a good job.”
To Kruger’s mind, “the winning formula” is to utilise the knowledge of cleverer people to solve various issues.
“I’m willing to use the brains within the community to get problems sorted out,” he says.
Kruger receives no funding. In fact, he’s using his own savings to pay for his campaign posters. “Not many people put their money where their mouth is,” he says.
One of his highlights as an entrepreneur was Builders Warehouse selling a kitchen product he invented at home in 2011. “It ran with it at their stores around the country for a couple of years.”
His proudest feat in the police is having managed to stick it out and still be an active member.
“When the new regime came in, a lot of guys fell away and couldn’t cope. Having Zulu as a tool gave me a lot of success. I’ve received a few awards.”
Johannesburg: Ward 81 (includes Lyndhurst, Bramley View, Corlett Gardens, Rembrandt Park)
Joanne Horwitz was seated on a couch when the results of the 2016 municipal elections were announced.
“As the DA had come so close and I’ve always voted DA, I decided that instead of sitting on my backside, I wanted to be involved in helping out.”
Wanting to use her skills and work experience to assist, the attorney joined the party as a member. During one of its annual general meetings, the DA was looking for a branch secretary. “I put up my hand, and I was elected uncontested. I hadn’t been attending DA meetings with any thought about becoming a politician, but every time something needed to be done, I would put up my hand just to help.”
Horwitz went on to become the DA’s secretary of the constituency and poster champion for the 2019 general elections.
About six months later, the constituency asked her if she was interested in becoming more involved and outspoken as a representative of the DA.
“I had joined the party to become active in helping the DA and suddenly, I was being asked to give more of myself, and it rang true for me that this was something I could do. Now I’m a candidate for ward councillor.”
Horwitz believes her qualifications and work experience are reasons why people should vote for her. “I studied law, majoring in fundamental human rights. So, I’ve always had an interest in upgrading people’s quality of life and providing better services to people across the spectrum.”
She uses the non-profit organisation she ran for about 18 years as an example. Based in Alexandra township, it gave people an opportunity to earn an income and deal with everyday life problems. It helped a few to buy fridges, roof their houses, and pay for their kids’ school fees.
“I see being a politician as that kind of help in a more concentrated way, taking much more of my attention.”
If elected, her priority will be to get residents to confide in her about what they need and want. “I will push their agenda in council. I’m looking forward to being the connection and link between the council and everyday people on the street in our ward.”
Horwitz has already started developing relationships with DA candidates who share a boundary with her – Daniel Schay of ward 72, and Belinda Echeozonjoku of ward 74. “It makes sense to leverage the resources that are made available to us across boundaries. We will get better coverage of service delivery that way.”
One of Horwitz’s highlights was when she was asked to take herself from the background to the forefront of the party. “Becoming a representative and face of the DA was absolutely huge. Shortly afterwards, I was asked to be constituency chair.”
In that role, she helped every ward in the constituency to campaign, host events, and be efficient on the ground.
Graduating with a South African law degree was a memorable moment for her. “I studied law in the United Kingdom before returning to South Africa and basically had to redo the entire degree. The graduation ceremony was a crowning achievement, especially since I had missed two previous ceremonies in my studying journey.”
Major parties undermined by “angrier, poorer” electorate
South Africans go to the polls on 1 November in “elections that no parties really want”, according to political journalist Stephen Grootes. In the midst of a pandemic, established parties are losing support “and people have become angrier and poorer” since the last local government elections in 2016.
Grootes was moderating a webinar on Tuesday, 12 October, titled “Navigate the local government elections 2021”, organised by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. The webinar is part of the Board’s mandate to encourage voter registration in the Jewish community, formally observe the elections, and promote political debate.
Are these municipal elections about service delivery or about elements of identity in the context of South Africa’s racialised inequality? According to Nompumelelo Runji, the founder and chief executive of Critical ThinkAR – a research and stakeholder management consultancy – it’s a little bit of both in this highly polarised society.
“Good governance isn’t just about clean audits, sewage infrastructure, and tarred roads,” she said. For many, the yardstick is whether their quality of life is improving or not. They are asking if the African National Congress (ANC) can really deliver for all rather than the elite few.
Political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga also senses popular anger, but no consolidation of support by any political party to capitalise on the ANC’s failures. “The ANC is held back by its own history,” he said, and hopes to get by on mea culpas [acknowledgement of wrongdoing] and faith. “It’s the devil people know,” Mathekga said. He judged that talk of renewal in the ANC was illusory, describing it as “a party in great difficulty”. “Corruption has been democratised in local government, with mammoth irregularities in public procurement,” Mathekga said, pointing out that criminal elements like protection rackets have filled the vacuum where the state has retreated.
Runji said local elections were “a vehicle for employment, a jobs pipeline for parties. Capacity and skills are trumped by factional allegiances. There is a failure to adhere to financial governance practices like the PFMA [Public Finance Management Act] and the MFMA [Municipal Finance Management Act].” She characterised the problem as a toxic mix of lack of responsibility, no accountability, deficient oversight, and a dearth of consequences for maladministration. “Party loyalty and dynamics become more important than delivering services,” she said.
Wayne Sussman, elections analyst for Daily Maverick, views it as a unique election in which the two major parties have little momentum 20 days before the vote.
“There are only 400 members of parliament, but there are far more council positions up for grabs,” said Sussman. In an environment of high unemployment, the prospect of a middle-class job for five years in a municipal council has proved enticing for many. Independent candidates have mushroomed, and he expects them to do marginally better because of their sheer volume. “They will find it hard to influence politics in the metros, but they will play a role in this election,” Sussman said.
Looking at opposition parties, will the Democratic Alliance (DA) be punished at the polls? A lot depends on differential turnout, according to Sussman. If the suburbs come out in numbers and disillusioned ANC voters stay at home, “the DA may not do that badly. It was the first out of the starting blocks with its posters. But to use a rugby analogy, with the try-line in front of them, they have had knock-on after knock-on in the past week.” He predicts that the party will retain Cape Town and be the biggest or second biggest party in all the country’s metropolitan councils.
“The DA seems to want to attract controversy and get into trouble, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has no plans to co-operate with anyone,” Mathekga said. “It would be shocked if it actually won a council.” He agreed that the DA often failed to read the public mood, and didn’t appear to have a real strategy for the Gauteng metros. The EFF is growing in South Africa’s neglected small towns, and the party may emerge as kingmaker in several councils, like it did in 2016. But its refusal to commit to coalitions makes for unstable politics. There is the real chance that some councils will be deadlocked and unable to agree on the election of a speaker, a mayor, and to pass the council budget. If they fail to do the latter, they will come under national administration. The speakers predicted there may be chaos like this in Tshwane, the nation’s capital.
Sussman is also carefully watching the performance of former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, which has taken a gamble by contesting only in Gauteng’s three metros (Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Ekurhuleni) and in three municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal. It has run a slick social-media campaign. “He has to do well on election night,” Sussman said. “If he does badly, it’s probably the end.”
Finally, the panellists agreed there was merit in retaining separate municipal elections, as it promoted local-level democracy. This particular election will certainly make for interesting analysis in the weeks to come.
Back to Africa: shlicha’s journey comes full circle in Cape Town
Exactly 30 years ago, emissaries from the Jewish Agency came to Ethiopia to tell Batya Shmueli’s family that “the way to Jerusalem is open”. Soon after, at the age of 11, she made aliyah as part of Operation Solomon. Now, she has returned to the continent of her birth as a shaliach (emissary) of the Jewish Agency, closing the circle.
She and her husband, Hed Shmueli, and their three children arrived in Cape Town as shlichim the week before Pesach. She has taken on the role of aliyah and community shlicha while he is working as head of Israel education at United Herzlia Schools. With roots in Ethiopia, Romania, and Iraq, they bring the diversity of Israeli society to the southern tip of Africa.
“We always felt we would do shlichut in America or Canada,” says Shmueli. “But when we met Cape Town community leaders Esta Levitas and Julie Berman, we immediately connected and knew this was the community for us.”
It hasn’t been a simple journey. “When we were told we could come to Israel, my father was 81 years old. Every Jew in Ethiopia had waited for this moment. It was the first time I saw my father cry,” Shmueli recalls. The family had lived a difficult life, needing to hide their Jewish identity and battle for survival. While the flight was a moment of joy, adapting to life in Israel wasn’t easy.
“We lived in a caravan near a small town in the Galilee. After living there for three years, I attended boarding school. It was a tremendous culture shock,” she says. Wanting to blend in and be accepted, she threw off her family’s religious values and tried to become a secular teenager. “I even made my hair blonde!” she laughs. She learned Hebrew quickly, and tried to distance herself from her parents and her past.
But after school, she finally started to embrace her history and identity as an Ethiopian Jew. She found out that it was members of the Israeli Navy along with Mossad who had come to Sudan to help Ethiopian Jews come to Israel, and became inspired to join the navy during her army service to “close the circle”. Eventually, she served in the Israeli Navy with an elite naval commando unit.
“My father passed away before he could see me in uniform. So many people helped me in my journey in Israel. This was my opportunity to serve and give back,” she says.
It was in the navy that she met Hed whose family came to Israel from Iraq and Romania. He also had a connection to Africa. “After tragically losing his father, who was only 51 years old, he decided to take himself on a journey to discover the world. Being an artist and sculptor, he spent time as a volunteer arts project leader in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and learning traditional East-African wood carving in Kenya,” says Shmueli.
“After returning to Israel, the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs sponsored an artists’ mission to Dakar, Senegal. Hed was involved in co-ordinating and leading a group of Israeli artists sent as cultural representatives to Senegal for Israel’s 60th birthday celebrations.”
She also travelled after the army, spending a year in Los Angeles. It was there than she began to regret turning away from her identity and vowed “to return to my roots and culture”.
“I cried a lot that year, thinking about the pain and loss that my parents’ generation felt,” Shmueli says. “I wanted to go back to Israel and explain who we are as Ethiopian Jews. I wanted to be the voice of my parents.”
Returning to Israel, she realised she couldn’t “wait to be invited” to share her story, she had to just start doing it. She began to address audiences, sharing Ethiopian Jewish customs, culture, and cooking. She also got her Bachelor of Arts from Haifa University, where she studied teaching and the history of the Jewish people. She later received her Master’s degree in the history of Israel and Jewish law.
She then developed a programme that taught students about leadership and responsibility. In 2009, she returned to Ethiopia with the Israeli foreign ministry to teach village women about entrepreneurship. For the past 11 years, she has been fundraising for new immigrant populations.
When deciding where to raise their family, the Shmuelis chose to settle in the beautiful artists’ village of Ein Hod. It was a very secular community, however, so they decided to bring their passion for Judaism into the fold by commissioning a Sefer Torah for the village. It was made in the name of their late fathers, who had taught them to hold onto their Jewish heritage no matter what. “One thousand people came to the hachnasat [welcoming] Torah event,” recalls Shmueli. “There were Israelis from every sector of society.”
Eighteen years ago, they also opened their home to travellers hiking the Israel National Trail from the south to the north of Israel. Calling it “Avraham’s Tent”, they hosted more than 20 000 travellers.
The Shmuelis bring all of this passion and purpose with them to their shlichut in Cape Town. Their determination has seen them through delay in arrival as a result of the pandemic. In addition, their three children battled with being uprooted and being under lockdown.
“Israel is a country of children, and there is so much freedom for kids. So they have struggled, but we feel this is the best gift we can give them,” says Shmueli. “We are showing them that they belong to the Jewish people, and to bring that opportunity for connection to others.”
They believe they are in the right place at the right time. “After 20 minutes of talking to Esta and Julie, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is the correct place for us’. It’s a unique community with a unique history. This isn’t just about a new job, it’s something much deeper. We feel it’s the time to support the Jewish community.”
They have spent the past few months immersing themselves in the community and its organisations. “It’s so unique. It’s not every day that you see a community where all the Jewish children go to the same school and where there is so much support for everyone who needs it,” she says.
Just like she was given so many opportunities when she started her new life in Israel, she wants to create awareness about the possibilities that Israel provides, especially for the younger generation. She wants to help the youth feel proud of their heritage and connection with Israel.
“I want to be a bridge between Israel and South Africa,” she says. “We live our shlichut day and night, and are here for the community at any time. And we are here to learn from you too.”
They plan to meet people from all walks of life, sharing the diversity of their family and Israeli society. “We won’t apologise for who we are … we stand strong,” says Shmueli. At the same time, she encourages questions, discussion, and debate.
“The Ethiopian Jewish community never gave up on their dream of going to Jerusalem,” she says. Being part of the generation that got to go back to Israel means that she sees her shlichut as a continuation of that journey. “To be back in Africa as Israelis for the Jewish community – I thank G-d for showing us the way.”
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