Keeping Holocaust education relevant
A substantial part of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies’ work is in the area of Holocaust commemoration and education. It includes organising the annual Yom Hashoah ceremonies in all the main Jewish population centres; collaborating with the SA Holocaust & Genocide Foundation (SAHGF) and foreign embassies in organising public functions (such as commemorating Kristallnacht and honouring Righteous Gentiles); publishing Holocaust-related research papers and personal testimonies in our journal Jewish Affairs (from 2009, freely available online at http://sajbd.org/pages/jewish-affairs); assisting local survivors in putting in claims under the various available compensatory funds; and housing a rich historical archive for use by academics and journalists. We also work with the SAHGF in such areas as sensitivity training, including in cases of anti-Semitism occurring in schools and at universities.
Holocaust education in South Africa today is primarily carried out by the SAHGF, and its three regional centres in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. The educational programmes, which include providing educational packs and other source material for teachers, are run by highly dedicated and capable professional staff, who are assisted by equally dedicated volunteer guides. Each year, tens of thousands of school learners from widely differing backgrounds visit these centres.
They learn not just about what happened during the Holocaust, but just as importantly, how and why it happened. The process that culminated in the death camps began not with deeds but with words. Before being deprived of their rights, livelihoods and, finally, their lives, Jews were systematically demonised. As a result, they came to be regarded as a disloyal, destructive element to be shunned and despised by the population at large. Once this view had sufficiently taken root, it became possible to move on to the next step, which was to deprive Jews of their civil liberties and economic freedoms. This, in turn, paved the way for outright acts of violence to be committed and, finally, for the systematic mass murder of Jews.
The lesson that visitors to the centres are asked to take to heart is that acts of hatred against others, whether based on race, religion or other such grounds, do not simply happen out of nowhere, but are invariably preceded by hateful words against those targeted. They are taught that diversity is something to be respected, indeed welcomed, and that people can hold different views and be of different backgrounds without regarding those who think otherwise as being “the enemy”. Through such initiatives, our community is making an important contribution to tolerance education, which is of critical importance in a country such as ours, which is still struggling to overcome the legacy of its racially divided past.
• Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM every Friday 12:00-13:00.