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Polish Jews drive inaugural celebration of Holocaust survivors

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An inaugural day to honour the lives and legacy of Holocaust survivors has been launched by the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) in Krakow, Poland, in collaboration with a range of other Jewish and Holocaust organisations.

“The lives of Holocaust survivors convey a universal message of the strength and the resilience of the human spirit; that people can go through something traumatic and then afterwards still be able to love, to appreciate beauty and to feel empathy after what they went through,” said Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the Krakow JCC, in explaining the rationale behind the day to be held for the first time on 26 June this year.

Ornstein launched the idea early last month, along with Professor Michael Berenbaum, the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University.

He said the idea had been “percolating” since the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 2020, which about 200 survivors attended. “It really got us thinking about the survivors and their effect on us. In the twilight of their lives, they deserve to be honoured.”

It also became clear during the coronavirus pandemic that communal assistance was needed by many survivors. An international Holocaust Survivor Day would hopefully assist in bringing awareness and practical support.

It’s believed there are about 400 000 survivors worldwide, of which it’s estimated that a quarter of them could be living in poverty.

“It’s a day of hope, optimism, story-telling, and education. It’s a day, most of all, for them to feel appreciated, and for them to understand how grateful we are for how much they have given and continue to give us.”

Each community should decide how best they want to commemorate the day, said Ornstein, but the hope was that it would involve interaction across generations, listening to survivors’ stories, and, if needed, fundraising for the well-being of survivors in that country.

The day is proposed as an addition to Yom Hashoah and the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, which are held on 27 Nisan in the Jewish calendar, and 27 January respectively.

Having a separate day to these would allow us to focus on the stories of the survivors, which many have so movingly offered to share with the world in spite of their pain.

“Their lives encapsulate the spirit of the Jewish people – this idea that we as a people have gone through such difficult times and experienced antisemitism over thousands of years, and yet we continue to lead Jewish lives, we continue to be involved. We don’t give up as Jews or as human beings. That’s the story of our people,” Ornstein said.

He said there had been a fantastic response to the idea. An international advisory committee steering the day now includes representatives from Holocaust-survivor organisations in Israel, the United States and Europe, as well as the USC Shoah Foundation, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the General Compensation Fund for Victims of National Socialism, the Claims Conference, the World Jewish Congress, March of the Living, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and various others.

The date selected for the commemoration is the birthdate of Marian Turski, a Polish survivor of Auschwitz, and a historian and journalist, who will turn 95 on the day.

“He’s such a moral figure who has lived his life with exemplary Jewish values, and he’s just a warm, wonderful human being,” reflected Ornstein.

Most recently, Turski spoke at last year’s anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, discussing the idea of an eleventh commandment to the world: never be a bystander.

“Do not be indifferent,” he said at the time. “Do not be indifferent when you see historical lies; do not be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against; do not be indifferent when power violates a social contract.”

Tali Nates, the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, said it was a good idea to celebrate the resilience and lives of survivors.

In South Africa, there are about 30 survivors left. These are defined as people whose lives were affected by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945, and include refugees.

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Legal stricture puts Lithuanian citizenship out of reach for many

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Hundreds of applications worldwide for Lithuanian citizenship based on ancestry are being rejected by the Lithuanian Migration Department, some pending indefinitely and others being placed on hold.

This follows a Lithuanian Supreme Court decision in December 2020 which has opened the law up for interpretation, making it much tougher and dramatically slower to get citizenship.

In addition to what has always been accepted as sufficient proof of Lithuanian citizenship, applicants are now also required to provide proof that their Lithuanian immigrant ancestors actively sought to maintain their Lithuanian citizenship once in South Africa (or their new country of residence) until 15 June 1940. This applies to Litvaks around the world.

This is a departure from the original position, which never required any proof that citizenship was actively maintained after leaving Lithuania.

“This is a major obstacle for applicants as in almost all cases, no such proof exists. It has far-reaching implications for all future citizenship applications,” said Lithuanian emigration consultant Nida Degutiene from Next Steps.

Her company assists many South Africans to obtain Lithuanian citizenship by helping to source the required documentation for reinstatement of their citizenship. She told the SA Jewish Report some of her clients’ applications have recently been declined by the migration department because of this.

According to insiders, things changed following this court decision, which highlighted the law on all citizenship applications. “There is discussion about the exact interpretation of the Lithuanian law of citizenship,” Degutiene said.

This development has dramatically slowed down the application process, causing frustration, say insiders. The department has queried hundreds of pending applications, requesting this additional proof, which according to insiders is extremely difficult – if not impossible – for most people to produce.

There also appear to be many more declined applications than there were previously. In some cases where families have applied at different times using the same source documents, some have been granted citizenship, while others have been rejected.

Dainius Junevičius, the Lithuanian ambassador to South Africa, said 2 646 positive decisions were made by the migration department to reinstate citizenship for Jews from Lithuania living in South Africa between 2016 and 2020.

“The number increased tenfold in five years – from 119 in 2016 to 1 121 in 2020. During that period, the embassy accepted 2 116 passport applications and issued 1 679 passports. Last year, the consular section of the embassy exceeded all of its limits, and accepted 659 passport applications,” he said.

Junevičius said the migration department had processed 1 242 reinstatement requests last year. Citizenship had been reinstated in 1 121 cases, and rejected in 121 cases. “This gives about 90% positive decisions,” he said.

There is uncertainty about where people stand now regarding the prospect of gaining citizenship.

However, there may be hope on the horizon.

In recent weeks, following extensive lobbying, there are initiatives in parliament to amend the citizenship law. A Bill has recently been drafted formally supported by more than 30 members of the Lithuania Seismas (parliament).

“This is a very positive development,” said Degutiene.

The date for tabling the Bill, debating it, and voting whether or not to pass the Bill into law, is still to be decided.

The Bill, which requires a majority vote in its favour before being passed, aims to remove the requirement that applicants prove that their ancestor actively retained Lithuanian citizenship up until 15 June 1940. If the proposed amendment is passed, the requirement would be to prove only that their ancestor held citizenship at any time prior to 15 June 1940.

“This would likely ensure the success of many pending applications which are currently under query,” said Nicole Marcus of AccessEU.

It follows pressure from many service providers who have been actively engaging with Lithuanian authorities to amend the way in which applications are being considered.

Many have written to the Lithuanian Home Affairs Ministry to complain about the way in which the migration department is now considering applications, describing it as “unreasonable and unfair”.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has written to Lithuanian authorities at the highest level, seeking to make things easier for South African Litvaks.

“This is a matter of principle,” said Zev Krengel, SAJBD national vice-president. “Most of our ancestors were forced to flee Lithuania under terrible circumstances, and restoring our citizenship will go a long way to heal and address the wrongs of the past.”

Krengel, who has visited Lithuania several times, received his passport in 2017 with his father, Julius, whose father fled the country in 1925 with literally “the clothes on his back”, according to Krengel.

The Board has written to the president and prime minister of Lithuania, including several other prominent members of parliament, appealing for an amendment to the law, correcting the wording so that citizenship of Lithuania will be reinstated as before.

The letter calls upon the leadership of Lithuania “to cherish and preserve” significant resolutions that allowed all people of Lithuania who were expelled or emigrated in pre-war times to return their citizenship and be part of the new Lithuania.

The SAJBD said it was concerned about “new legal barriers” which were creating obstacles for those applying for reinstatement of Lithuanian citizenship.

Junevičius, said the principle of state continuity was very important for Lithuania. “Modern Lithuania is a continuation of the pre-war Republic of Lithuania, which lost its independence on 15 June 1940, when it was occupied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. All persons who were Lithuanian citizens on that day are considered Lithuanian citizens until now, regardless of where they lived then – in the United States, Russia, British territories, or elsewhere. We’re talking not only about Jews, but about people of all nationalities and faiths. Lithuanian legislators enshrined this principle of continuity of citizenship in the Law on Lithuanian Citizenship,” he said.

“According to the current law and the interpretation of the courts, there is an important condition for the reinstatement of citizenship – the person had to be a Lithuanian citizen on 15 June 1940, so that they or their descendants could reinstate Lithuanian citizenship,” he said.

“The majority of Jews living in South Africa are of Lithuanian descent. The reality is that not everyone meets the criteria for reinstating citizenship.”

If documents are missing or the migration department has doubts that the applicant was a Lithuanian citizen on 15 June 1940, the procedure takes time, he told the SA Jewish Report.

“We are well aware that some applicants cannot prove that their ancestors were Lithuanian citizens until 15 June 1940, and their requests are rejected. As long as this citizenship law and court interpretation is in force, no other solutions can be expected.”

Junevičius said it was important for prospective passport holders to show an interest in Lithuania.

“I’m frustrated that the Lithuanian passport is valued only because it provides an opportunity to travel around Schengen countries, without even visiting Lithuania,” he said.

Although the Lithuanian embassy in Pretoria was opened only in 2015, investment from South Africa in Lithuania is negative, and only 300 tourists from South Africa visited Lithuania in 2019.

“Lithuania is still an undiscovered place for South African Jews to do business, get a great higher education, spend a vacation, or even relocate to the country where their ancestors once used to live,” he said.

He said the embassy did its best to increase the speed of service to reduce waiting times, but asked for patience while booking a time slot for a visit at the consular section.

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Pandor holds line against pressure to cut ties with Israel

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Minister of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) Dr Naledi Pandor brought a sense of calm in the midst of the recent feverish anti-Israel rhetoric in South Africa by refusing to commit South Africa to cutting ties with the Jewish state.

Responding to a parliamentary question on 7 June 2021, she said, “South Africa has recently issued a number of media statements strongly condemning the actions of the Israeli government, where casualties have been mostly innocent civilians, children, women, and the elderly.

“South Africa recalled its ambassador accredited to the state of Israel, Mr Sisa Ngombane, in May 2018. The government remains seized with the modalities related to its diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. The department will communicate any further actions still under consideration.”

She was responding to a question by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Thembi Portia Msane who wanted to know South Africa’s “response to the criminal and indiscriminate killing of Palestinians by the State of Israel”.

Then, at an online event hosted by DIRCO titled “Justice for the Palestinian people” on 8 June 2021, Pandor made statements that were more extreme. She called it an “unbalanced power equation between an occupying power and a people resisting occupation” and said that “the Palestinian narrative evokes experiences of South Africa’s own history of racial segregation and oppression”.

South Africa welcomed “the initiative to convene a special session of the Human Rights Council on the grave human-rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem which was held on 27 May 2021,” Pandor said. “South Africa supports the recent adoption of the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution which establishes an international commission of inquiry to investigate violations in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel.”

At the same time, she acknowledged Israel’s right to exist in peace, saying, “We, along with many in the UN membership, have long accepted and supported a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace.”

Pandor could potentially have descended into worse rhetoric during the event, which consisted of more than two hours of Israel-bashing. It’s clear that she’s under enormous pressure from various quarters to cut ties with Israel, but she has held the line. Where is this pressure coming from, and what will she do about it?

“South Africa is under tremendous pressure to further reduce her relations with Israel – there’s not much left frankly, other than to cut full diplomatic relations,” says local political analyst Daniel Silke. “BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] has certainly entrenched itself within the thinking of the ANC [African National Congress], but I do think there’s an element within the ANC that pushes back against the more extreme or radical view of reducing relations. Pandor may well spearhead that more moderate view.”

Silke believes that “in the end, South Africa is unlikely to cut full diplomatic relations. South Africa will keep a mission in Israel in spite of there being all sorts of rhetoric and rumblings, and perhaps even some sort of other kind of minor downgrade, if it’s still possible.”

He thinks this is because South Africa still has to think of its relationship with other countries – especially the United States and in Western Europe – and cannot act “as an island unto herself”.

“There will be ramped up rhetoric against Israel as we’ve seen, from President [Cyril] Ramaphosa down,” Silke says, “but I expect that in order to at least keep South Africa within the broader community of nations – including with a view to improving relations with the US – we will fall short of what would be a full downgrade of diplomatic relations”.

“In spite of an apparent lack of empathy with the South African Jewish community, it does remain a prominent community within South Africa, and from President Ramaphosa’s understanding, a downgrade would clearly affect relations between the government and the community. This includes business entities that are important for economic growth in South Africa via private-sector initiatives,” Silke says.

Silke says it’s also important to look at the African context. “We’ve seen a shift from some African countries towards close relations with Israel. Ramaphosa is head of the African Union, so South Africa has to balance her role with greater co-operation between African countries and Israel. Those factors also help to keep the channels open, albeit under difficult circumstances.”

Local political analyst Steven Gruzd agrees. “There’s definitely political pressure from BDS to take even further measures against Israel to the extent of cutting ties,” he says. “As Pandor noted, we withdrew our ambassador from Tel Aviv in May 2018, and that ambassador hasn’t been replaced. As we’ve seen, whenever there’s a flare-up in the Middle East, the pressure to cut ties increases.

“It’s difficult to know how great that pressure is, but BDS has certainly been putting pressure on the government. Also, there’s pressure coming from political parties like the EFF, and many within the ANC itself, who portray what’s happening in the Middle East very much through a South African prism.

“But the ANC still believes in a two-state solution. That’s still official policy and it hasn’t gone back on that,” Gruzd says. “So there will be more condemnation in the weeks and months ahead, but I strongly doubt there would be a physical cutting of ties. I hope I’m proved right.”

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Redhill alumni attack Muslim peace activist for appearance at school

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Nausheena Mohamed is a Muslim and a Middle East peace activist. She is no stranger to insults and criticism from her own community for her alternative views on peaceful dialogue and conflict resolution in the region.

But when she was attacked in an advertisement in The Star newspaper last week for taking part in a one-day programme at Redhill School dedicated to discussion of the conflict, she felt “hurt and shocked”.

Unnamed members of the so-called Redhill Parents and Alumni Concerns Committee (RED-PACC) took out a paid advertisement in the form of an open letter in the daily newspaper to express its dissatisfaction with the school’s executive headmaster, Joseph Gerassi, and the school’s choice of speakers for a programme dedicated to discussion on the Middle East conflict.

This follows ongoing protest by RED-PACC that accused Gerassi of limiting free speech for trying to calm rising tension on campus during the recent 11-day flare up between Hamas in Gaza and Israel.

In an open letter to the Redhill executive and trustees, the anonymous pro-Palestine group wrote on 4 June that it had “no trust in Joseph Gerassi’s objectivity to centre Palestinian perspectives in any dialogue or discussion” on the conflict.

The group lambasted Gerassi for inviting Mohamed to address the school on the day, which was devoted to education and information about the conflict. The advert accused Mohamed of being a blogger for “Zionist lobby groups” and for being a “beneficiary of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’” routine and fully funded “hasbara” tours of Israel, where a “sanitised and one-sided view is curated”.

Mohamed has written about peace in The Times of Israel, and has visited the region to engage with people on the ground.

Gerassi’s choice of speakers, the group said, promoted a biased view. It demanded that an alternative speaker such as anti-Israel lobbyist Ronnie Kasrils be invited to take part in the programme.

Mohamed, a multimedia and broadcast journalist, told the SA Jewish Report this week that she was “disappointed” by this group, which made no attempt to engage with her and find out who she really was and what her beliefs were.

“What they said was unjustified. They have a totally incorrect perception about me and my involvement in this conflict. If they had reservations about me, they were more than welcome to approach me for open engagement.”

She said it was “a poor reflection” on them.

“Instead of running to The Star, which I see as intimidating, they could have rather engaged with me, and the school,” she said.

Mohamed advocates peaceful solutions to the conflict and has engaged with many peace activists in the region such as the popular and growing Women Wage Peace organisation, which is comprised of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who seek alternative paths to peace.

Gerassi told the SA Jewish Report that the school and its trustees still had “no idea” who was behind the RED-PACC open letter. “As a school, we have tried to reach out to them, but unfortunately they haven’t been willing to meet us or tell us who they are. They have refused to give their names. How do you engage with people you don’t even know?” he asked.

Mahomed, meanwhile, is the founder of Channel M Productions, and started an online campaign on social media called, “Give Peace A Chance”, which highlights the importance of peace activism in Israel and Palestine.

She spoke to the children about the “third alternative – the other peace process, which is a non-political process that aims to build bridges of understanding to heal the divide of the two large narratives without de-humanising or cancelling out the other”.

“I gave the children a snapshot of the incredible peace initiatives in the region which rarely make the headlines. Ordinary Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, Jews, and Christians have more commonalities than differences. The majority don’t want violence and war, they want peace,” she said.

The one-day programme at the school was broken up into three sessions. The first featured a panel comprising veteran journalist Anton Harber, journalist Flo Letoaba, and advocate Ben Winks who debated the topic, “Should freedom of speech be limited in the media and in schools? If so, what should those limitations be?” In session two, lecturer Larry Benjamin presented an historical perspective of the conflict featuring both narratives. Mohamed spoke in session three.

Gerassi said the school would establish a centre for conflict resolution and dialogue.

Meanwhile, the SAJBD wrote a letter to the editor of The Star in response to the RED-PACC open letter describing it as “intimidation”.

In it, Professor Karen Milner accused RED-PACC of “insisting on bulldozing its political agenda into the school” by amongst other things “vilifying” the headmaster and providing an ultimatum to the school on who could and who couldn’t participate in a discussion of the conflict.

“Why are the Redhill alumni so insistent on a speaker [Kasrils] who has been deliberately offensive and hurtful to the Jewish community over a woman [Mohamed] who tells the story of tolerance and peace? We shudder to think that Redhill is being bullied into choosing toxicity and vicious hatred over peace activism.”

She accused the “alumni association” of trying to prevent free speech by forcing its own narrative into the school space.

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