Scramble to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself a mere 75 years later
“One would assume that the world has learned its lesson,” Israeli Ambassador Lior Keinan told a capacity audience that gathered to observe the International Day of Commemoration in memory of Holocaust victims on Monday evening.
“Yet, we are stunned to see that anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews is back at centre stage, as if we have learned nothing from history, as if humanity has not sacrificed so much life,” Keinan said. “Is 75 years the lifespan of humanity’s memory, the point at which it erases itself and begins anew?”
Diplomats and ambassadors, religious and political leaders, Holocaust survivors, and hundreds of members of the Jewish community came together at the event hosted by the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC) in Forest Town in partnership with the embassy of Israel.
“We have come together to salute bravery, to pay tribute to the spirit of humanity,” said Keinan. Yet, Jews around the world have reported an increase in anti-Semitism over the past two years, saying that that they can no longer wear a kippa or Magen David without being attacked, demeaned, or experiencing physical or verbal abuse.
“The international community sees all this and responds too slowly, if at all,” said Keinan.
“It took the United Nations (UN) more than 60 years to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Only a few months ago, 74 years after the UN’s establishment, did the organisation issue its first report on the global issue of anti-Semitism – 60 years to recognise the horrors of the Holocaust, 74 years to say ‘Houston, we have a problem.’”
He said the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) hasn’t reached its full potential. It was created in1998 as a task force for international co-operation on Holocaust education and research. In 2016, it decided to define anti-Semitism, a definition later adopted by some countries in the alliance.
“That’s the good news,” said Keinan. “The bad news is that only 34 countries are part of the alliance. More than 150 other countries reckon there is no need to learn any more about what happened in the darkest period of modern human history, nor from the definition of anti-Semitism.”
Until they do, it’s up to centres like the JHGC to do the work of governments in promoting Holocaust education. “It leads to an almost desperate attempt to try to prevent history from repeating itself. Israel’s hosting of 45 world leaders was a clear call from Jerusalem that anti-Zionism and denying Israel’s right to exist are a form of anti-Semitism, which must be uprooted.”
Zanele Makina, the chief director: Middle East at the department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO), dubbed the event a bittersweet occasion that is necessary for the world, and particularly South Africa.
“As DIRCO, we need to make sure that the Holocaust is a stark reminder of what shouldn’t happen,” she said.
Makina cited Israeli academic, Dr Roni Mikel Arieli, who writes much about collective memory, (especially regarding the Holocaust), and related it to the connection between South Africa and the Jewish community. “Arieli argues that collective memory should be multidirectional and must enable us to see how South Africa and its democratic founders viewed and related to the Jews,” Makina said.
These include Ahmed Kathrada, who in spite of being a Muslim Indian communist, felt the lessons of the Holocaust keenly. “He was so touched by the memory of the Holocaust that he picked up bones of deceased victims, kept them, and brought them to South Africa,” said Makina. Kathrada stored them in a box in his room, and they were subsequently found by apartheid policemen during a raid on his home. This led to questioning, and Kathrada’s explanation of their provenance.
“He related the story of the Holocaust to these officers,” said Makina. “The policemen replied, “They were just Jews.” That touched him so much that whenever he spoke, mobilising people against injustice, he couldn’t leave out what the Jews had experienced, and what it meant.“
Makina said it illustrated the deep connection between South Africa and the Jewish people. “We have a relationship that cannot be denied, no matter what happens and no matter what voices are raised against the Jews,” she said.
Martin Schäfer, the German ambassador to South Africa, stressed the need for Germans to shun silence and speak out about the importance of the day’s commemoration.
“My first intuition on a day like this would be to remain silent,” he said. “But I think that would be wrong. We have an obligation to speak out. I stand here to commemorate with you 75 years since the liberation, as well as the atrocities committed by my compatriots.”
Schäfer said that the voices of survivors are becoming fewer with each passing year, and that soon we will have no physical witnesses able to testify to the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.
“This makes today extremely important,” he said. “My federal president visited Yad Vashem last Thursday, and for the first time, was able to speak at the commemoration event. Chancellor [Angela] Merkel, too, went to Auschwitz for the first time in December. The foreign minister, the whole cabinet, they’re all out to speak their minds about what happened 75 years ago.
“I tell you this to make clear the steadfast and unconditional commitment of the German state to the historical truth and German responsibility and guilt for the Holocaust. I stand here to make a commitment by the German state to the safety and security of the state of Israel as a home and shelter of the Jewish people.”
Echoing Keinan, he said anti-Semitism remains a threat, even in Germany. “In school yards and in the streets of Germany, we hear what used to be said 80 years ago, ‘der Jude’, something we thought we’d never hear again.”
He said scapegoating, blaming, and lies have become the norm only 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz.
“If there is one thing we can learn, it’s to be on the lookout for attempts to rewrite history,” he said. “This holds true for the Holocaust. I can assure you this will never happen in the German state.”