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Teaching a language to stay alive

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Could you teach someone to speak a language that doesn’t exist if your life depended on it?

This is the question which Holocaust film Persian Lessons raises, and though it may at times stretch credibility, its consideration of what it means to remember is compelling.

Directed by Ukrainian-American film maker Vadim Perelman, Persian Lessons is a unique piece of cinema which doesn’t fit neatly into the typical mould of Holocaust films. The film is based on a novella written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, and rather than claiming to be historically accurate, presents itself as being “inspired by true events”, though without explanation.

Set in occupied France in 1942, Persian Lessons tells the story of a young Belgian man called Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who survives being executed by a Nazi firing squad by convincing them that he’s not Jewish, but Persian. He bases his claim on a book of Persian legends, acquired only moments before in exchange for half a sandwich. His luck holds out, and Gilles is taken to a transit camp where a culinarily inclined SS officer, Klaus Koch, (Lars Eidinger) happens to need a Persian to teach him Farsi.

Unfortunately, the Persian pretender knows only a single word in the Persian language, but he (very) easily convinces Koch (whose unorthodox post-war aspiration is to open a restaurant in Tehran) that he is up to the task. Adopting the name Reza Joon, the wily Gilles devises a gibberish tongue, drawing inspiration from the names of Jewish prisoners who are incarcerated in the camp.

Joon and Koch’s relationship develops as the language tutelage unfolds, but the former’s cover is frequently threatened not just by his own memory, but by camp staff who feel that their superior has been duped by a cunning Jew. When he’s not teaching or memorising reams of contrived words, Joon works in the kitchen or interacts with his fellow Jewish inmates, whose plight leaves him wracked with guilt.

Unlike many Holocaust films, Persian Lessons avoids especially harrowing depictions of camp life, and also aims to go beyond presenting Nazis as stock trope murderers. Unsettling though this may be, it enhances the poignancy of Nazi brutality, leaving viewers with perhaps more to contemplate.

“I wanted to show the transformation Koch goes through. He’s able to communicate things in invented Farsi language, things he couldn’t say in German, taboo things,” Perelman said in an interview. “I found it fascinating to portray the growth of this person, his humanisation, and the fact that through this language, he is able to reach and show certain parts of himself that he wasn’t able to perform in German.”

Language, too, humanises the victims of Nazi terror, their names preserved not on paper but in the dynamism of the spoken word in spite of the inherent difficulty of memorisation.

“Inventing them isn’t the problem,” Joon says of teaching his false Farsi. “It’s remembering them, that’s the issue. There will always be more.”

Holocaust memory is one of the film’s strongest themes, as observed by Perelman.

“Gilles transforming prisoners’ names into foreign-language words is immortalising them,” he says. “During the war, there were all those people who vanished completely and remained unknown because all the archives and registers of the camp were burnt by the Nazis.”

Ultimately, Persian Lessons may beggar belief at certain times, but its emotive invocation of memory and the act of remembering expressed through the metaphor of language presents a powerful and poignant message.

  • Persian Lessons will be released in South Africa on 19 March.

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Enough vaccines to go round, say experts, but not for a while

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There is a widespread perception in the community that South Africa is lagging way behind in its vaccine rollout, but insiders say there will be enough vaccines to go round and herd immunity isn’t a pipe dream.

Discovery Group Chief Executive Adrian Gore told the SA Jewish Report this week that South Africa had secured 51 million doses of vaccines. These include 31 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“Together, these should be sufficient to cover more than 40 million adults in South Africa, exceeding the population herd immunity target of 29 million people,” he said.

He said cabinet had indicated an intention to vaccinate all high-risk groups, including essential workers, people over the age of 60, and people living with multiple co-morbidities by the latest October 2021.

“Discovery, together with public and private-sector partners, is pushing hard to achieve this sooner, pending the available supply of vaccines.”

Professor Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, agreed that there was a perception that the country was lagging behind.

However, Schoub said South Africa was lucky that the lag hadn’t been too damaging, because of the low transmission rate of the virus. This, he said, was “unlike the continuing devastation in the northern hemisphere in spite of extensive vaccine rollouts in those countries”.

“We do hope that there will be sufficient vaccination in good time for a large proportion of high-risk individuals to be covered before we experience our third wave and before winter,” he said.

“Unfortunately, financially, we weren’t able to race with the hounds and grab all the good vaccines, as most of the high-income countries have selfishly done, procuring far more than their populations needed.”

Schoub, who also chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 tasked with advising the government on vaccine-related matters, said there were a number of important things to remember about the rollout.

“First, many of the middle and lower-income countries have opted to roll out with vaccines which haven’t yet been approved by what are called stringent regulatory authorities, for example the United States Food and Drug Administration,” he said. “For example, vaccines from China and Russia, which may well be very good vaccines and are also undergoing review in South Africa, but haven’t yet been approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).”

South Africa is “very fortunate” in having an excellent regulatory authority in SAHPRA, Schoub said, advised and supported by a team of excellent local scientists, in order to uphold high standards of safety and efficacy in approving vaccines for use in this country.

“Also, it’s indeed fortunate that we didn’t, in fact, like high-income countries, rush to buy large amounts of vaccines because of the dominance of the B.1.351 variant in South Africa. This variant is proving to be a major determinant of vaccine efficacy.

“We are also fortunate in this country to have a network of scientists which ranks amongst the top in the world in the COVID-19 field, who can provide the most advanced scientific evaluation of the suitability of vaccines for the South African environment, especially given the dominance of the B.1.351 variant.”

South Africa’s vaccines are expected to start arriving in the middle of this month, according to Gore.

A total of 0.6 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses are scheduled for delivery this month, and a further 4.5 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses are scheduled for delivery in May and June, with the remaining 15 million doses scheduled for delivery in the third and fourth quarters of this year.

Gore, who has been working with the task team (chaired by Schoub) appointed by the health minister to support vaccine procurement, said 2.8 million Johnson & Johnson doses were scheduled for delivery from April to June, with the balance scheduled for delivery in the third and fourth quarters of this year.

He said Discovery had been working on detailed plans to ensure its medical-scheme members and clients were able to access vaccinations as soon as they were eligible according to national prioritisation criteria.

“In alignment with the national priority setting process and three-phase rollout, we have segmented and stratified our member base based on those at highest risk. Through this exercise, we have identified more than 550 000 clients and members as high-risk,” he said. “The aim is to vaccinate this group as quickly as possible, then to go on to provide access to vaccination for the remaining 2.5 million members and clients as quickly as possible in the following phases of the rollout, ideally before the end of 2021.”

He said Discovery was also preparing to help its members navigate the vaccination process. This includes how to register on the Electronic Vaccination Data System, how to locate accredited vaccination sites, providing follow-up reminders for second doses, and providing access to vaccination certificates.

“Discovery is participating in Business for South Africa workstreams that are planning the roll out of the national COVID-19 vaccination programme alongside the national department of health. We are contributing skills and expertise to support this national effort,” Gore said.

He said Discovery remained in regular contact with vaccine manufacturers, while making every effort in co-ordination with the health department to speed up availability to members of the medical schemes it administers.

“Schemes administered by Discovery have ring-fenced funds for vaccination for all members. We are ready and waiting to disburse these funds pending the arrival of vaccines and official launch of the next phase of the rollout,” he said.

According to the health department, the number of healthcare workers vaccinated under the Sisonke Protocol remains 269 102, a tiny figure compared with the United States, where a record four million people received a vaccine last Saturday alone.

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Labia Theatre’s nine-year battle against anti-Israel film

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It’s been nine years since Labia Theatre owner Ludi Kraus was unwittingly caught up in a fight with the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) over the screening at his theatre of a documentary which compares Israel to apartheid South Africa.

“This is a battle I didn’t choose,” he says in an exclusive interview with the SA Jewish Report. “I stood up for the rights of independent cinemas and in particular my theatre. It’s been enormously stressful, but I didn’t want my theatre to be used for an event that was central to something as divisive as the opening of Israel Apartheid Week (IAW). So, I stuck with those principles.”

In a judgment delivered on 26 March 2021, Western Cape Judge Andre Le Grange of the Equality Court ruled that the Labia must screen the film The Roadmap to Apartheid within 60 days, and it was ordered to pay costs.

Kraus, who is Jewish, couldn’t at the time of going to press share how he and his legal team would respond to the judgment, but he recalled how it all started. “I received a request from a publishing company to rent a cinema on a Sunday afternoon. It was called, somewhat innocuously, Workers World Media Productions.

“An arrangement regarding the screening of the film was made, and I was told to send an invoice to the PSC. I was puzzled because I thought it was a South African movie linked to apartheid. The publishing company hadn’t mentioned the PSC at all. So I googled the film, and to my surprise, found that it was about comparing apartheid to Israel and the Palestinians. I didn’t feel comfortable showing the film, especially when I found out that the screening at the Labia was to be a central part of the opening of IAW in 2012.

“I was unhappy with the film and the event. I felt it wouldn’t be popular with the majority of my patrons, especially considering the hundreds of other venues that could be used to screen it instead. I phoned the publishing company, and told it that I didn’t want to proceed. Communication was initially polite. They were understanding, and said they would discuss it with their colleagues.

“The next thing, I was by accident sent some in-house emails that weren’t intended for me, in which one person said that they were happy to find an alternative venue, but others insisted that it be shown at the Labia, which would generate publicity for their cause.

“We were then subjected to emails, threats, boycotts, and pickets every Friday for a year. They got academics and the media involved. Meanwhile, the film was shown on UCT [the University of Cape Town] campus, and went on a national tour.

“They also got organisations to boycott us, and some of it did affect us. We were then approached by Right2Know (R2K), which said it was prepared to mediate. It culminated in our agreeing to a screening of the film on condition that the South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] be present to debate the film afterwards. We obviously wanted to try and have a balanced debate. But the SAZF pulled out. Because the condition hadn’t been met, we cancelled the screening, which led to a further outcry.

“That was followed by both the PSC and R2K lodging complaints with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). The SAHRC found in favour of us.

“Unbeknown to us though, the PSC and R2K then appealed the SAHRC decision without notifying us that they were doing so,” Kraus says. “This time, on appeal, the SAHRC overturned its initial decision, and found against us. The first we heard about the appeal ruling was a year after it had taken place. Yet, it’s a legal principle that you can’t rule against someone if you haven’t given them the opportunity to hear their side of the story, as was the case here.

“So, we took the SAHRC’s decision on review to the High Court, and we won that battle. But the Equality Court, in a separate matter brought by the PSC, ruled against us, ordering a screening of the film.”

Going forward, Kraus is most concerned about the ongoing funding of legal costs, especially if the case goes all the way to the Constitutional Court. The cinema has had a tough year financially as it was in lockdown for five months. It was then hit by the second wave during the holiday season – the only time it could have ‘caught up’. Having now fought two high court cases, it simply doesn’t have the resources to continue to fight with an appeal to the Supreme Court and then, if necessary, the Constitutional Court. Kraus says that even with his attorneys acting pro bono, the cost of driving these matters through the courts is still substantial for a small business.

“It’s a struggle. Many of our patrons are older people who aren’t ready to return to the cinema, even though we have COVID-19 safety protocols in place,” says Kraus. The cinema is hoping to draw a younger audience with more commercial titles. It has also launched a streaming service that is available anywhere in South Africa.

Kraus believes that the PSC and its supporters don’t care much about the actual screening of the film at the Labia anymore. “For them, all these years later, it’s more about the publicity that’s being generated over the issue,” he says.

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Photos reveal Africa’s Jewish tapestry

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“My photographs try to weave together the complex tapestry of the Jewish African peoples segregated by historical, cultural, linguistic, and regional divides yet united by a faith in Hashem.”

So says Jono David, a British-born photographer living in Japan who has travelled the globe to amass what is perhaps the most extensive archive of contemporary images of Jewish heritage and heritage sites in the world.

Included in his growing compendium of more than 120 000 photographs from 116 countries and territories is his collection of photographs of Jews in Africa from 30 countries on the continent. The best of these photographs are in a book titled, The Jews of Africa: Lost Tribes, Found Communities, Emerging Faiths that includes essays by scholars, rabbis, and African Jews.

“Between August 2012 and April 2016, I embarked upon eight unique Jewish Africa photo tours comprised of about 60 total weeks of travel to 30 countries and territories,” David writes. “Ultimately, I archived about 65 000 Jewish Africa photographs, and I did so with the aim of answering one primary question: who are the Jews of Africa?

“I was particularly interested in the emerging black Jewish communities in places such as Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Madagascar, Gabon, and Cameroon. Over the past 20 or so years, the phenomenon of religious renouncement and self-conversion to Judaism has, in some cases, as in Ghana, Cameroon, and Gabon, grown with the rise of internet connection there. Real-time connection is weaving a black Jewish tapestry across the continent,” David writes in his book.

“So far, these small but fervent communities remain largely ignored by official entities in Israel and in the mainstream Jewish world. The century-old Abayudaya community in Uganda is officially recognised by Conservative Judaism, but that’s an exception. Connections with outside Jewish organisations and rabbis are increasing, however, and official Jewish recognition remains an important aim.

“In my travels, these communities held a particular fascination, but I was equally mindful of the European-rooted congregations. I was curious not merely about their history, but about their manifestations of Jewish life in comparison to familiar ways in Europe.

“Today, while Jewish communities of the southern African region shrink and ancient ones of the Maghreb cling on [notably in Morocco and Tunisia], black Jewish groups are growing in number, in location, and in commitment,” David concludes. “Following subjugation over the centuries by invaders both political and religious, motivating factors for this Jewish awakening are rooted in a quest for truth and identity, truth rooted in the tenants of Judaism and the Torah, an identity founded in self-determination.”

  • See more of Jono David’s Jewish work at JewishPhotoLibrary.com

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