The vital relevance of our past to the present
History reverberates through the present, and the way our memories are formed depends on how we perceive our past.
“We’ve been made increasingly aware of the extent to which the past is present in our physical landscape, our political discourse, and civic life,” said Shirli Gilbert, professor of modern Jewish history at University College London.
“It’s become a subject of heated debate. What goes on when history enters the public realm?”
Black Lives Matter, Rhodes Must Fall, and similar events have shown the extent to which the past persists, posing questions about what happens when history enters the present public space.
Together with Jonathan Jansen, professor of education at Stellenbosch University, Gilbert unpacked the facets of collective memory in a webinar hosted by the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre last week.
“Philosopher Maurice Halbwachs suggested that memory is a social process, that even our personal memories are shaped by larger social dynamics,” Gilbert said. “He distinguished between history and memory, arguing that the former aims for universal truth, whereas the latter is an understanding of the past shaped by needs and desires that don’t always align with the truth.”
This isn’t to say that memory is wilfully inaccurate, Gilbert stressed, but that it’s driven less by a faithful documentation of the past than by the need to find a way to tell a personal story in the present.
“Memory isn’t an inevitable process but formed through a selective process of viewing the past and often shaping it with our present needs and interests,” she said. “We pick what we want to memorialise and cast in bronze. This is neither good nor bad, but it’s entirely unavoidable.”
The Holocaust is a particularly challenging area where memory is concerned, remembered differently by various people over time whether they lived through it or not.
“Holocaust memory is a contested affair,” said Gilbert. “Questions over how it should be remembered have varied across time and groups, and there is very little agreement about what meaning should be drawn.”
Different approaches to commemorating the Holocaust are evident in the variety of ways in which it is presented in museums globally, Gilbert said.
“They remember the past in different ways,” she said. “Official memory in Israel was torn between the need to remember and the desire to forget.”
In 1948, Israel strove to do away with the image of the defenceless Jew in the diaspora, but the Holocaust had proven the Zionist argument that without a state, Jews would always be vulnerable.
“This posed a real challenge of how to narrate the past,” said Gilbert. “In early years, you see Israel’s Holocaust commemoration making heroism a vital part of the story, emphasising rebirth. The Holocaust is placed on a continuum of Jewish life before and after, and Israel becomes part of that narrative.”
The American approach differed considerably immediately after World War II.
“There was a conscious decision by American Jewish leadership to avoid speaking about what had happened to avoid drawing attention,” she said. “Jews were emigrating to the United States, and it was better they didn’t draw attention to themselves.”
This turned around in the 1960s, but where Holocaust memorials and museums were built, their motivation differed greatly.
Said Gilbert, “The main themes were American ideals. Liberty, pluralism, and democracy were placed at the centre. They preserved American ideals and encouraged Americans to realise their own idealised reasons for being, providing a way through which to mediate the past.”
“It’s neither good nor bad, but it’s inevitable. Grappling with the past involves stepping back and untangling the relationship between history and the way it’s narrated in the present.”
According to Jansen, the situation is equally complex in South Africa.
“I’m often puzzled by the way in which South Africa is at times obsessed with memorials, be they buildings or statues,” he said. “Since 2015, we’ve watched how people have responded to dealing with their past through interacting with these memorials.
“Before 2015, we were aware of statues like Rhodes, but we’d just walk past them on campuses. Suddenly students are throwing excrement at it, it sets off probably the most violent episode in the history of higher education here, and calls for a decolonisation of the university space.
“Why did a statue become such a sudden obsession?”
In the weeks that followed the Rhodes-statue incident, students took to attacking anything that resembled the statute, whether they were aware of its meaning or not. Jansen said that memorials for horses which served in the world wars were attacked in Uitenhage; King George’s bust was targeted in KwaZulu-Natal; a painting of Boer riders was vandalised (in spite of being the work of a progressive black artist); even a statue of Gandhi in Johannesburg was targeted.
“How does it happen that the Boer rider and Gandhi are attacked as part of the same movement?”, said Jansen. “Invisible memorials suddenly became visible, and are met with violence. It shows how South Africans deal with visible memory of a very present past.”
Jansen believes that the attack on the Rhodes statue was a proxy for deep discontent in post-apartheid society.
“I don’t think it actually had to do with Rhodes,” he said. “No one was troubled by the statue for decades. Students were gatvol with a corrupt government and rampant inequality. The attack wasn’t about the statue but what it represents institutionally, coupled with lashing out because a democratic promise of 1994 wasn’t kept.
“The indiscriminate nature of the attacks reflects a fatal disconnect between politics and pedagogy. You cannot even ask how the statues can be repurposed, something I tried to discuss with students. There was no appetite at all, and thus no place for learning – they wanted to see it burned.
“It’s an extremely dangerous thing regardless of politics if you cannot think, especially at a university.
The politics of memory in South Africa are highly selective and contradictory, Jansen says.
“Rhodes’ statue came down, but when discussions about renaming the university went ahead, the senate decided to keep the name because of brand value,” he said. “If the principle at stake is that it is intolerable to have Rhodes remembered so prominently, why is the name being kept?
The Rhodes scholarship is another example.
“Some students who were at the head of the protest were the same ones pleading to be funded to study at Oxford with a Rhodes scholarship,” said Jansen. “This makes no sense. If this is a principle, there must be consistency. You cannot pick and choose.”
UCT lecturer’s Hitler comment causes outrage
The fact that a high-level University of Cape Town (UCT) lecturer told his students that “Hitler committed no crime” seems too unbelievable to be true, but it happened on 7 April 2021, on the eve of Yom Hashoah.
The phrase was uttered in a pre-recorded “introduction to political science” lecture by Dr Lwazi Lushaba, a lecturer in the political studies department at UCT, for first-year students. His only response to questions by the SA Jewish Report about his comment was, “please watch and be educated”, attaching the lecture and signing off as “Commandante Lushaba”.
During the talk, he claimed that politics hadn’t been informed by the lived experiences of black people, and that it took “what Hitler did to white people” to have massacres recognised in political science. “All Hitler did was to do to white people what white people had reserved for us – black people,” Lushaba said. “And so his crime, if he had a crime, was to do unto white people what white people have thought was right to do only to black people.” He went on to say that the Holocaust mustn’t be prioritised over other massacres.
The comments have sown deep division, and have been hijacked by some wanting to criticise Israel and the Jewish community. However, leading educator Professor Jonathan Jansen tweeted, “From the Wits student, Dlamini, to the UCT lecturer, Lushaba, the positive referencing of Hitler is more than attention-seeking behaviour by the intellectually vacuous. They reveal the utter depravity of the public discourse on university campuses today.”
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is to lodge a complaint against Lushaba with the South African Human Rights Commission. “The Holocaust was unequivocally a crime against humanity orchestrated by Hitler. The DA therefore strongly condemns the comments made by Lushaba,” said DA MP Natasha Mazzone.
“His comments weren’t only racist, offensive, and vile, but also completely insensitive to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and the Jewish community as a whole. In remembering the victims of the Holocaust, we must place a renewed sense of responsibility on those in positions of power and influence to defend the truth and defend our democracy against any racist or antisemitic sentiments.”
“Lushaba has a long history of offensive and controversial actions,” Mazzone said. “In 2019, he allegedly took exception to one of the contenders in UCT’s election of its dean of humanities being Tanzanian and not South African. In an interview with Power FM, Lushaba stated that “reason and rationality are white”. Lushaba was also suspended by Wits [the University of the Witwatersrand] in 2015 for “participating in activities which weren’t conducive to free and fair elections, and were intolerant to a democratic society”.
The DA urged the institution’s vice-chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, to place Lushaba on suspension pending the investigation. But UCT’s students’ representative council (SRC) has defended the lecturer. SRC chairperson Declan Dyer said it noted the public reaction, but the comments had been taken out of context, and were part of a larger critique of political science.
Student responses have varied. Jewish student Sam McNally, who is studying for a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics, told the SA Jewish Report, “As someone who has watched the lecture in its entirety, I believe Dr Lushaba’s point about the hypocrisy of ‘Western’ or ‘white’ political science holds up, but only in a very general sense. But his argument neglects to mention that Jews at the time weren’t exactly considered white and certainly weren’t considered such by eugenics, the prevailing racial ‘science’ of the time that formed a large part of Hitler’s justification for his actions.
“My main issue regarding the statement that ‘Hitler committed no crime’ is that it bears little to no relation to the point [Lushaba was trying to make],” continues McNally. “White people being hypocritical about genocide has nothing to do with Hitler’s criminality. As to whether Dr Lushaba meant something different by his comment – which is a theory I have heard postulated, particularly in the form, ‘He didn’t mean to say that Hitler committed no crime, but that he committed no more of a crime than colonial architects of genocide’, my view is that if he meant that, then he should have said it.”
Another Jewish student, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “I believe Dr Lushaba is very critical of white people. I believe he was very negligent in his use of words. However, I don’t believe his statements were hate speech or antisemitic. I believe he was trying to illustrate the point that the world took notice of atrocities only when they were done to white people.”
Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT, says, “On the face of it, Dr Lushaba’s comments appear to justify the Holocaust and absolve Hitler of responsibility for mass murder. Hearing his comments in the context of the broader lecture, Dr Lushaba seems to be claiming that Hitler acted within the legal and institutional system of the German state, and was therefore – according to the prevailing terms of German law – guilty of no explicit crime. This interpretation may make sense given Dr Lushaba’s larger argument about the shift of thinking within political studies as well as his repeated recognition that Nazism was responsible for genocide.
“All that being said, the historical claims that Dr Lushaba makes – about Hitler’s rise to power, the role of law within the Nazi state, the nature of Nazi antisemitism, and the ‘whiteness’ of Jews, the timing of the Final Solution – betray significant historical blind spots and errors,” Mendelsohn says. “At many points in his lecture, dubious historical claims are yoked to polemical claims. He could do with reading much more about Nazism and the Holocaust.”
Mathilde Myburgh, communications officer at the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says the board has given videos of Lushaba’s lecture and supporting information to its antisemitism and legal subcommittee, which is investigating the matter.
“Academic freedom and freedom of expression mustn’t undermine the central aim of our Constitution, which is to build a united and democratic South Africa based on mutual respect, understanding, and human dignity. Universities help shape the minds of the future leaders of our country. The personal views shared by this UCT lecturer were received as hateful and deeply offensive, and should have no part in the academic syllabus of a public university,” she says.
“To our knowledge, Dr Lushaba hasn’t yet apologised for or retracted his remarks. We await his further engagement on the matter, and would be willing to meet him. We have reached out to Vice-Chancellor Phakeng, and the university has launched an investigation. We believe the matter is for UCT to investigate and respond before any further measures are considered.”
Tali Nates and Mary Kluk of the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation say, “The Holocaust is one of the most horrific periods in the history of mankind. It’s deeply disturbing to hear reference to this painful history in a manner so laden with irony and cynicism without consideration of the damage and hurt that this flippant reference can cause.”
Says UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola, “The University of Cape Town has been alerted to and notes with grave concern comments allegedly made by a staff member during an online class. We are verifying all the facts. In the meantime, UCT is clear that all brutalities of genocide constitute both formal crimes against humanity and ongoing sources of pain. We distance ourselves strongly from any other view. The matter is receiving attention through all appropriate channels.”
Graeme Bloch: icon of education and activism
In a tragic irony, a man who lived life to the full was condemned to endure an illness that meant he could no longer move or speak. But when Graeme Bloch died on Friday, 9 April 2021, at the age of 65, there was little doubt about the impact he had made on the struggle for a democratic South Africa and in the field of education, his true calling.
Watching their brother deteriorate from someone who hiked, ran marathons, loved to debate, and was an excellent speaker has been difficult for Lance and Shaun Bloch, two of his brothers who spoke to the SA Jewish Report in the wake of his death. Graeme was diagnosed with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy seven years ago.
The seven Bloch siblings have faced much trauma and tragedy in recent years, when their elderly mother, Rosalie Bloch, and her partner, Aubrey Jackson, were murdered in their home in 2018.
“I was actually in Cape Town to wrap up their estate last week when Graeme got pneumonia and was hospitalised,” says Shaun. “Graeme tested COVID-19-negative. Ironically, my brother, Guy, was admitted to the exact same ward at the same time for a minor health issue. It was a blessing in disguise because Guy could check on Graeme in the night.” He says Graeme was “up and down”, but “eventually deteriorated quite quickly and passed away”.
His life was fascinating and full from the start. As one of seven siblings (six boys and a girl), “it was an exciting, vibrant, intellectual household”, says Lance. “My father was a plastic surgeon, my mother a lawyer, so it was a really stimulating environment.” Shaun feels that debate, discussion, education, and recognising that all people are equal were all Jewish values instilled by their parents, and had a profound impact on Graeme, informing his choices from a young age.
“At the same time it was a very active family – we spent almost every weekend on the mountain,” says Lance. “He was a high achiever academically. I was often known as ‘Graeme’s brother’, as he really blazed a trail at school and university.”
Bloch’s passion for education and equal access to it started young. “In Standard 6 [Grade 8] he joined the organisation National Youth Action [NYA], which was the first non-racial schools’ organisation that agitated for fair and equal education for all,” says Lance.
Cape Town academic David Scher also remembers Bloch from their school days at Westerford High School. “There were so many Blochs that they were called ‘Blochlets’,” he joked. “Joining the NYA was really brave, as school principals disapproved of it, and it was unheard of for schoolchildren to be politically involved.”
As a University of Cape Town student, Graeme got involved with the National Union of South African Students and End Conscription Campaign. He was detained and arrested by apartheid security forces in 1976, and was “banned” from 1976 to 1981.
Scher recalls, “At the age of 20, he [Graeme] was beaten up in detention by the infamous [Warrant Officer Hernus JP] Spyker van Wyk, who brought his children along to watch the interrogation.”
Says Lance, “Being detained and on the run scarred him a bit. It made him more nervous, but also more determined. He was extremely brave.
“When he was banned for five years, he wasn’t supposed to be in touch with more than one person at a time, but he used to break that law,” Lance says. “He would come to family meals, and the Security Branch would be sitting outside the house. Sometimes, my mother would go out and give them coffee!”
Scher reconnected with Graeme when they both worked in the history department at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) around 1986. “He was part of the temporary staff. He couldn’t get a permanent position because he was so often on the run. I remember once I was staying with my in-laws. One evening, there was a knock on the door and there stood a stranger. I didn’t recognise that it was Graeme in disguise! He had come to collect exam scripts to mark.
“As a lecturer, he couldn’t be seen on campus in case he was arrested,” says Scher. “He would say that it was a ‘soulless experience’ not to be able to have a permanent academic job – he felt it keenly. Such was his sacrifice. And the students at UWC really adored him. He came to the university straight after he was released from detention, and they gave him a massive reception as he addressed them.”
“Education was really his passion,” says Lance. “He inspired a whole generation of youth.”
Former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel elaborates on this. “In the mid-1980s, Graeme ran education programmes for children who have since gone on to do amazing things in life. He gave them vision, determination, and hope. Many of them attribute where they are today to Graeme ‘unlocking’ their potential. That was Graeme – education wasn’t just academic, it was a deeply felt and passionate thing.”
Doron Isaacs, a founder of Equal Education (EE), remembers how “Graeme was an EE board member from 2010 for two and half years through the organisation’s most intense period of campaigning. What I most admired in Graeme was how seriously he took the school-going activists within EE, how he listened to them and engaged them, almost treating them as his leaders. He retained an instinctive radicalism acquired in his youth, but what he most admired in young activists was conscientiousness, discipline, hunger for knowledge, and patient organising. In spite of his close ties to the ANC [African National Congress], he never wavered in backing EE to confront the government and its leaders.”
Manuel continues, “Graeme was willing to do even the most menial tasks. When we launched the UDF [United Democratic Front] in August 1983, he landed up making soup. I don’t think his soup would have made MasterChef, but he did it because someone needed to do it.”
It was in the UDF that Graeme met his soulmate and future wife, Cheryl Carolus, who would later become the ANC’s deputy secretary general. Many describe how they complemented each other – Graeme was more subdued while Cheryl is more extroverted. Together, they were a force of nature.
“Another thing I remember is that all the mothers of other activists adored him,” says Manuel. “All of them, without exception, had the most unbelievable affection for Graeme. And being invited by so many families for supper made him the envy of his friends. Many of his networks were built like that.
“Whenever I visited his house, the most common feature in all their photos was laughter. He was a radiant, happy individual. The illness took away his ability to speak, but even as recently as a month ago, he would laugh at jokes. Notwithstanding the fact that he couldn’t talk, his joie de vivre wasn’t dimmed.”
Former Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs remembers how Bloch played a key role in welcoming him back to Cape Town after 24 years in exile in May 1990. “My first wish was to climb Table Mountain. I got the message out that after I landed at the airport, I wanted to go to my mom and have tea with her, then put on my takkies and climb my beloved mountain.
“But I needed someone to escort me. My arm had been blown off, and I wasn’t sure I could make it. I was told that comrade Graeme Bloch was the ANC’s ‘exercise person’, and had put together a team of comrades to join us,” Sachs says. “He took me up Constantia Nek, we walked past the reservoirs … I still remember the exact route after two decades … down Kasteel’s Poort, along the pipe track, and finally arriving at Kloof Nek corner. I felt triumphant. I wasn’t sure I could even do it, but he made it happen. You couldn’t have found a more gracious, warm, and generous person. He loved the mountain, and he loved freedom.”
Lost Barmitzvah boy finally finds his way home
When Stephen “Sugar” Segerman started searching for the Barmitzvah boy whose photograph was on his mantlepiece, he didn’t imagine he would find out from someone half way around the globe that the boy had once lived a few houses away from him.
Last week, the SA Jewish Report described how Segerman – who once searched for and found the musician Sixto Rodriguez
– was now trying to identify the boy in a photograph he found at the Milnerton Market in Cape Town a few years ago.
Within a few days of publication and the story spreading around the world, the identity of the barmi boy as the late Arnold Kleinberger was revealed. Segerman had an emotional meeting with Kleinberger’s daughter, Aura Zartz, who lives in Cape Town, on Tuesday (13 April) this week.
“In the days following the story appearing in the SA Jewish Report, it was shared all over the world, judging from the enthusiastic responses I immediately received,” Segerman said.
“I started receiving a lot of emails from people who thought they recognised the barmi boy. One said, ‘My name is Cedric Reingold. I grew up in Highlands Estate and matriculated from Herzlia in 1978. I recently read the article, and recognised the person in the picture. His name is Arnold Kleinberger. He was in our third-grade year and if I’m not mistaken, left [Herzlia] sometime thereafter.’”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Chicago, Reingold said that he was scrolling through the online version of the paper, when he saw the photograph and immediately recognised Arnold. He then confirmed it with others in his matric year Facebook group. “But actually, I was 100% sure, even though he wasn’t at Herzlia for long [he then went to Cape Town High]. I can’t explain it – I just knew.”
Said Segerman, “I was elated. I then started an online search, and found that Arnold Kleinberger was born in 1960, which meant his Barmitzvah would have been in 1973, fitting with the timeline. Sadly, he passed away at the young age of 37 in 1997. I found a photo of his tombstone from the Cape Town Chevrah Kadisha website, and studied it to find any clues.
“It said that he was mourned by his family, but only his mother Sadie was named. I found out she had passed away in 2015. Her tombstone said that she was mourned by her daughters Marlene and Anita, son-in-law Maurice, and granddaughters Nadine and Aura.”
He searched the name Kleinberger on Facebook, and found a Doré Kleinberger, whose mother had been Eva Wolovitz. That led Segerman to Wolovitz’s tombstone, where again, he saw the name Aura. Further googling lead to the birth announcement of Aura and Adam Zartz’s son on the Herzlia Alumni Association site.
At this point, Segerman turned to his daughter, Natalia, and son-in-law, Ryan Rabinowitz, who were visiting from London, and asked if they knew them.
“Ryan looked at me with great surprise and told me that not only did he know Adam very well, but they had sat next to each other at shul that very morning,” said Segerman. “He immediately contacted Adam, and we spoke to his wife, Aura, who confirmed that the barmi boy was her late father, Arnold.
“She said that Doré was her mother, and her aunts were the late Anita Shenker and Marlene Kleinberger. Marlene had lived in Milnerton and passed away a few years before. Anita had cleaned out Marlene’s house and sent numerous items to the Milnerton Market.
“Aura was nine when her father passed away. She confirmed that his Barmitzvah was on 13 January 1973, and she had recently been given his Barmitzvah book by Anita’s husband, Maurice Shenker, which contained the same photo I had. She then told me that her father had grown up in Oranjezicht.”
Segerman and his wife have lived in Oranjezicht for the past 24 years, and it turns out they live just four houses away from where the Barmitzvah boy grew up.
In addition, Arnold’s parents’ domestic worker, the late Lettie Gal, would sometimes work for the Segermans. This is just one of many other coincidences linking all the people connected to the story.
Zartz, whose first-born child, Allegra, is named after Arnold, said that her father was always “elusive” to her. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she didn’t see her father much in the years before his death, which were marked with difficulties.
She said that when Segerman phoned, she felt like she was on some kind of ‘Candid Camera’ show – it didn’t feel real. In some ways, she felt heartbroken that her father’s photo had landed up in a stranger’s home, “but then I felt a huge amount of comfort that he was so close to where he grew up”.
She spent much of her childhood in her late grandmother’s home, and feels closely connected to it. Segerman emphasised that he has always felt very protective of the photograph, which meant a lot to Zartz.
Her mother, Doré, is the last remaining Kleinberger. She said Arnold’s father, Ernest, came to South Africa from Germany in 1936 when he was 13. “He had his Barmitzvah on the boat!” His mother, Sadie, was born in South Africa. She understands that Arnold was quite a “troubled child”, but also had many happy moments in his parents’ home and general goods stores, where he would help himself to chocolate.
“Their home was always warm and welcoming – a central meeting place that people gravitated towards,” Kleinberger said. “Arnold had a tough exterior, but was the kindest person. I think he had a difficult time in the army. But he loved Formula One racing and motorbikes, and would time keep at Killarney. He also loved to braai and surf. For our honeymoon, we went up the coast with his surfboard.”
Segerman was deeply moved by these revelations and in the days after finding all of this out, he went on his regular walking route, which passed the house that Kleinberger grew up in.
“Today my walk was different – more special and emotional than ever before. I stopped at both gates and thought about Arnold and all that has happened these past few days.” He has decided that he will say Kaddish for Arnold on his yahrzeit.
Zartz said that when Segerman first called, “I thought, ‘What is my father trying to tell me?’ And when I heard Stephen say he lived in Forest Road, I realised that he was just trying to make his way home. I don’t want to keep the photograph. I give it to Stephen with a happy heart. This story means that my dad is exactly where he needs to be.”
Correction: In the 9 April edition of the SA Jewish Report, we wrote that Stephen Segerman’s Mabu Vinyl store had closed. This is an error – it has not closed but has moved to new premises at 285 Long Street, Cape Town. We regret the error.
Letters/Discussion Forums1 week ago
Only those on the frontline should be vaccinated
Letters/Discussion Forums1 week ago
Protest not a creative solution to education funding crisis
Letters/Discussion Forums1 week ago
Looking for descendants of Lithuanian great-grandfather
Youth1 week ago
KDVP holds siyum for firstborn boys
Voices1 week ago
Join us for Yom Hashoah
Voices1 week ago
Time for Israelis to pray for South Africa
Religion1 week ago
Finding faith in the hippo
Israel1 week ago
Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film