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Through TOEAC accordions reclaim respectability

“Maybe it’s because the accordion is so physical, you really carry it with your whole body,” Renée Bekkers tells Arts Editor Robyn Sassen in e-mail interview with SA Jewish Report.





The appearance of Dutch duo Renée Bekkers and Pieternel Berkers with their instruments onstage makes you feel like you are a part of a Fellini film set. Each has an enormous instrument strapped to her chest. There’s curious grotesqueness to an accordion duo.

“Maybe it’s because the accordion is so physical,” said Bekkers in an e-mail interview with the SA Jewish Report. “You really ‘carry’ it with your whole body.”

The two, born in the mid-1980s, have been collaborating since they were 14. “We grew up with our instruments and each other. And we have developed our own musical language which we speak while playing music together,” concurs Berkers.

The grotesque metaphor vanishes as soon as you hear them play. The duo, known as TOEAC, entranced South African audiences in 2010, and next week – on October 9 – they will be back.

“The classical accordion is not common in Holland or Europe. And the idea of a classical accordion duo is even more unusual,” says Bekkers, speaking of the “folksy” reputation of the instrument. She explains that accordion playing seems to be getting better press than it used to, with the new generation of performers.

“We both started the accordion because of our families,” Berker adds. “My aunt played it and so did Renée’s uncle.” They started collaborating professionally after graduating at the Conservatory of the Netherlands and the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

“We play different repertoires on different stages in South Africa. But we play parts of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in many of them. We made the arrangement ourselves.” They’ve just released it on CD.

“A favourite work for us both is Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka, which we’ve arranged for two accordions. It’s beautiful and it fits accordion well as it has a ‘folksy’ sound. We like to collaborate with contemporary composers: in Holland, new work is being written for the accordion.

“One of our favourite composers in Holland is Gerard Beljon and we will play his ‘(It takes) 2 2 to Tango’ which he wrote for us. Besides this, we also play another Dutch work by Chiel Meijering and of course we play Piazzolla, who wrote for the accordion.”

After their South African visit, TOEAC perform in Holland, Moscow and Montreal; the latter will include an electronic collaboration.

“The piece, called ‘Air Sensible’ is a spatial work wherein the electronic sounds are created on the spot through the music played by two accordions. As in the act of breathing, what is taken in is retained, transformed and then, in a different form, returned. There are points where the two worlds merge into each other, removing the borders between electronic and acoustic.”

  • TOEAC performs at the Hugo Lambrechts Music Centre, Cape Town on October 9; University of the Free State in Bloemfontein on October 10; Time ‘n Space Theatre, at Henley-on-Klip on October 11; Linder Auditorium, Parktown on October 12; and Unisa’s Sunnyside Campus in Pretoria on October 13.



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Veronica Phillips’ secret survival story lives on



When Holocaust survivor Veronica (Vera) Phillips passed away on 24 February 2021, her pallbearers were German Ambassador to South Africa Dr Martin Schaefer; Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Lior Keinan; Ádám Vadász (the husband of acting Hungarian ambassador to South Africa, [chargé d’affaires] Zsuzsanna Bernadett Rothschild); and Jonathan Andrews, who made the film, The Secret Survivor, about her life.

“Where do you have a funeral with all these ambassadors carrying her to her final resting place and crying, saying they are heartbroken? That was Veronica Phillips,” says the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC), Tali Nates.

Phillips was the tenth Shoah survivor to have died in the past year in South Africa. “Although she was 94 years old and her health had deteriorated, it feels like the end of an era. I’m heartbroken,” says Nates. She and Phillips were as close as family.

“She was iconic. She began to tell her story only very late in life, and did so with such gravitas, wisdom, detail, and empathy,” says Nates. “It was very difficult for her to tell it. It was very painful, and she always broke down, but she was so authentic. She was a ‘silent’ survivor’ for 70 years.”

Veronica Philips (nee Katz) was born on 9 November 1926 in Budapest, Hungary, to Regina and Meyer Katz. Her mother and her brother, Michael, survived the Holocaust thanks to the efforts of Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz. For a time, she was protected by Lutz and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in the “international ghetto” in Budapest, but then the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators deported her and her father to Ravensbrück concentration camp in December 1944. Although it was in the dying days of the war, for Phillips, the horror was just beginning.

After a harrowing nine-day journey in cattle cars in the coldest winter on record, she arrived at Ravensbrück, a concentration camp mainly for women that had by then also become a death camp. Her father was murdered. Phillips was housed in a giant tent with thousands of other women. There was no food, toilets, or medicine. A gas chamber had been built, and in Andrews’ film about her life, Phillips recalled how the smell of burning flesh would never leave her.

While in Ravensbrück, she was selected as a labourer, and taken to work in Penig (a sub-camp of Buchenwald concentration camp) where she suffered inhumane conditions. She was then taken on a death march. At Johanngeorgenstadt, the group was liberated by the allies, but only after many were killed by the Nazis or by starvation and fatigue.

She started an incredible journey in an emaciated physical condition back to Budapest to find her mother and brother. After World War II ended, Phillips became a microbiologist and geneticist at Brunel University. She went on to marry Herman (Hermuscz) Phillips. As a result of what she endured as a teenager under the Nazis, she suffered eight miscarriages and could never have children. The only child she gave birth to survived less than two days.

In 1956, she and her husband escaped communism and settled in London, following her brother. Her niece, Janice Leibowitz, remembers this time. “I was an only child and my parents shared me with them. We were very close.”

Leibowitz’ father got a job opportunity in South Africa, arriving in 1975, and Veronica and Herman followed a year later. “While everyone was leaving, we were arriving!” remembers Leibowitz. [Phillips] got a job very quickly as a microbiology lecturer at Wits [the University of the Witwatersrand], where she stayed for 20 years.”

Nates says that in spite of all she endured, “she was loving and embracing of everyone. For example, a few years ago, we had an ex-Neo Nazi come to our centre, and Veronica was the one who hugged him and invited him over for tea. She told him he was special. That’s the kind of person she was. And when we had an event on statelessness, there she was, saying, ‘This is terrible, we were stateless, and now it’s happening again!’ She went beyond just remembering the Holocaust, she made the connection to today’s world. She had a really authentic voice that we will miss.”

Nates first met Phillips only about 15 years ago. “This was before the establishment of the JHGC,” says Nates. “[Psychologist] Tracy Farber and I started running group meetings for survivors in Johannesburg. Veronica became part of it, and started to speak about her story for the first time. First to the group, then to pupils, teachers, and schools. And then she discovered us [the JHGC], and we became her family.”

Phillips was intricately involved with the centre from the start. “I remember when the centre was being built about eight years ago, there was just a ramp going up to what would become the third floor. We invited all of our cherished survivors to see how the building was going, and they all went up the ramp with their hard hats on. And there went Veronica, going up the ramp in her high heels! She was always so elegant,” recalls Nates.

Asked why she told her story only so late in life, Nates surmises that the trauma of the past, escaping communism, and not being able to have a family meant that she was continuously battling the next challenge and never had a chance to stop and speak about what had happened to her. “In one way or another, she was always trying to survive the next hurdle.

“Meeting us, helping to create the centre, and becoming part of a group of survivors was the start of something new. I think she felt she had a duty to speak. She would say that if you listen to a witness, you become a witness. Just recently in December, she spoke to students in Uzbekistan! She said, ‘I’m not speaking for me, I’m speaking for you. You have to speak up because there will be deniers, or those who distort the Holocaust, or those who don’t learn from the past.’”

“She really valued education,” says Leibowitz. “That’s why it was so important to her to pass the torch to the next generation. She loved talking to schoolchildren, and they loved her. There was an instant rapport. She was very close to the ambassadors – they all adored her. She had a way with people. She instantly called them ‘darling’, and befriended them. She found a way into everyone’s heart. If you met her, you never forgot her.”

Says Nates, “She said her story wouldn’t die with her. And it will continue in the hundreds of people she had an impact on. That’s her legacy. We will never forget her.”

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Singing in the rain on Purim



The Chevrah Kadisha opened its gates to the community for the first time in almost a year last Friday, 26 February, for the Greatest Purim Drive-Thru. A total of 750 cars drove through the safe Purim spectacular, with more than 2 500 people watching the 50 acts and attractions along the route.

These included live bands, acrobats and trapeze artists, dancers and jugglers, clowns, and many more who continued to perform through the rain.

Spoiled for choice and not knowing where to look next, many children convinced their parents to do the Drive-Thru multiple times. Residents on the campus who have been under lockdown for almost 12 months watched from the safe distance of their balconies.

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Chabad brings Purim party to seniors’ doorstep



Usually when Purim comes around, Chabad Seniors Programme arranges parties and gifts for the “young at heart” throughout Johannesburg. This year, with COVID-19, was no different. Instead of bussing seniors from various facilities to Chabad House, we brought the party to them.

Since the beginning of lockdown, volunteers have reached out to seniors each week, calling them, assisting with errands, and delivering weekly food parcels organised by Rabbi Ari Kievman. The team was ready to work a little harder on Purim, and 1 000 shalach manos gift packages were hand delivered last Friday to seniors in their own homes as well as at many facilities.

Additionally, the rabbi and some volunteers hosted safe outdoor Purim parties for the elderly, with social distancing and double masks for safety and masquerading. The events included music, inspiration, Megillah reading, and individually wrapped food to-go. By the time Shabbos arrived, the rabbi had lained the megillah 17 times already.

Human interaction is vital for quality of life of the aged, and these types of events remind the elderly that they aren’t forgotten. It’s particularly at times like these that we need the closeness and support that community offers.

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