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Trauma and triumph

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This week, Yom Hashoah ceremonies were held under the auspices of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) in all the major centres. I thank Mary Kluk for once again so ably and sensitively heading up the national planning committee, which worked with survivors and other stakeholders to ensure that these events were as inclusive as possible. The ceremonies were well attended in spite of them taking place on a weekday.

In common with most Jewish communities around the world, the practice in South Africa is to hold Yom Hashoah on 27 Nisan, the date decided upon by the Israeli Knesset in 1951. This date in the Hebrew calendar was chosen because it marks the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when Jews awaiting deportation and death rose up in a last act of resistance against their prospective killers and managed to hold out for three weeks despite the hopeless odds against them. Yom Hashoah this year fell on the 80th anniversary of that landmark event, which not only inspired Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe to fight back against their would-be murderers, but inspired subsequent generations of Jews the world over to fight back against antisemitism wherever it arises.

Ella Blumenthal, our keynote speaker via a video message for the Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban ceremonies, is one of the few remaining survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We were privileged not only to hear her first-hand testimony of those harrowing times, but the words of her daughter, Evelyn Katz, who spoke about the enduring impact of her mother’s experience on her life and that of her descendants. In a powerful and deeply moving address, Katz shared some of the poignant details of her life with a Holocaust survivor, in which the trauma of the past is never far from the surface regardless of the passage of time. Even those few survivors who were liberated never completely left the death camps but have forever borne the scars of what they endured and witnessed. This makes the commitment of people like Blumenthal to testify and educate about their experiences in spite of advancing age and the personal pain it must cause them all the more admirable and indeed, inspiring, for those later generations who are now stepping in to ensure that the duty of remembering and bearing witness to what happened continues.

World Jewry is today confronting an escalating rise in antisemitism globally. This is, of course, a matter for much concern, but we should also remember that unlike the Jews of Europe 80 years ago, we have many effective (and non-violent) avenues – legal, political, institutional etc – through which we can fight back. The core mandate of the SAJBD (which this month celebrated 120 years of serving our community) is to combat this evil wherever it manifests, working with our international colleagues whenever necessary and ensuring that “Never Again” isn’t just a slogan but a lived reality for ourselves and future generations of Jews, no matter where they may be.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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