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Women’s struggle to survive the Holocaust

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All Jewish people fought to survive and care for their families as their world was ripped asunder when the Nazis rose to power, but Jewish women stood out for the particular burdens they had to bear.

This was the premise of a talk given by Rabbi Moshe Cohn, the head of the Jewish World Section at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, on a webinar hosted by the Cape Town Holocaust Centre.

“The story of war is a story of rupture – ripping asunder everything we hold dear. From their role in society, to their jobs, to the minute-by-minute reality of their lives, Jews faced drastic change,” says Cohn. According to Warsaw ghetto diarist Emanuel Ringelblum, “It changed with the speed of a movie. Future historians will have to dedicate an appropriate page for women in the war for her courage and steadfastness. Thanks to her, thousands of families have managed to surmount the terror of the times,” he wrote in June 1942.

Cohn notes that there is a “great movement towards revisionist history. There are many who believe that we should change the way we understand history to fit today’s sensibilities.” He disagrees with this, emphasising that we need to understand history in its context. So, even though women are extremely liberated today, they weren’t then, and we need to accept this point if we are to understand the challenges they faced.

“Women’s roles were very well-defined. But from the 1930s onwards, many Jewish men lost their jobs, leading women to go out and find work. This led to role reversals, of women becoming breadwinners and men staying at home.” However, it wasn’t a simple switch, with many men being unable to accept the situation and often sinking into depression. They couldn’t partner equally with their wives, which meant women now had to play the role of breadwinner and mother.

“Women wanted to survive. Men tended to collapse. While this is a generalisation, there was a sense of men ‘folding onto themselves’, unable to accept their new position in the household. It was a foreign concept,” he says.

Then, after Kristallnacht on 10 November 1938, more than 30 000 Jewish men were arrested – almost 10% of the Jewish population in Germany. Many women were suddenly on their own, and had to try to rescue their husbands by protesting, writing letters, and so on, as well as working and taking care of the home and children.

When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, many Jews fled towards the Soviet Union. Two thirds of these were men, leaving even more women alone to assume the role of both parents. “They also had to make impossible decisions on their own,” says Cohn. He showed a clip of one survivor saying how her mother’s role in life changed on 1 September 1939. She went from an elegant woman who had never worked, to one who did, battling every day to put food on the table and keep her children safe.

As Jews were forced into ghettos, they faced hunger, overcrowding, disease, and the ever-present threat of deportation. It was women who often had to navigate the horrendous choices and dangerous reality of ghetto life in order to keep their families alive.

Cohn explained that the black market was a key aspect, and women used it as a strategy of survival. However, this differed in each ghetto. In Warsaw, the ghetto was surrounded by Poles, many of whom also saw the Germans as the enemy. This allowed a black market to thrive. However, in Łódź, those outside the walls were occupying Germans. There were no ‘friends’ outside, and no black market. This drastically changed the strategy women had to use to stay alive and keep their family alive.”

Delving into some devastating statistics of life in the ghetto, Cohn says that 30% of Warsaw’s population lived in 2.5% of city, with six to seven people per room. In Łódź, conditions were even worse, with up to ten people per room, no gas to cook with, and tiny calorie intakes. In both ghettos, there was no privacy, even when going to the toilet. Hunger was all-consuming, and it was women who waged war with it.

Cohn showed extracts from survivor testimonies and diaries, describing how mothers went out to try and find food while their children huddled home alone, and the devastation when they found nothing. One woman brought back some parsley, and told her children to suck it in their mouths for a long time. Another survivor described a 14-year-old teenager crying from hunger like a baby to his mother. A survivor discussed how his mother ensured their food lasted until the next rations were handed out, and others described how women tried to provide special or extra food for Shabbat.

Many testimonies discuss the choice women faced whether to allow their families to eat unkosher meat if this was all they could get. The testimony of Sara Selver-Urbach in the Łódź ghetto describes her mother choosing to give her ill brother the unkosher meat, and attempting to keep a kosher and unkosher section of her tiny kitchen. Eventually, the entire family consumed the meat to try to survive.

Another survivor described his father saying that they must eat the unkosher meat to survive, fulfilling the commandment of pikuach nefesh (saving a life above all else). His mother disagreed, saying they would survive if they didn’t eat it. It was a “ferocious fight”. This attempt at continuity in the face of death is something many women took on. However, in this family, the husband forced his wife to prepare the meat, although she never ate it. The battle created a rift between the parents that they never recovered from.

Vladka Meed described how his mother chose to pay his brother’s Barmitzvah teacher with bread, even though it meant more hunger. This was her attempt at rising above her circumstances. “How much strength a woman needed! To be able to think in those days about my brother’s preparation for Barmitzvah!” he writes. “Women had a willingness to connect with the past in order to create a future, which helped many families survive,” says Cohn.

There are other instances like this, from making Shabbat special, to women leading a seder in the place of a man. Naomi Winkler Munkacsi described how a fellow Auschwitz prisoner told her, “‘I just lit the Sabbath candles – I saw two electric bulbs and said the blessing on them.’ Another time, on a Friday night in the factory, I saw a woman whose job was polishing small iron hoops and rings take some of the rings and arrange them into candles and candlesticks, as it were, and then cover her face with her hands and silently recite the blessing.”

Another survivor described an incident in which Nazis searched a house and removed the parchment from the mezuzah, threatening to burn it. “In her perfect German, my mother followed him, asking him not to burn the parchment, until he eventually threw it back at her. She risked her life for a piece of parchment. in my mind, it was Kiddush Hashem [sanctifying G-d’s name],” he said.

Cohn agrees. “It was an act of insane bravery and an exquisite statement of continuity and the battle against dehumanisation, saying, ‘I am a person and I demand you respect the symbols of who I am.’”

“From what magical stream does my mother draw strength for all of this? There must be some great hidden force, a force of love, a force of tremendous will to hold on and watch out for us,” wrote survivor Irene Liebman. Indeed, surmises Cohn, “Women worked to mend the rupture and maintain continuity, all to allow their families to be able to live as human beings and as Jews.”

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Expats watch SA unrest with heartache and horror

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“Last week’s events ripped the plaster off of a big wound. They forced me to re-examine my life in South Africa – things I miss and don’t miss, my reasons for leaving, and my experiences there,” says Dan Brotman, who lived in South Africa for 10 years before leaving for Canada late last year. He is one of many expatriates who have been heartbroken watching the recent civil unrest from afar.

Many Jewish South Africans living abroad say that while we might imagine they feel glad to be far away, in reality, it’s often the opposite – their connection to the country feels even stronger at these times.

“The last week drew me closer to other South African expats,” says Brotman. “I found myself getting together with a lot of South Africans, discussing events and how painful it was to watch this happen. I don’t know of expats saying, ‘Thank G-d I got out.’ Our hearts are breaking from afar. Even if we don’t live there right now, we still feel connected to the country.”

It’s a sentiment many other expats share, describing how they couldn’t sleep for days as they watched the rioting and looting on their screens. “Even though I live in Israel, I’m still deeply invested in South Africa,” says Guy Lieberman. “My work and projects are there. I own a home in Joburg. I’m committed to, pray for, and rely on the success of the South African economy. Beyond that, South Africa is my first home country – it’s where I grew up. It’s who I am. My family and friends are there – the brilliant, talented individuals that make up our community.

“I felt ill seeing the looting unfolding. Last Shabbat, not knowing what was happening and being so far away, was gut-wrenching,” he says. “I had friends who were affected, a relative who was stuck on the N3 who witnessed the fires, and a friend whose Durban warehouse was ransacked and their fleet set alight.”

For those who grew up in Durban and now live overseas, it has been especially hard to watch. “I felt heartbroken. I’m still very connected to Durban,” says Tanya Hirsch, who lives in the United States. “I was 18 when I left Durban, and it’s still very much part of my soul. I was scared and couldn’t sleep for days, afraid for what the community must be feeling, and with lots of memories. Other expats who are here who still have close family in Durban are fearful for the future and feel helpless at being so far away.”

Jenna Lewinsky, who lives in Israel, says, “I felt really saddened as I lived in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) for 28 years and understand that many innocent and law-abiding citizens are now left not only to defend their own homes, but have no food security.”

She even emailed Prince Thulani Zulu from the royal Zulu household. “He emailed me back that he was in urgent need of food parcels for people in rural areas. I jumped into action to get quotations for truck haulage from Johannesburg to Ulundi, and got a price for a four-ton truck with two-ton trailer. I looked online at what groceries cost, and estimated about $5 000 [R72 900] needed to be raised to send a truck with food parcels down. An American friend and I made many calls, but so far have got no donations for the cause. COVID-19 has reduced small and medium businesses to ashes globally, and it’s hard to mobilise support.”

Her mother still lives in KZN, “and she couldn’t even fill her tank with petrol or buy enough groceries. I have, of course, helped her. And I got a group of people to daven for the safety, well-being, and rebuilding of the Jewish community and also for favour for those that need to move to Israel. But I’m not happy until prayers are matched with action, and even though I’m just one person, I’m trying my best to drum up whatever support I can.”

Michael Foreman, who now lives in London, says, “I’ve always remained connected – my parents stayed in Durban. My mom passed away last year and my dad now lives in [the Jewish aged home] Beth Shalom. It was terrifying for the residents to receive videos of unrest so close to where they were living, and the staff that care for them not being able to come to work. The shopping centre where my mom used to do her shopping was less than a kilometre away, and it was badly looted.

“A group of us who were at school together would get together often [before COVID-19] and are very close. At one of those meetings, my good friend Jeremy Droyman [who still lives in Durban] appealed to us to remember the ageing community there. I got the idea of building a global virtual community, and set up a website and Facebook page titled, It’s Durban Calling.”

The Facebook page is a dynamic and growing group with Jewish Durban expats from all over the world. So when events transpired last week, it was perfectly positioned to lead relief efforts for the Durban Jewish community. “Not being able to do much from overseas was scary. So we decided to do an emergency appeal. Jeremy said he was planning to airlift supplies, and we organised a fundraiser for it. We already had an international PayPal account and a charitable trust set up, so we were able to launch the appeal very quickly.” They managed to raise R70 000 in 24 hours, and that amount is growing [R105 000 raised as of Tuesday morning 20 July]. “Every bit helps, and it allows the community abroad to do something.”

Meanwhile, expats who hail from other cities in South Africa have also been deeply affected. Elan Burman, now in the United States, says, “I still feel a very close connection, both because so many family and friends are still there, and because of how inalienable South Africa is from my personal identity. I wish I could have been part of the crowd cleaning up and helping.”

He called on his American friends to make donations to organisations like Afrika Tikkun, and to purchase South African food and wine to support the South African economy. “Now, more than ever, my soul is in South Africa, hoping for a brighter tomorrow,” he says.

Sianne Menashe, who lives in the United Kingdom, says, “My dad and sister [and her family] plus in-laws and friends are all still in South Africa. The videos and images were devastating! I had a lot of hope seeing [former president Jacob] Zuma going to jail. [After the riots], my main emotion was sadness. I have a lot of friends that live in townships, and it’s been heart breaking to hear what’s going on. They’ve all been really scared – gunshots through the night. And now they’re the ones suffering the most.”

She’s upset about the notion of “smug expats”. “A lot of us were offended [by this] because we’ve been doing everything we can [financially] to help people there especially during COVID-19,” she says. “I love South Africa and I want her to flourish. South Africans living out of South Africa still strongly identify as South Africans.”

Liora Benater in Australia says, “South Africa will always have a piece of my heart. Last week’s events made me incredibly sad and overwhelmed, seeing so much destruction, businesses being lost, and the vaccine rollout being halted. Most of the events weren’t publicised on Australian news, which was alarming, and I had to source videos and information myself.

“I checked in with my brother almost every day to make sure he and his family were safe, and my husband did the same with his family. Family members reported hearing gunshots from their home in Johannesburg. A number of Facebook friends posted things like South Africans living abroad shouldn’t comment or judge, which made me angry. We decided to leave South Africa, but this doesn’t mean we don’t care anymore.”

  • To support the Durban Jewish community, visit https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=GTKQ48MPZVCR4

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WhatsApp messages use Jewish community to sow divisions

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As social media in South Africa last week became a minefield of fake news and incitement amidst civil unrest, one WhatsApp user attempted to draw the South African Jewish community into the fray.

Messages written by someone who called himself “Ari Goldberg – Israeli peacekeeper” were full of profanities and hate speech against the Indian community, including the line, “The Jews in Israel will kill you.”

They were posted with images of Israeli flags on a group called “Durban Support”. According to a member of the group, most of the people on it were members of the Indian community.

The person also changed the topic of the group from “Durban Support” to “Mossad is watching you!” and “SA must burn and die”. Members of the group told its admin to remove the user, which it did. However, the damage he caused may have the long-term effect of sowing divisions between the Jewish and Indian communities where none existed before.

The messages were shared with SA Jewish Report chairperson and tech guru Howard Sackstein, who immediately tried to put out the fire by emphasising that they were created to sow division and hatred at a time when communities are feeling vulnerable.

“This is clearly fake nonsense specifically sent to try ferment racial hatred,” he responded to the person who queried it. “It’s quite obvious from the following – the guy claims to be an ‘Israeli peace keeper’, but Israel doesn’t deploy peace keepers anywhere. The number used [to send the messages on WhatsApp] is American, not Israeli. India and Israel have a very close relationship.

“The telephone number is unlisted on True Caller, which means it has been used specifically to send this message – a clear sign of someone trying to incite hatred. People who use fake numbers would never put their names to a message.

“The number is registered in Sioux Falls South Dakota, United States,” Sackstein said. “I have searched, and there appears to be no Jewish community in Sioux Falls South Dakota. I have googled, and there is no Ari Goldberg in Sioux Falls South Dakota. All this means is that someone thinks this is a good time to try create racial hatred between Jews and Indians where none exists. One has to ask, what sort of sick person would do this?”

He requested that his message be sent to the WhatsApp group where the ugly messages were posted. “People must know that political looters and criminals must be exposed and dealt with. I have been to India four times, and many of my close friends are Indian – no fake instigator will ever drive a wedge between us.”

So, why would someone create a message like this, hoping to stir up hatred and divisions between Jews and Indians? “In vulnerable times like last week, we see the best and worst in people,” said local social-media expert Sarah Hoffman. “We have witnessed people trying to rebuild, but we’ve also witnessed existing prejudices and burning hatred. When people are under pressure, it’s an opportune time to make such kind of comments.” She encouraged people to disassociate themselves actively from such comments if they are shared on a WhatsApp group, and to encourage the group admin to block the user.

In the wider context, “We have seen massive polarisation of society globally, as witnessed during elections in the United States and Israel, and in political divisions in South Africa,” said local tech expert Arthur Goldstuck. “As a result, individuals feel emboldened to stir the pot with a mixture of their own bigotry and their desire to see the worst happen to the ‘other’. Refusal to acknowledge the rights of those with different views is a ‘pandemic’ in itself. Our own community witnesses this daily, as do others, and religious and political leaders don’t have the emotional intelligence to understand their own roles in either condoning or failing to condemn such attitudes.

“You don’t have to be an extremist to be a bigot, and that’s part of the problem,” he said. “Ordinary people who see themselves as decent and even reasonable develop blind spots when it comes to other races, nationalities, and political views. Blind support of populist leaders has created a massive us-and-them crisis in which everyone loses. The resultant chaos allows agents provocateur to behave with impunity, confident they won’t have to face consequences, and relish in their apparent power to sow further division.

“Multicultural society is detested by bigots, and the antipathy towards multiculturalism in our own community provides fuel for the expression of hatred towards others. Only if we move from an ‘us-and-them’ mentality to a ‘we’ mentality can we reduced bigotry.”

Said Karen Allen, senior research advisor on emerging threats in Africa at the Institute for Security Studies, “We see this [kind of message] at times of heightened tension and unrest. People stir the pot by tossing divisions into the mix, especially when they are feeling vulnerable. For example, we saw it during the xenophobic attacks or at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Often there are more users on these platforms during difficult times, so it’s an opportunity to amplify messages. They aim to drive divisions at certain points in time.

“Also, social media allows for a much wider reach. Imagine that this person took to the streets of Durban with a loudhailer, he would reach only a certain number of people,” she said. “But on social media, the way the algorithm is designed, it amplifies such messages. So even if you share this message online to say it’s awful, the fact that you shared it propels it further.”

Therefore, she advises that users don’t re-share something abusive or hateful, even if it’s to criticise it. “South Africa is a divided country,” she said. “Touchstone issues include race and sometimes the divisions between certain communities. The fact that social media and messaging platforms can be anonymous means that often there’s little consequence for it.”

However, South Africa’s new Cybercrimes Act, which has just been signed into law, may start to have an impact. “Malicious communications on social-media platforms are offences under the Act. Part two of the Act makes it an offence to incite damage to property or threaten to damage property or persons,” Allen said.

Furthermore, “if tweets, messages, or conversations include fake or deliberately manipulated images, the offences may amount to cyber forgery. Simply re-sharing deliberately manipulated content that is malicious could make any one of us unwittingly assistants in committing a crime.”

Sackstein said that these messages aren’t necessarily created to support one side or the other, but to “create as much chaos as possible, because if you destabilise your opponent, it weakens them”. That’s why someone writing a message like this may be a person who would “benefit from additional racial strife”, and the Jewish community is just a tool for them to achieve that. Tomorrow, they could post a similar message trying to create discord amongst other communities.

“It’s important that we understand the context and the dangers. It’s a deliberate attempt to sabotage. Be very careful what you share or forward as you are possibly being manipulated,” he said.

Meanwhile, Police Minister Bheki Cele said in a speech on 13 July, “We issue a stern warning to those circulating inflammatory messages on social-media platforms which are aimed at inciting violence and disregard of the law. Those who engage in such acts will be liable for criminal offence and can receive a fine or be sentenced to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years.”

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From the cockpit – secrets of a Jewish pilot

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Veteran South African pilot Robert Schapiro wrote Secrets from the Cockpit before he died. His wife, journalist Arlene Getz, talks to Mirah Langer about it.

How did the book come into being?

It evolved from Robert’s decision to write about his life for our son, Morgan. As Robert wrote in his introduction, Morgan loved his stories, and always said he should write them down.

Robert finished the manuscript after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare asbestos-related cancer that affects the lining of the lung, and I promised him I’d edit it and get it published.

The two of you attended Herzlia. What are some of your earliest memories of him and his determination to break the mould of expected careers for “nice Jewish boys” at the time?

Robert and I met when we were in a school play in primary school. Even back then, flying was all he talked about. I remember clearly how so many people either made fun of him for it or just felt sorry for him because flying school was so competitive.

For me, Robert’s memoir is relevant on many levels. Yes, it’s about a young man who fought the odds to live his dream. But it’s more than just the story of one person’s life. It’s also a snapshot of an era in the evolution of aviation and in the history of South Africa.

In order to fulfil Robert’s dream of becoming a pilot, he had to enter the apartheid-era South African Air Force and was even involved in the border war. Yet, he was clearly ideologically against the state. How did he navigate this?

Remember this was the 1970s, when all the young men of my generation were conscripted for national service, and many of them did get deployed to the border. What was different was that his passion for flying made him agree to join the Permanent Force because it was the only way he could get the pilot training he needed to get into South African Airways (SAA).

He was subject to rampant antisemitism. How did he cope?

Robert sums up the antisemitism right at the start of the book, when he wrote, “Not a day – sometimes not an hour – of my years in the South African military went by without one of my Afrikaner barrack mates calling me Jood [Jew]. They weren’t saying it to be nice.”

He said that it wasn’t unusual for the Jewish recruits to be pulled out of the ranks to do unpleasant menial jobs. In Robert’s case, it must have been worse because he would have been the lone Jew.

Sometimes he’d have to talk his way out of things, like the time when his barracks mates asked him to speak “Jewish”. He started telling them in Hebrew how little he thought of them, and realised when he saw their shocked faces that he’d actually switched his insults into Afrikaans by mistake.

Most times, he said, he ignored it unless it became more than harmless name-calling. Then he either fought back hard or ran away and hid.

How did the two of you get married?

We started dating after we bumped into each other at a restaurant in Cape Town. He was already in SAA, and I’d recently graduated from Rhodes with my journalism degree. When we got married a few years later, one of his aunts told me how happy she was that we’d finally got together because as a child, he’d never stopped talking about me.

Robert offers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the behaviour and culture of SAA. What did he find the most startling?

Air crews could have as long as a one-week stopover in places like Lisbon, and it wasn’t unusual for some pilots to spend the time waiting for their return flight doing little else but visiting local bars. On Robert’s first international trip, the captain got so drunk one night, he ended up passing out on the floor of a local train.

Robert also disliked the autocratic captains known in the airline as the Royal Family. Many were World War II veterans who reigned over their cockpits, expected blind obedience, and thought the rules didn’t apply to them.

What did Robert’s Jewish identity mean to him?

He didn’t just see himself as a pilot, he saw himself as a Jewish pilot.

Tradition was important to him. He grew up in an Orthodox home, loved family Shabbat dinners, and had us all in stitches when he used to describe the weird sounds of meat being put into the mincer when his granny made pirogen.

He was an active member of our New York shul community, and impressively dedicated to teaching Morgan his Barmitzvah portion.

Which is your favourite anecdote in the book and why?

One story that is just so Robert is when he decided he needed a pet to keep him company during one of his training courses in Japan. Hotel rooms aren’t exactly conducive environments for that, but Robert decided that one of the small red crayfish he’d seen at the local fishmonger would be the answer.

He ended up having to buy three of the creatures because the fishmonger wouldn’t sell him less than 200g worth, brought them back to his room, agonised over what to feed them, wondered why they barely moved, and then hid under the sheets when they became energised enough to wake him up with the clacking of their claws in the middle of the night. He ended up keeping just one of the three, and of course, he named him Claw.

Tell us more about what he was like beyond the pages of the book.

Robert was, to use one of his favourite words, a mensch. He was kind and generous.

He was enormously talented. He made gorgeous wooden furniture, restored old houses, and was an excellent cook. He baked incredible bread. At the same time, he was genuinely modest.

He was very much his own person. When he wasn’t in his pilot’s uniform, he lived in torn T-shirts and baggy shorts covered in paint stains. He hated formal clothes, and thought he was very clever when he found sweatpants that were the same colour as the flying pants issued by Nippon Cargo Airlines (NCA). He used to change into those after take-off, and tell himself that no-one could tell the difference. NCA managers didn’t see it quite the same way.

He was a wonderful father. And I couldn’t have asked for better, or funnier, husband.

How does Morgan feel to see the book in print?

Robert always regretted that his flying meant he had to spend so much time away from us. Years ago, he wrote, illustrated, and self-published a series of children’s stories for Morgan. The first one was called, Where Does Daddy Go? and it showed Morgan what Robert did when he was on a flight. It ends with Robert telling Morgan how he misses him every day that he’s away.

Morgan loved those books and is thrilled about the memoir making it into print.

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