Why the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre explores the history of the Holocaust and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda side by side.
By Tali Nates
In April 1994, while South Africans were jubilantly voting in the country’s first democratic elections, in Rwanda, a mere three and a half hours’ flight away, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi, as well as Hutu who opposed the genocide, were being slaughtered .
1994. Two countries in Africa. Two very different paths!
Not that South Africa’s transition to democracy has been easy. As xenophobic violence has shown, South Africans too have the potential for horrific violence against an “other”.
In 2006, during one of my visits to Rwanda, a personal experience profoundly impacted my thinking on the creation of a future Centre. At a visit to Ntarama Church Genocide Memorial site where more than 5000 Tutsi were murdered, a young survivor, Cocous, was visibly upset. That morning we had also visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the last resting place of over 250 000 Tutsi, including his parents. Sitting with Cocous, who bears a large machete scar on his head, I shared my own family’s history. I told him about the murder of my grandmother Leah Turner and my two aunts, Cela and Helen. My father Moses and his brother Henryk were rescued by Oskar Schindler, but the rest of the family were murdered in the Holocaust. He touched my face in disbelief saying:
“and still after that, genocide happened in my country?”
We spoke about the words ‘Never again’ placed on every memorial to the murdered Tutsi around Rwanda. They sounded hollower than ever.
Never again, yet again?
That encounter persuaded me that any museum in South Africa dedicated to the Holocaust and genocide had to include the story of Rwanda.
This conversation took place while we were reflecting on the importance of memorialising the Holocaust and genocides in the 20th century and how to make such immense human catastrophes feel resonant, relevant and ‘personal’ to South Africans in the twenty-first century. Around the world museums are emerging more and more as institutions dedicated to facilitating human rights awareness and education, dialogue, and debate; we hoped that the Centre would encourage South Africans to grapple with our own history (and how that continues to inform our present), within the context of broader histories.
With or without our intervention, the Holocaust is present in South African public life. In 2007, the Department of Education included the study of ‘Nazi Germany and the Holocaust’ in the South African national social sciences and history curriculum for Grade 9 and 11 (15 and 17 years old). By first learning about the Holocaust and then about Apartheid, they hoped students would have a better understanding of human rights, peace and democracy. All good in theory, but to make this really work requires a huge amount of education before the first lesson is even presented. Much of the essential preparation is provided by three independent Centres, all under a national association, the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation. The first Centre was opened in Cape Town (1999) and a second one was established in Durban (2008). The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre was officially opened in March 2019 but operated from temporary offices since 2008.
In order to offer visitors a deeper understanding of recent genocides, the core exhibition, developed over many years, covers more generally genocides in the 20th century, starting in 1904 with the Herero and Nama genocide in Namibia and the Genocide of Christian Armenians beginning in 1915. It also looks at the development of the word genocide and explores the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and its aftermath. Finally, the exhibition connects to current human rights abuses in South Africa, particularly xenophobia and racism.
The iconic building is replete with symbolism. Its South African architect, Lewis Levin reflected:
“How can the language of architecture be recruited to describe and symbolize the terrible events that took place in Kigali and Auschwitz?”
Asking Holocaust and Rwandan survivors what symbols they would like to see represented in the building, Levin recalls:
“The first images that emerged from our discussions were those of trains, railway lines and the vast transportation network of Europe that was employed and diverted to haul people to their deaths. Trains and railways, once a symbol of industrial progress, in the eyes of 20th century modernists, were transformed by the Nazis and their collaborators into a vast killing machine. In Africa, the railways that represented the great dream of the colonialists, not only brought along empire, but also oppression and human misery”.
The building’s façade is lined with railway lines embedded in concrete and rock. The railway, a symbol of modernity and progress, as well as oppression and suffering, is a strong reminder of genocide, a man-made catastrophe.
“The next images that haunted the survivors,” Levin continued, “were the forests and landscapes of death. The Nazis murdered Jews and others within the panoramas of the European landscapes, often in lyrical forest settings. In Rwanda, the genocide took place in a spectacular landscape of lush green vegetation and terraced hills”. Indigenous yellowwood trees wrap the building from all sides. As you enter the foyer, the railway lines disappear into voids, memorialising the loss and scars of genocide.
LOOKING IN AND LOOKING OUT
The permanent exhibition area has wide, high windows, unlike many other museums that present this history in darkness. The design invites the visitor to remember that genocide does not happen only in the dark but in broad daylight while neighbours are watching. It challenges them to explore their role as bystanders today and encourages them to move to action. The exhibition journey ends in a Garden of Reflection with a soundscape, Remember/Zachor/Ibuka, by renowned South African composer Philip Miller, with music, songs and testimony of survivors of the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda.
The JHGC’s core exhibition and education programmes feature stories, photographs and artefacts of Johannesburg survivors that would not be found in any other museum in the world and are uniquely South African. The Centre collected many photographs, documents and objects from survivors of the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. Genocide survivor Xavier Ngabo, for example, donated objects found with the remains of his mother Beatrice. In response to hearing his testimony, students sponsored his return to Rwanda to find the remains of his parents and bury them.
The JHGC recorded hours of testimonies from Holocaust and Rwandan survivors. For many of the Rwandan survivors, when filmed, it was the first time they told their story – 20 years after the genocide. Holocaust and genocide survivors are also among the Centre’s volunteers and share their testimonies with students at schools, colleges and universities.
One recent student is 21-year-old Mikateko Mnene, in her final year at the University of Johannesburg; studying a Bachelors in Education degree, who describes her visit to the JHGC in April 2022 as “eye-opening” in that the experience “made us more aware that stereotypes, even though seemingly insignificant, can turn into mass persecution and murder. This is exactly what happened to the Jews.”
Struck firstly by how “such atrocious cruelties could ever happen, but they did and they can again if we do not make a stand and watch each other’s backs,” Mikateko draws the lesson of her visit to what is happening closer to home when she says:
“This experience also made us more aware of the current issues we are facing in South Africa and how the xenophobic stereotypes we are seeing now should not be taken lightly.”
She says that as a teacher in training:
“I paid great attention to how the Holocaust affected children and teachers, and how the education sector was infiltrated to support and promote antisemitism. I realised the power and influence of teachers and the education sector. Loving children so much, it was so painful to read about the children in the ghettos and camps and how some of them were used for medical experiments through which some died. I am inspired by the few teachers who tried to continue teaching the children. I asked myself as a teacher, what would I have done? I strongly believe that if we could all do our bit to stand for what is right and just in our different career sectors, the world can become a better place.”
Auschwitz survivor and writer, Primo Levi’s words greet visitors as they enter the JHGC:
“It happened therefore it can happen again; this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere”.
When visitors leave the Centre these words feel ever more painfully relevant.
About the Writer:
Tali Nates is the founder and director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. She is a historian who lectures internationally on Holocaust education, genocide prevention, reconciliation and human rights. She has published many articles and contributed chapters to different books, among them God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (2015) and Remembering The Holocaust in Educational Settings (2018)
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