CAPE TOWN, South Africa — While South Africans were ushering in a new democracy in 1994, the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis was taking place. Five years later, when the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre opened its doors, it was this juxtaposition of seismic events that prompted the fledgling institution to make the latter a particular focus of its work, setting the center apart from others like it.
“The importance of that genocide had particular resonance for us as South Africans, but also as Africans,” said outgoing director Richard Freedman. “It underscored the futility of that phrase ‘Never again.’ It was important for us to realize that in order for us to really understand the Holocaust, we had to also understand genocide in a more general sense.”
Because there was a Rwandan community living in South Africa, coupled with the countries’ proximity on the African continent, it was “almost a given” that it would need to become a place both for Rwandan commemorations and an examination of genocide in the broader sense, said Freedman, who is stepping down after 14 years at the helm.
And so as South Africa engaged in post-apartheid nation-building, hundreds of thousands of individuals inside and outside the Jewish community passed through its doors, hearing a message that condemned bigotry in all forms. The center’s founding director, Myra Osrin, recognized early on that the Holocaust and the issues it raised could serve as a teaching tool for a culture of tolerance in the new South Africa after decades of racism.
“I suppose in some small way we have contributed to raising important issues in our emergent democracy which underpin the dream that we’ve all had of a new South Africa,” Freedman said. “We are trying very hard to change people’s thinking and let them understand their own agency to transform their communities into the country that we want to have for the future.”
South Africa is one of the few countries where Holocaust studies are a compulsory part of the educational curriculum. Teacher training is conducted under the umbrella body, the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation (SAHGF), which is also directed by Freedman. The SAHGF is the only accredited service-provider for in-service training in Holocaust education in the country. It has trained over 5,000 teachers.
The center recently received an award from the Western Cape government for social inclusion, using the platform of the Holocaust.
“In all our programs, whether with schools, the prison services, the military, across a wide spectrum of civil society, we take them on a journey into the history itself,” said Freedman. “The Holocaust is the point of departure and that history examines human response, human behavior, and somehow it has the ability to open up hearts and minds, and enables them to reflect on their own society in a different way.”
Education above all
The first Holocaust center on the African continent marked its 20th anniversary last month, with notables touting its achievements in wider South African society as the current director prepares to step down and welcome his replacement.
At the May 5 event marking the milestone, chairman of the board of trustees Gerald Diamond spoke of Freedman’s expansion of its educational programming during his tenure to the extent that the center is now considered to be one of the best small Holocaust education centers in the world.
Freedman is set to be succeeded by Heather Blumenthal, the former owner of a television production company, one of whose projects was a weekly Jewish magazine show that included documentaries on the Holocaust and the education center.
“I think my legacy is that the center has moved from largely operating within the [province of] Western Cape to something which is now operating nationally, and has had an impact on Holocaust education internationally,” Freedman told The Times of Israel, referring to additional branches of the center which opened in Johannesburg and Durban.
History teacher Hein Joubert said he finds the center to be a “tremendous resource in terms of bringing the past to life” as part of his curriculum at the independent Cannon’s Creek school in Pinelands, Western Cape.
“It allows a space for my students to come face-to-face with what has happened in the past, and to develop empathy as they are confronted with people’s life experiences,” Joubert said. “When they see a photograph of a 15-year-old on the wall or they read a testimony where somebody speaks of how their siblings had been gassed or taken away, or watching their father embarrassed as he was humiliated by Nazis in the streets — those are all things that students can relate to.”
Joubert said he has benefited from the center’s training programs, having attended both its ninth- and eleventh-grade pedagogy workshops, and has been able to use much of those resources in his classroom. He has on occasion disagreed with some of the content presented and has found the facilitators to be “open enough to engage in robust debate. I really appreciated that.”
Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the missing piece?
Sjaene van Wyk, head of history at Wynberg Girls’ High School in the Western Cape, feels the center plays a vital role in helping to break down prejudice and discrimination.
“The programs that it offers enable young people to engage with things like the nature of propaganda, understanding pseudoscience and its practical impact — but what’s really nice is that since the revamp, they’ve included more of other genocides,” said van Wyk.
Van Wyk said that the center has found a niche making Holocaust studies relevant for the general South African public, and not just Jewish people.
“The further away you get from a story in time, the less of a link people feel to it, so you always need a way to make it relevant for kids who are not from Jewish families, who learn the Holocaust as something that happened to other people,” she said.
“Very often, the first time kids ever go to the Holocaust center is when we take them there on an outing — it’s a place that so few people outside the Jewish community visit,” said van Wyk, adding that “they often take their families afterwards.”
But the teacher said it is “problematic” for her that the girls have many unanswered questions about modern-day Israel — particularly regarding issues between Israel and the Palestinians, and the way people were treated during the Holocaust and how they treat others today.
“That is never addressed by people who speak at the center – it’s a hole that needs to be filled,” she said. “In our debrief afterwards we often bring that in, otherwise we feel it is a very one-sided view that we give them.”
The Christian safeguarding Holocaust history
Dr. Stephen Smith OBE, the son of a Christian clergyman, delivered the keynote address at the center’s anniversary event, just as he had done at its launch 20 years prior. Together with his family, Smith founded the first Holocaust center in the United Kingdom in 1995, and was instrumental in the creation of its South African counterpart.
“After a family holiday in Israel in my teens, I got very interested in Jewish history, tradition and culture and in particular the relationship between Judaism and Christianity,” Smith said, explaining his motivation for furthering Holocaust study. “The more I investigated that, the more I realized that anti-Semitism was so deeply embedded in the Christian world.”
On a return visit, Smith visited Yad Vashem and realized that while the Holocaust happened to the Jewish people, it was not a Jewish problem but one of Western European civilization that had to be clearly confronted to foment change.
Today Smith is the executive director of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California.
“I think that the stories of those that went through the Holocaust are the most powerful way to keep this story alive within contemporary society,” he said. “We need to find ways of continuing to engage the next generation, which is why I’m very motivated by using new technologies and new channels to share the stories of the survivors.”
Smith stressed that educators should not primarily be “hung up” with students’ knowledge of the facts and figures of the Holocaust.
“What we need to ask ourselves is, have we used that history to give them the tools to be able to navigate their own world?” he said. “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is how they are going to act when they see the next act of violence.”