The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre Painful Pasts as a Catalyser

Survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Sylvestre Sendacyeye, speaks in the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre about the importance of genocide education. Photographed next to a powerful exhibition installation of clothing and other items from victims of the genocide.
Survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Sylvestre Sendacyeye, speaks in the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre about the importance of genocide education. Photographed next to a powerful exhibition installation of clothing and other items from victims of the genocide. | Photo (detail): Anthea Pokroy © Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre

Based on their past experiences, South Africans tend to see all human rights violation through the prism of ‘white vs black’. The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre remind that racism is beyond the colour line.

By Tali Nates

“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.” Auschwitz survivor and writer Primo Levi words of warning greet all visitors as they enter the newly opened Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC). They are especially poignant in South Africa, a country which carries the heavy burden of the legacy of Apartheid. It raises the question of how to remember and teach about genocide in a country that still has to face its own difficult and painful past.

Primo Levi’s words at the entrance to the JHGC Primo Levi’s words at the entrance to the JHGC | Photo (detail): Anthea Pokroy © Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocid Center As the founder and director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC), I will offer a case study, exploring this one new museum and how it serves as a catalyser for promotion of active citizenship. The JHGC, explores the history of genocides in the 20th century with a focus on the case studies of the Holocaust and the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. It explores the connections between genocide and contemporary human rights issues, urging visitors to understand the consequences of prejudice and hate speech so as to prevent the recurrence of mass atrocities and genocide in all its forms.

Against hate speech

As a centre of memory, education, dialogue and lessons for humanity, the JHGC focuses on human rights issues such as prejudice, racism, ‘othering’, antisemitism, homophobia and xenophobia. Conscious of the dangers of indifference, apathy and silence, the JHGC urges its visitors to be an active voice against instances of hate speech and related human rights violations in their own communities.

The core exhibition at the JHGC – one of the Holocaust themed spaces. The core exhibition at the JHGC – one of the Holocaust themed spaces. | Photo (detail): Anthea Pokroy © Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocid Centre

 

The Centre’s non-linear core exhibition covers a number of themes including the 1904 Herero and Nama genocide in today’s Namibia, the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the history of Raphael Lemkin and the coining of the word ‘genocide’, with a number of different themes developed around the Holocaust and the Genocide in Rwanda as the two primary case studies. The exhibition ends in a reflection garden and a section dedicated to current challenges in South Africa, highlighting the scourge of Xenophobia and Afrophobia that has plagued the country since 2008.

Throughout the exhibition, history is presented as far as possible through the voices of witnesses: victims, perpetrators, resisters, rescuers, bystanders and others. Visitors are encouraged to engage with photographs, artefacts, drawings, and testimonies at their own pace and choice.

The core exhibition and the education programme focus on stories and artefacts of Holocaust and genocide survivors who settled in South Africa. The Centre created an extensive archive, collecting photographs, objects and documents.

Telling about people

The archive of artefacts from Europe and Rwanda was developed not only through donations and loans from families in South Africa but also through partnerships with organisations and institutions around the world. For example, a partnership with Father Patrick Desbois’ Paris based organisation, Yahad-in-Unum, allowed for very meaningful artefacts from the mass killing sites in the Ukraine to be displayed at the JHGC. Working with the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (CNLG) in Rwanda, allowed for moving artefacts of victims from the Catholic Churches of Nyamata and Ntarama to be on display as well. Victims’ clothes, shoes, notebooks and school books tell the story of thousands of men, women and children murdered in what they perceived to be a place of safety.

The core exhibition at the JHGC – one of the Genocide in Rwanda themed spaces. The core exhibition at the JHGC – one of the Genocide in Rwanda themed spaces. | Photo (detail): Anthea Pokroy © Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocid Center In addition to the artefacts, hours of testimonies by Holocaust and Rwandan survivors living in South Africa were recorded and 24 films were created especially for the exhibition and education programmes. The films focus on the voices of survivors, but also those of bystanders, resisters, rescuers and perpetrators. For many of the Rwandan survivors, when filmed, it was the first time they were able to tell their story, more than 20 years after the genocide.

Victims and perpetrators

Educational programmes look at the choices made by various role players and examine the range of actions of these players through historical examples. Mostly the focus is on bystander and upstander comparison with rescuer comparison with resister) behaviour. Learning about bystanders - people who witnessed atrocities but did not act or speak out – the educators often quote Primo Levi’s words: “In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know” (Levi, 1995). This rings especially true to South Africans who lived next to the prisons and torture chambers of the Apartheid regime but claimed not to know.

Holocaust survivor Irene Klass looking at her photograph as a young girl before the Second World War. Holocaust survivor Irene Klass looking at her photograph as a young girl before the Second World War. | Photo (detail): Anthea Pokroy © Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocid Center The year 2019 marks 25 years since the end of the apartheid regime and the transition of South Africa to democracy. This discriminatory past shapes to a large extent the country’s present and future where racism, hate speech, prejudice and abuse of power are still affecting society. Based on their past experiences, South Africans tend to see all human rights violation through the prism of ‘white vs black’. The JHGC, through both case studies of the Holocaust and the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, remind visitors that racism is beyond the colour line. Throughout the exhibition and the educational programme the Centre makes implicit and explicit connections to South Africa’s own past and present human rights abuses. 

The JHGC, through both case studies of the Holocaust and the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, remind visitors that racism is beyond the colour line.

Since the history of apartheid is at time still difficult to deal with, learning about the history of the Holocaust and the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, both removed in place and time from the South African experience, serve as an entry point and allow for a safer and more open discussion of local racism and other human rights challenges.