SA Jewish community remembers the Holocaust

South Africa’s Jewish community joined in the worldwide commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camps in a ceremony at a Johannesburg synagogue on Thursday .

Rabbi Yossy Goldman thanked the Allies and the Russian army in particular for freeing Europe’s Jews from the Nazis.

Calling the six-million Jews murdered in the death camps “holy martyrs”, Goldman asked why anyone would question or protest their memory.

Speaking at the Oxford Shul in Houghton, Johannesburg, he said many questioned why the Holocaust was special and why Jews had to be singled out.

In South Africa many pointed to the evil of apartheid and asked how the Holocaust was different.

“Why are Jews always whinging? Do they have a monopoly on suffering? Do they have a copyright on pain,” he rhetorically asked.

Auschwitz and the other death camps, however, were different, and that was why the Holocaust was different and why that word was not to be used flippantly.

The camp and its kindred, he said, had as their primary goal the extermination of every single Jew on earth.

“We live in a cruel world, and many have suffered untold miseries,” he said about atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, and now, Darfur.

“But no other people in history has ever been marked for total extinction.”

Observations were held in many major centres around the globe and the United Nations General Assembly held a special debate on the Holocaust earlier this week.

South Africa was represented on Thursday at the main international event, at Oswiecim, near Krakow in southern Poland, by its ambassador there, Sikose Mji.

Roughly 1,5-million people from all walks of life and from many parts of the world died there.

The mass killings ended on January 27, 1945, when the Soviet army arrived and the camps’ guards ran away.

The dying did not immediately end—hundreds died for weeks afterwards from illness and disease—or from the shock of eating real food after years of privation.

Many other Nazi death and concentration camps were overrun in 1945, but the Auschwitz complex, the largest of them all, has since become a metaphor for the Holocaust in which at least six-million Jews—and hundreds of thousands of other people—were murdered between 1942 and 1945.

Although physically released from the camps sixty years ago, most former inmates are still there in mind—many have said they have been unable to shake the horrors they experienced or saw others suffer.

After World War II many survivors returned to their homes but many more migrated to the United States or Israel.

A small number, about 80, also came to South Africa to build new lives in a new country. Today, increasingly few are still alive.

South Africa’s last Auschwitz survivor, Vera Reitzer (84) spoke about her experiences on Thursday night. She said that sixty years ago it was the first night the Nazis were not in charge at Auschwitz. A unit commanded by Major Anatoly Shapiro had taken charge, and in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin had “switched off the ovens”.

Reitzer talked about her deportation from Yugoslavia and about SS camp doctor Joseph Mengele deciding who would die immediately, and who would suffer a bit longer.

She remembered a rabbi’s wife who would not kneel on sharp stones as a punishment when ordered to.

“An SS woman came and shot her,” Reitzer said. “After that everyone kneeled.”

She also told the audience of about a thousand about a friend who was condemned to live, not knowing she was about five months pregnant.

When the child was eventually born, Mengele was summoned.

He took his thumbs, pressed it to the newborn’s throat, and squeezed another life away.

“This friend of mine was never normal again,” Reitzer said matter-of-factly, to gasps of horror.

SA Jewish Board of Duties national president Russell Gaddin, who hosted the evening, said if every Jew murdered by the Nazis had to be remembered for a minute it would amount to over 4 000 days—or eleven years of silence.

Gaddin said the liberation of Auschwitz was the beginning of the end of the Holocaust or Shoah—and it was therefore a watershed event.

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein added that no-one in the synagogue was there to feel comfortable about the past.

The blood of the victims of anti-Semitism cried out to God for justice. “Our pain, our outrage is as fresh today as it was 60 years ago,” Goldstein said.

Acting Israeli ambassador Ilan Fluss said just the mention of the word Auschwitz “causes every Jew to shiver”.

Why did the Nazis target the Jews, he asked. “Because they were Jewish. It was as simple as that.”

He said Israel was dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialists. His country would make sure something like the Holocaust never happened again.

In a short statement to mark the day, the Democratic Alliance said the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime ought never be forgotten.

“Indeed, they should spur us on to stand up for human rights wherever they are threatened—whether in Africa or anywhere else in the world,” the party’s Joe Seremane said.

Auschwitz consisted of three main camps and more than 40 subsidiary facilities where prisoners were worked to death while performing slave labour.

  • Auschwitz I, opened in a former Polish Army barracks in April 1940, held about 15 000 prisoners on average.

  • Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, built about 3km from the original camp, was completed in March 1941 as an extermination centre. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre says on its website the camp’s Nazi staff killed 6 000 people a day in four gas chamber and crematorium complexes.

  • Auschwitz III, also known as Monowitz or Buna, was an IG Farben petrochemical complex, similar to Sasol, where fuel was extracted from coal.

    The Nizkor Project says historians estimate that among the people sent to Auschwitz, there were at least 1 100 000 Jews from all the countries of occupied Europe, over 140 000 Poles (mostly political prisoners), approximately 20 000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10 000 Soviet prisoners of war, and over 10 000 prisoners of other nationalities. - Sapa

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