Visit a center that pays homage to the Holocaust and you don't expect to feel uplifted, inspired and encouraged. For those with even a scant knowledge of this dark period in history, the Holocaust means massacre and the virtual defeat of the human spirit.
But at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, which sits directly across from the Jewish Museum of South Africa on Hatfield street in Cape Town, what you get is a sense of perspective, particularly when you visit both museums consecutively. Learn the history of the Jews of South Africa, and how the Holocaust has touched Jews on the tip of this great continent, and you cannot help but feel moved and hopeful for the future.
The Holocaust Centre, built in 1999, begins its story not in Europe, but in South Africa. "Only recently South Africa emerged from the injustices of apartheid, with its abuse of human rights," one of the first informative panels announces. "The events of the Holocaust remain a tragic warning to us all."
The center goes on to detail the buildup to the Holocaust and the succession of events that culminated in the large-scale annihilation of Europe's Jewish community. But it returns frequently to the South African story, juxtaposing the occurrences in Europe with what was happening in this country.
In 1937, the passing of the South Africa Aliens Act prevented German Jews from immigrating to South Africa. Those who sought to prevent their arrival were by and large Afrikaner intellectuals, the same group that formulated the apartheid system as a way of safeguarding Afrikaner identity and racial purity.
The Aliens Act came on the heels of the arrival into South Africa of some 3,600 German Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1936. The Greyshirts, the most prominent of the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi groups that were formed in the '30s, were outraged, and their sentiments were shared by D.F. Malan, the leader of the Purified National Party, who explained, thus, why he was closing the country's doors: "There are too many Jews here, too many for South Africa's good and too many for the good of the Jews themselves."
The Holocaust Centre begins by offering visitors a snapshot of life in Bedzin, Poland, prior to Nazism. In 1939, the town was home to 27,000 Jews, more than half the population, people whose families in that area could be traced back to the 16th century. We see photographs of friends, a wedding, a classroom scene and children in kindergarten.
The exhibits and panels go on to describe the ghettos, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the mass murder of Jews and the implementation of the Final Solution. There are large black-and-white pictures of faces writ with suffering and hardship, descriptions of the death marches, and for those who survived the Holocaust, the pain they experienced after liberation.
The images are coupled with auditory commentary from survivors about their experiences, and while their voices and stories are compelling, on an emotional level they are difficult to listen to.
Just before the exit, we see the faces of 39 Holocaust survivors who settled in Cape Town after the Holocaust. A media screen displays the testimony of some of those survivors, describing the memories that torture them to this day.
The Holocaust Centre ends with a quote from the spiritual leader of the Rainbow Nation, Desmond Tutu, from a speech he made in 1999. "We learn about the Holocaust so that we can become more human," he says, casting the center's information in perspective.
"We learn about it so we can become more gentle, more caring, more compassionate, valuing every person as being of infinite worth so precious that we know such atrocities will never happen again, and the world will be a more humane place."
A few steps away, the South African Jewish Museum is housed in Tikvat Yisrael Synagogue, the country's first temple, that opened in 1862. For years, it sat in the shadow of the larger Gardens Synagogue, housing only a few historic artifacts. But that changed in 2000, with the injection of many millions that permitted the construction of an adjoining structure that tells the story of Jews in South Africa fluently and concisely.
The synagogue is a magnificent structure, with hardwood floors, elegant columns and intricate patterns adorning the roof. Jews began arriving in South Africa in 1806, the museum explains. By 1880, 4,000 Jews had arrived, and, thereafter, tides of immigration from Eastern Europe, and from Lithuania in particular, had transformed the Jewish community into a significant minority based in Cape Town.
Johannesburg started taking over as the focal point of South African Jewry by the 1860s, with the discovery of gold and diamonds in the Witwatersrand. This helped swell Jewish numbers in the country to 40,000 by 1910. At its most, in the early 1990s, the Jewish population had reached 120,000.
No history of South Africa could be complete without mention of apartheid, and in the annuls of the country's Jewish history, Mandela's words of praise are writ large. Taken from his book, Long Walk to Freedom, he says: "In my experience, I have found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on the issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice."
This sense of congratulation is modified by exhibition boards alongside his quote, which caution that most Jews accommodated themselves to segregation and apartheid, but that a "significant number" challenged the inequities of life in South Africa, and sought a more humane and just society.
For information, go to: www.jewish.org./za .