From Auschwitz to Rwanda: Why South Africa Has So Many Holocaust Museums

Three museums commemorating the Shoah face a unique challenge on a continent where 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered 25 years ago

A guide speaking to a group of high school students at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.
Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre

JOHANNESBURG — Of the hundreds of museums set up around the world to commemorate the Holocaust, few devote much attention to other cases of genocide and racial persecution. South Africa has three.

Here’s a clue as to why this particular country is assuming the lead: location, location, location.

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In March, the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre officially opened its new, state-of-the-art facility with a permanent exhibition devoted to two case studies from the 20th century: The murder of 6 million Jews during World War II and the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis in 1994.

The 4,500-square-foot (nearly 420-square-meter) exhibition, which includes photographs, testimonies, art, multimedia installations and artifacts — many donated by Jewish and Tutsi survivors living in Johannesburg — is now the largest of its kind in South Africa.

Its temporary exhibits explore other examples of genocide, include in nearby Namibia, as well as xenophobia against African migrants living in South Africa today.

Local survivors of both the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide often meet with groups and share their stories, in what is perhaps the first museum anywhere to present these two tragedies side by side.

To open a museum in South Africa that commemorates a genocide that took place in Europe while ignoring another that took place on the same continent much more recently would have been inconceivable, says Tali Nates, the museum’s Israeli-born founder and director.

Tali Nates, the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre’s Israeli-born founder and director.
Judy Maltz

“Let’s remember that we are in South Africa — not Jerusalem,” she notes. “Rwanda is especially important for us here in this country because it was at precisely the same time in April 1994 that our two nations chose such very different paths. Here in South Africa, just as Nelson Mandela was taking office as our first democratically elected leader, a massive bloodbath was underway in Rwanda. So as an institution dedicated to teaching lessons for humanity, we felt it was imperative to include the Rwanda genocide in our permanent exhibition.”

Nates says that many museums engaged in Holocaust education and commemoration focus on the lessons without bothering to ask whether in fact they have been learned. A museum that looks at other genocides as well can’t avoid that question.

“Never again. Period. That’s all we hear,” she says. “At this center we put a question mark after those two words. Never again? Really? Look what happened just 25 years ago in a country just a three-and-a-half hour flight from here.

“Let’s not forget that apartheid, a system that legalized racism, was officially introduced in this country in 1948 — that’s three years after the end of World War II and the very same year the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” she adds.

High school students working on a project at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.
Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre

Among Jews, analogies between the Holocaust and other genocides often don’t rest well. Indeed, many argue that the Holocaust was a unique event in history, unprecedented on so many levels that any comparisons detract from its enormity and trivialize the suffering of its victims.

Such concerns, Nates acknowledges, were raised in the local Jewish community. “In the beginning there was some flak,” she says, “but it was more because of a lack of understanding of what we were planning to do here. After all, nothing like this existed before, and so people were naturally apprehensive. I think they got it very quickly, though, and I’m very happy to say that the Jewish community has been very supportive.”

The guiding motto of the museum, she notes, is that there is no need for comparisons: “We tell the stories here side by side. It’s not a competition about who suffered more.”

The entrance to the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.
Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre

‘Special symbolism’

The Holocaust museum in Cape Town, the oldest of South Africa’s three institutions that mark the catastrophe, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It was only three years ago, though, that the word “genocide” was added to its name, making it the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre. The same holds true for the museum in Durban, which marked its 10th anniversary this year.

Both museums devote space and attention to other genocides and have done so from the outset — even if it is not as big a part of their focus as at the center in Johannesburg.

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All three fall under the auspices of the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation, created in 2007 after a law was passed mandating Holocaust education in ninth grade. It’s a law that keeps these museums very busy.

On a recent weekday morning, three buses were seen pulling into the parking lot of the brand new Johannesburg museum, dropping off high school students from nearby townships. Dressed in their respective school uniforms, the teens began their tour with a stop at a poignant children’s memorial located right at the entrance.

Railway tracks embedded in concrete and stone are a common motif in the two-story building, as are red bricks.

“We consulted with Holocaust survivors while we were designing it,” explains Nates. “We wanted to include elements that held special symbolism for them — and something that kept coming up in these conversations were the railway tracks, which obviously reminded them of the trains that transported them to the camps and other places. The bricks are meant to call to mind the barracks of Auschwitz.”

Survivors who fled the Rwandan genocide, many of whom live in Johannesburg, were also asked for input, says Nates. This helps explain the abundance of trees and vegetation on the site — not elements typically associated with mass murder. “Something we kept hearing from these survivors was that while this awful genocide was going on, they couldn’t help noticing that everything around them was so green and lush,” she recounts.

High school students listening during a tour of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.
Johannesburg Holocaust and Genoc

Construction of the new museum, conveniently located in the city’s cultural district, began about seven years ago on a plot of land donated by the Johannesburg municipality. Until then, the Holocaust center had been housed in a makeshift facility, where it operated for close to 10 years as a resource hub rather than an actual exhibition site.

The vast majority of South Africa’s Jews arrived in the country before World War II, so the number of Holocaust survivors has always been relatively small — estimated at no more than a few hundred today. But the driving spirit behind the Johannesburg museum, the late Jewish philanthropist Gerald Leissner, had a deeply personal connection to the Holocaust: His grandmother had been murdered in Auschwitz. He was the person who recruited Nates to the project after learning of her work with survivors of the Rwandan genocide, and her engagement in various reconciliation and dialogue initiatives in South Africa.

Nates, too, has a very personal connection to the Holocaust. Both her Polish-born father and uncle were fortunate enough to have been among the estimated 1,000 Jews rescued by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler (the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”).

“My father hardly ever spoke about his Holocaust experiences but my uncle did, and I was a very curious little girl who asked many questions,” she recalls. “So, in a sense, I became the carrier of memory in the family. The fact that my father and uncle were alive because of a German was proof to me that people do have choices in life. It’s a lesson I learned at a very young age, and it’s a message I hope comes through in this museum.”

Nates, who grew up on the outskirts of Tel Aviv and studied history at the Hebrew University, moved to Johannesburg in 1986 after marrying a South African she met in Israel.

An exhibit at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.
Johannesburg Holocaust and Genoc

Obvious temptation

A few days later, about 60 high school students are filing into the auditorium at the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre for an introductory briefing before their guided tour of the exhibition. For many of them, notes the center’s senior educator, Linda Hackner, this will be the first time they meet a Jewish person in the flesh or encounter the term “anti-Semitism.”

She says there is an obvious temptation — one often best avoided — to make the subject matter more accessible to these black high school students by pointing out parallels to apartheid-era South Africa.

“We make it clear that South Africa had its own form of racism and discrimination, and although it may have taken some inspiration from the Nazis, it existed long before the Nazis came into power,” says Hackner. “We do try to draw certain links — for example, by pointing out that just like blacks in South Africa couldn’t sit on certain benches, neither could Jews in Germany. But we also talk about the fact that although apartheid was a lot of terrible things, it was not genocide.”

While the museum does address other genocides, she says, it sees its mission as pointing out the singularity of the Holocaust.

“Our visitors are led to understand that the Holocaust wasn’t the only genocide that ever happened. But at the same time, we talk about the fact that it was unprecedented because it crossed borders and crossed countries, and the aim was to eventually rid the world of every single Jew.”

Hackner says the visit often takes a toll on the youngsters, many of whom leave feeling “particularly sad and angry about the fact that children could be the victims of such atrocities.”

Yet many also come away thankful for having been born where and when they were. “When they finish the tour, I often hear them say that they feel so grateful to be living in a democracy,” she adds.

Inside the BDS heartland | Special project 
■ Jews are leaving South Africa once again — but don’t blame BDS 
■ On the road with Africa’s only traveling rabbi 
■ These South African Jews hate the occupation as much as they hate BDS 
■ From Auschwitz to Rwanda: Drawing new lessons from the Holocaust in South Africa

■ This South African synagogue caters to Jews of all colors