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SEEKING REFUGE EXHIBITION (article first published : 2007-02-21)

The Durban Jewish Centre recently hosted the exhibition titled Seeking Refuge (German-Jewish Immigration to South Africa in the 1930s, including aspects of Germany confronting its past)

By the use of 40 individual narratives, the story is told of individuals and families - German Jewish refugees - who arrived in South Africa during the 1930s. These magnificently presented narratives contain photographs from family albums over a long period: letters, documents and important memorabilia giving a very personal context to the moving histories of these traumatic dislocations.

The copies are so well done it looks as if the original documents are on the panels. Through graphic detail, the viewer sees how the refugees lived in Germany, how they were evicted, the difficulties they experienced in gaining entry into South Africa, and the way they struggled to make a new life for themselves and their families in a strange land - most often forced to leave behind beloved relatives and friends. Individual and communal efforts to assist the refugees, as well as local opposition to their arrival are described.

Although I am Jewish, one does not have to be Jewish to appreciate the horrendous and systematic attempts by Nazi Germany to annihilate a whole race of people based purely on religion. It is completely incomprehensible how there can continue to be holocaust deniers. In fact it is because of this that there is such a need for such exhibitions. This need can only become more necessary because, as time passes, there will be less and less holocaust survivors. The exhibition also meant so much to me as so many of the names depicted in the various displays are very familiar, being leaders of the South African broader community in so many ways and are thus well-known in so many fields. Indeed some of the families, such as Bernard Lazarus are very well known to me.

I have met several holocaust survivors over the years and one characteristic has stood out, their reluctance to speak of their dreadful experiences over the decades. They are only now becoming more open about those years and talking about them, so necessary in the face of the holocaust deniers. One must therefore really appreciate under what heartache these people have contributed to this exhibition.

I was very moved by the exhibition, as I'm sure everyone who has seen it must be. It was so tastefully done, and in such a forgiving manner in many ways - there is so much to learn from this exhibition. I was impressed at how the exhibition would be of interest to the man in the street, being on such a human level. These refugees were family people like us.

An overview is given in an illustrated section on the history and life of the German Jews, over the centuries (The World of Ashkenaz and Enlightenment and Emancipation), including their search for refuge from Nazi tyranny (Tyranny and Response ca. 1945). There is also a separate section of the exhibition featuring some of the museums, for example the Berlin Jewish Museum, memorials, educational and research projects, and panels on Learning from History and Remembrance and Reconciliation, such initiatives demonstrating the way in which Germany is confronting its past. The spirit is undoubtedly one of reconciliation.

The exhibition includes panels illustrating the contributions the refugees made to their new place of abode, for example the institutions in Johannesburg founded by German Jewish Refugees (an Old Age Home, the Bínai Bírith Lodge and the Adath Yeshurun and Etz Chaim Hebrew Congregations).

Shown as part of the exhibition was a 20-minute DVD titled The Holocaust: Lessons for Humanity. A concise historical overview of the Holocaust is given and focuses on universal lessons that arise from the Holocaust. Issues of prejudice, racism, discrimination and violation of human rights are confronted. These led to the persecution of marginalized groups, gypsies, Blacks, homosexuals and, particularly, Jews, leading to the murder of six million Jewish men, women and children in Nazi-occupied Europe. The relevance to the unjust apartheid system in South Africa, including the similarities and differences between Nazism and apartheid, are addressed. The video was made by the Cape Town Holocaust Centre and is very well worth seeing, if it ever comes your way.

The exhibition was mounted under the auspices of the Council for KwaZulu-Natal Jewry and brought to fruition by the Seeking Refuge sub-committee of the CKNJ: Lew Heilbron (Chairman), Mary Kluk, Ruth Mink, David Simpson, Lynn Matisonn, Jane Letschert, Andy Bernstein, Maureen Caminsky and Denise Wartski. Articles were published in the Jewish media informing the public of the intended exhibition and inviting people to submit personal documents and photographs should they wish their stories to be featured. The narratives displayed are those of individuals who responded to the articles timeously.

This travelling exhibition was conceptualized by the Cape Town Holocaust Centre in 2003 and created by Myra Osrin, who was the Holocaust Centreís director at the time, Millie Pimstone, researcher and writer, and Linda Bester, designer. It included narratives of refugees who had made Cape Town their home. This was followed by an exhibition in Johannesburg in 2005/06 under the auspices of the Gauteng Council of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the Goethe Institut, where the Cape Town narratives were replaced with those of refugees who made Johannesburg their home. The Johannesburg exhibition was then mounted at the German School in Pretoria followed by two months at the University of Potchefstroom. The exhibition mounted here in Durban included narratives of refugees who made Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban their new home. The Durban and Johannesburg narrative panels and institutions were researched and written by Dr Jocelyn Hellig and designed by Linda Bester.

Valued sponsorship was obtained from Investec Private Bank, Gerber Goldschmidt Group, Protea Hotel Edward Durban, The Aaron Beare Foundation, The Victor Daitz Foundation, B & GW Lazarus Charitable Trust, JAKAMaR Trust and Friends of Music.




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