Dialogue, education and memory: the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre

Every part of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre speaks to deep discomfort and immeasurable horror but yet the building and the curatorial decisions display sensitivity, intimacy, reflection and contemplation.  A quote at the end of the exhibition space sums up the aim of this primarily educational institution:

I have told you this story not to weaken you but to strengthen you. The rest is up to you.  

The reflective quality of glass contributes to active engagement with the exhibits.  Both the viewers and the physical architectural context are mirrored in the glass medium and often the background showing through adds a quite literal dimension of layered meanings.

Why an institution dealing with genocide? 

Over heritage weekend in mid October, Tali Nates a holocaust historian and director of the Centre, took a group on a tour of the building and the exhibition. 

Tali Nates gives an introduction to the Centre, its origins and history and its purpose and function

Her passion and enthusiasm is infectious as she tells us about her involvement with the project, the origins of which go back long before the building opened in March 2019. Nates worked with survivors of the Rwandan genocide who fled to South Africa in 1995/6.  Plus she has a deeply personal connection in that her father and uncle were saved from the Holocaust by being on the famous Schindler’s List.  

Since 2007 the Department of Education has included compulsory teaching of the Holocaust to all Grade 9s (under the umbrella of Human Rights). So it made complete sense that the Centre should support the school educational curriculum.  The centre also hosts a resource centre, which holds a collection of over 1,500 books and DVDs relating to the Holocaust and other genocides. A full programme of events, films, plays, lectures and more is offered to schools, educators, NGOs and corporates. And, as all South Africans are aware, hate speech, Afrophobia, xenophobia and stereotyping are all still very much a part of our ongoing local “othering” lexicon.  So it becomes really important to use memory in an active way.  

Lest we forget
While the railway tracks and cattle trucks are the primary symbols of the Holocaust for the  survivors, for the Rwandan survivors it was the landscape which ‘watched us being killed’.

The site and the building 

Originally, from around 2008, the programmes were taught out of a single room. But the search for a suitable site continued.  The City’s Department of Art, Culture and Heritage owned the Bernberg sisters’ fashion museum (when they died they left the house to the city with proviso that it was used for some kind of museum). And so in 2010 a public private partnership was formed between the City and the Holocaust and Genocide Centre. While funds were being raised, those involved with the Centre developed resource material – 24 films were made, many interviews conducted, and a huge number of artefacts were collected from survivors. 

The Building itself

How does one translate history, memory and horror into the built form, into bricks and mortar?  The architect Lewis Levin asked survivors of the Holocaust what was the most potent symbol of the Holocaust for them, and overwhelmingly the answer came back : the railway lines and the cattle cars. Fragments of these symbols are repeated throughout the building. 

For the Holocaust survivors they spoke about the transportation: railway lines and cattle trucks.
The cladding of the box window above the coffee shop evokes the cattle trucks

The materiality is important – English bond brickwork (layers of brick alternating length wise and cross-wise) was the style uses in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Birkenau; the red colour of the bricks evokes burnt material. (The word Holocaust is derived from the Greek holokauston, a translation of the Hebrew word olah, meaning a burnt sacrifice offered whole to God); some of the granite cobblestones came from cut-offs of gravestones at West Park Cemetery; and the transparency and reflective quality of glass used in many of the exhibits, requires an active, conscious and engaged  mode of looking.   

Design and curatorial logic 

The exhibitions were designed and curated by the top team of Clive van den Berg and Lauren Segal, both of whom have worked extensively on other major projects of memory and history in Gauteng including Constitutional Hill, the Apartheid Museum, Freedom Park, and Satyagraha House.  Their multi-layered displays include interactive panels, artefacts, testimonies, films and photographs.   

The visitor moves from the outside Plaza, through the foyer to the main exhibition space where the display and content is not linear but is rather based on themes.  The introductory theme contextualizes the story of the word “genocide” from its invention in 1944 through to the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  Included here are the Herero  and Armenian genocides. In the first of the 5 spaces  dedicated to the Holocaust, the everyday life of ordinary people who were later to become victims of the Holocaust is shown by way of personal items donated by survivors.  

Cecilia Boruchowitz’s violin is but one example of a trace of the everyday lives of the European Jewry before the devastation of the Nazi State post 1933.

The third space deals with the pillars of the racial state when a group is identified as the Other and all sense of human individuality and empathy is squashed.  

This photograph is placed at the transition between the space where the everyday lives of European Jewry is shown and the shift to the racial state 1933-1945. In this latter space are 6 pillars symbolizing the building blocks of the Nazi State: ideology, total control, terror tactics, propaganda, laws, education.  Below is a detail of one of the symbolic pillars.
A summarized text with photograph on the left refers to propaganda as a tool of the racist state while vertical drawers on the right expand in more detail on the role of propaganda.

But within the horrors of the totalitarian dictatorship there are also those who resist: the theme covered in the next space. As if all this is not gut-wrenching enough, the next space deals with the final stage of genocide: the camps (which included 6 killing camps and 42,000 labour and transit camps) as well as 700 killing sites  and mobile killing units.  Recalibrating the viewer slightly, the last Holocaust space introduces nuances and complexities in the choices and dilemmas faced by different people: perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, resisters, collaborators. 

The oldest Johannesburg Holocaust survivor is 101, the youngest is 83 (as of Ocotber 2019) while the Rwandan genocide survivors are in their 30s and 40s.

After moving from a transition space which connects the Holocaust with the Rwandan genocide, the last 2 spaces deal with the genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days a mere 25 years ago.  A 30 minute film contextualizes the effects of German and then Belgian colonial rule in Rwanda before the final space where the genocide is shown as if viewed through differing eyes – rescuers, perpetrators victims, survivors.  

Personal items were sourced from two sites of atrocities during the 100 days of genocide in 1994, when some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in three months

Emerging into the Garden of Reflection with Philip Miller’s music in the background comes as a slight release of the tension, intensity and shock of being confronted yet again by representations of humankind’s sickening cruelty, lack of humanity and total moral bankruptcy. 

A visit to the Centre cannot be anything but tough, painful and challenging. But with the hate speech and continued “othering” and marginalization both in South Africa and more globally, it remains vital to teach not only the consequences of prejudice, racism, homophobia and xenophobia, but also the danger of indifference. 

Tour run by the Joburg Heritage Foundation during Heritage Weekend 12 & 13 October 2019

“Issy’s Coffee Shop” which serves Rwandan coffee is run by the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. 

And finally the Centre is open every day of the week 8.30 to 4.30 pm and entrance is free.




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