Holocaust still has lessons to teach us today

Richard Freedman, director of the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre, is pictured during a walkabout of the exhibition, Deadly Medicine: The Master Race.

People passing by the South African Jewish Museum might easily miss the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre, tucked away on the same premises in Hatfield Road, on the Museum Mile in the city centre.

The educational institution, the first of its kind in Africa, tells the story of the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945.

But it also tells a story of society today, and serves as the start of a conversation about prejudice, said the centre’s director, Richard Freedman.

The museum is currently hosting a travelling exhibition, called Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. The exhibition traces the history from the early 20th-century international eugenics movement to the Nazi regime’s “science of race” – how the Nazis killed millions of people who did not conform to their idea of how people should look.

It also challenges viewers to reflect on the present-day interest in bioethics, and serves as the ongoing need to remind people of the dignity of every person.

The exhibition was launched on Monday December 10, which Mr Freedman described as an important day, because 40 years ago, on the same day, the United Nation adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was also on the day, 22 years ago that former president Nelson Mandela signed the South African Constitution.

“It was particularly the genocide of the Jews that prompted the discussion of the Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration stated that ‘all human beings are born free with dignity’. This exhibition shows how necessary the declaration was.”

Guest speaker Professor Jeffrey Prager, said the exhibition highlighted racism as a contributing factor which resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews, homosexuals, and disabled people, among others. He said in some respects, the same thing was happening in South Africa.

“While the exhibition is about Germany, it also speaks to South Africa and they have things in common. There is a deep connection, and that is the idea of white supremacy that has governed the minds of South Africa, Germany and America.”

He said people still think about a hierarchy of people, no matter how much they try to stop themselves.

“This exhibition raises the question: How far have we travelled? What is the distance between Germany 1945 and now?”

He said three countries – Germany, South Africa and America – shared the same ideas of a “master race”.

“Thinking in a hierarchy of people is central to the thinking of these countries, and white is synonymous with power, supremacy and status. Racism yields difference. It sets individuals apart from each other. Socially, people continue to organise themselves racially. South Africa cannot ignore the racism that preceded apartheid and they cannot ignore the issues they face – all as a result of racism.”

Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race is one of at least 10 exhibitions that makes its way through the doors of the Holocaust and Genocide Centre each year. There is also a permanent exhibition.

Mr Freedman said exhibitions started conversations around contemporary issues in society.

“The aim of this centre is to have people look at themselves, look at society and ask themselves – am I turning a blind eye to this?

“We would like to continue raising awareness, our activism, and fighting for the rights of others through this centre.”

He said while the centre was based around the Holocaust, and provided sufficient information and memories around the time of Nazi Germany, the era is used as a platform to deal with issues of the day.

“It deals with all prejudice of society. Our work is very broad, and our aim is to have people reflect and start conversations.”

The centre was opened in 1999, with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu as its patron. At the opening, Archbishop Tutu said: “We learn about the Holocaust so that we can become more human, more gentle, more caring, more compassionate, valuing every person as being infinite worth so precious that we know such atrocities will never happen again and that the world will be a more humane place”.

Over the years, the museum has built its permanent exhibition and archives of videos, pictures, memories and paraphernalia donated to the exhibition by survivors of the Holocaust.

Mr Freedman said people came from all over the world to visit the centre, and some of them even find pictures of family members in between exhibits – those who died in the Holocaust.

“For some people, these are memories. It is very emotional.”

He said the centre also worked with other organisations such as the Robben Island Museum, The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, and the District Six museum, as they all had a common cause. The institution provides teacher training, as well as curriculum material for schools.

“We have about 7000 pupils pass through the centre every year. We work with Correctional Services as well – we teach the wardens about the rights of prisoners.”

The centre also holds lectures, talks and programmes in the evening. He said for the Jewish community, there is a sense of connection.

“For some, it’s a memorial, for some it’s a lesson about anti-semitism. However, the centre does not belong to the Jewish community only. Its’ inclusive for all,” he said.

There is no entry fee. The Holocaust and Genocide Centre is open on Mondays from 10am to 5pm; Tuesdays to Thursdays from 9am until 5pm; Fridays from 9am to 2pm; and on Sundays from 9am to 5pm.