South African museum to juxtapose Holocaust with Rwandan genocide

This architectural rendering shows the interior of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. "Khumbula" is the Zulu word for remember. (Lewis Levin)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (JTA) — At a South African Holocaust museum that plans to open late next year in Johannesburg, the Holocaust will be featured beside a more local genocide: the Rwandan violence of 1994.

The inclusion of the African mass murder is not a mere gesture toward political correctness in what will be the third Holocaust museum in Africa. Rather it will be an integral part of the planned Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre.

This illustration of two survivors living in South Africa - Rwandan Xavier Ngabo and Warsaw Ghetto survivor Irene Klass -- is being used as part of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre's media launch. (Ilan Ossendryver)

“The Rwandan section is a prominent part of the permanent exhibition, not an afterthought,” said center director Tali Nates. “It will be a shared museum.”

The message the juxtaposition sends is stark: that the Holocaust, and remembrance of it, did not prevent another genocide from occurring. Even in Africa it’s not a message that naturally occurs to the Jews here, Nates said.

“I don’t think that as South Africans and as Jewish South Africans we actually made the connection,” Nates said. “You cannot look at the story without remembering that as a South African, you need to make the connection to Rwanda, to the continent of Africa and to the fact that genocide, sadly, did not stop after the Holocaust.

“So I could not, in 2010-11, establish a Holocaust exhibition within South Africa without looking at Africa,” she said.

The museum will combine survivors’ testimonies with documents, photographs, film, interactive exhibits, text and artifacts. The exhibition space will take visitors on a route starting with exhibits on racism in general to the South African experience during apartheid to survivor accounts. There will be a memorial courtyard, an exhibition on the Rwandan genocide and an area dedicated to issues facing South Africans today, such as xenophobia.

To include South African voices in the exhibition on the Holocaust, seven local Holocaust survivors and Pretoria resident Jaap van Proosdij, who saved dozens of Jews, have been interviewed.

For the Rwanda section, the center is collaborating with museums and nongovernmental organizations in Rwanda, Britain and the United States. The exhibit will tell the story not only of the killings, which took the lives of some 800,000 people, but little-known stories of those who rescued Tutsis from the violence.

The museum is receiving significant help from Proof, a U.S.-based organization that interviews rescuers in former hot spots such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia.

Describing the Rwandan exhibit, Nates said, “It will be a sizable exhibit with moving images, with color, and we will use a lot of the voices of the victims, perpetrators, bystanders and rescuers.”

As the Holocaust exhibit covers the 12-year period from 1933 to 1945, compared to the less detailed 100 days of the Rwandan genocide, the Nazi exhibit will be larger.

“It’s not a competition in size of story, it’s not a competition in suffering,” Nates said. “It is about the human connection between the ‘Never again’ that we said after the Holocaust and the ‘Again and again’ that sadly we experienced in the 20th century.”

The Rwandan story resonates particularly in South Africa, which emerged from decades of apartheid just as the Rwandan genocide took place. Indeed, South Africa’s experience with apartheid will form a substantial part of the introduction to the Rwandan exhibition.

South Africa is the only country in Africa where the teaching of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are part of the national curriculum. The center is committed to assisting this education and has been doing so since its establishment in temporary premises in 2008.

Like the country’s two other Holocaust centers, in Cape Town and Durban, the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre plans to bring in scholars and train educators.

“Our hope is that our education efforts will lead to growing awareness, intervention and prevention” of xenophobia within South Africa, Nates said.

Architect Lewis Levin is designing the museum. African stone, readily available in the Gauteng province in which the museum will be located, will be incorporated with concrete and steel.

The visual effect will evoke not only wreckage and destruction but also trees in a forest. Levin says the imagery is deliberate. “If you visit the death camps, the fragments of mangled steel that have remained and of forests surrounding the precincts are strong visual associations,” he said.

The split-level, 9,000 square-foot center will be comprised of two buildings connected by a bridging structure and public areas. The first floor will house the permanent exhibition, while the second floor will include administration offices, a temporary exhibition space, a lecture hall and a resource center.

At street level, the double-volume foyer will be dominated by a wall of clear glazing interspersed with illustrations drawn by children in the Theresienstadt ghetto during the Holocaust. There will be an area for reflection inside and outside in the form of the memorial garden to victims of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.

In the displays, the museum will include explanations in South Africa’s indigenous languages, such as Zulu and Xhosa, in addition to Hebrew and English. At the entrance will be a memorial light with  Z’chor, the Hebrew word for “remember,” alongside words for remembrance in other African languages, including Kinyarwanda, the language spoken in Rwanda.

The Johannesburg center is being funded by the Jewish community, and the South African Holocaust Foundation will determine the educational and philosophical direction of the center, as it does for the country’s two other Holocaust centers. The new center is also partnering with the city of Johannesburg to place the museum in a prominent site in the heart of the city — on Jan Smuts Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, near other museums and its main universities.

The property, which will be leased to the museum at minimal cost, originally belonged to the Bernberg sisters, Jewish sisters who had a fashion museum there and bequeathed the site to the city on condition that it be used as a museum or art gallery.

Nates, a native of Israel who married a South African and has lived here for 25 years, is an internationally regarded scholar on the Holocaust and a child of survivors. Her father and uncle were on Schindler’s list; much of the rest of her family was murdered at the Belzec death camp.