News | Politics of Memory / Antifascism - Racism / Neonazism - Southern Africa Not Comparing, but Connecting

Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre founder Tali Nates on the work of remembering and opposing genocide


Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide centre founder, Tali Nates. Photo: JHGC

The Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre is a “place of memory, education, dialogue and lessons for humanity” that serves multiple purposes. First, it explores the history of genocide in the twentieth century with a special focus on the Holocaust and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Second, it is a memorial to the victims of genocide, also with a deeper focus on the case studies mentioned above. Through education and dialogue, the centre encourages visitors to understand the consequences of human rights issues such as prejudice, racism, “othering”, antisemitism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and prevent the recurrence of mass atrocities and genocide in all its forms.

The cooperation between the JHGC and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation began during the annual Kristnallnacht events on 9 November at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg. Since 2016, the JHGC has been a permanent partner of the foundation’s office in South Africa. The initial support of the JHGC’s political education work in the form of temporary and travelling exhibitions has been deepened since 2019 with the completion of the iconic exhibition house and numerous joint projects and events.

To learn more about its work and its relationship with other institutions, Florian Weis and Laura Sichau spoke with historian Tali Nates, the centre’s founder and director and also a recipient of the 2022 Goethe Medal. They discussed why she founded the centre, what its work looks like today, and more.

LS: What was your intention with the museum? What is its history?

The idea developed around the time that the topic of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust became a compulsory part of the South African curriculum. In 2007, the curriculum of the country changed to a human rights-focused curriculum. Every subject, specifically history but not only history, was thought from a human rights perspective.

The idea of the Department of Education was to understand that despite the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the long history before and after that, apartheid began in the country in the same year. At the time, the books contained only one small paragraph about the topic, which is not enough to support this new curriculum for so many students. Changing the curriculum was great, but the 600,000 teachers here needed resources to do this.

There was and is a small but excellent Holocaust museum in Cape Town that was founded in August 1999, even before the new curriculum. It was a Holocaust centre connected to the Jewish community of Cape Town and it tells the story of Apartheid and the Holocaust. However, it is small. I think 205 square meters. When the new curriculum started, the directors of that museum got worried that they could not support this education in the whole country through this small museum. They started to speak to different people, including me.

At that time, I was working in a reconciliation and transformation organization, concerning issues of transforming South Africa based on race, diversity, and reconciliation. I resigned from my job and decided to start “something”. At that time, I did not know what this “something” was. It could have been a library or just writing a textbook, I did not know.

I started alone, then I had one person who joined me, we rented an office, and thought that maybe we can go to schools or train teachers. That is how we started partnerships with other museums, for example, the Apartheid Museum. Then, in 2010, the city of Johannesburg offered us a partnership, a public-private partnership, to create an actual institute. We could not refuse that opportunity. The city gave us the land and supported the entire process but we needed to raise the money for the building.

It took nine years, from 2010 to 2019, to raise the money and build the building. It was a long process but it was also a blessing because it gave us time to write the exhibition, collect the materials and objects, make 24 films, and create national and international partnerships. From the beginning, it was very clear that the institute would be about the Holocaust and the Genocide in Rwanda. The idea of the institute was to bring people into the centre as well as go out and teach. We are still traveling and teaching because we need to support students and educators in other parts of the country.

LS: You talk a lot about supporting the curriculum. How do you do that? What are your educational projects? What kind of exhibition do you have?

In the Centre, we have a permanent exhibition that looks at genocide in the twentieth century, starting with Namibia, or German Southwest Africa in 1904 with the Ovaherero and Nama Genocide, going through Armenia and then into the Holocaust and finishing in Rwanda. We look at four case studies with two of them in much more detail: the Holocaust and Rwanda. Throughout the exhibition and in special spaces in the exhibition, we connect the case studies to South Africa's past, such as racism, colonialism, and apartheid. In addition, it looks at South Africa’s present challenges we have today such as racism, Afrophobia, xenophobia, and “othering”.

That’s the permanent exhibition. We have also seminar rooms, a research centre, and a library. We host different temporary exhibitions. In November, we opened “Seeing Auschwitz”, a large exhibition developed by Musealia and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum that was in the United Nations in NY, UNESCO in Paris, etc. This will be with us for around four months. Next year we will have an exhibition about the genocide in Bosnia.

For me, this is the most important thing I can share with the world: continue to do the right thing against all odds.

In the seminar rooms, we conduct student workshops using the exhibitions, using activities that we created, using resources that we produced. A lot of them are on our website and available for free. We are a free museum. We have to collect donations to run the museum because we believe in education for all.

Apart from that, we offer educator or teacher workshops. We run about six per year. They are three-day workshops offering many methodologies and resources that we developed. The teachers receive packs of resources, lesson plans, how-to-teach, films, and so on. Then we offer special programmes, for example about eugenics.

In addition, as part of our programmes, we have programs for churches, the public, universities, and other groups. In the evening or during the day we host conferences, events, theatre pieces, film screenings, or dialogues.

It is a very active Centre. We are a Holocaust and Genocide Centre but we deal with anything that we believe is connected to genocide around the world and human rights in South Africa. Lately, we did a conference about the psychological effects of the war in Ukraine on its citizens. It was a conference with different international universities. We hosted a few ambassadors including that of Ukraine in South Africa and psychologists from Ukraine, the UK, Moldova, Israel, and Poland. We have a partnership conference about sex and the public. Together with the University of the Witwatersrand, we talk about LGBTQ+ in South Africa, Angola, and Mozambique. We will have a webinar about the environment, about ecocide.

We also go to other Provinces and teach teachers there. We use the case studies of the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Apartheid, as entry points to talk about extremism and responsible leadership. We do this program in many countries in Africa, such as Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Zambia, the Gambia, and Senegal. Our temporary exhibition also travels to other countries.

LS: Do you also cooperate with other regional organizations?

We have the privilege to have many partnerships. From the beginning, we had to partner because we didn’t have a space of our own. We are collaborating with so many — the UN, UNESCO, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the Goethe Institute, universities, museums, environmental experts, different Holocaust and genocide experts, churches, and synagogues. We are collaborating widely and continuously.

When you collaborate once, you will collaborate again, which is very nice. For example, the Gay and Lesbian Archive (GALA) from Wits University in Johannesburg. We are collaborating with them in October on that conference and exhibition I mentioned. This is probably the fifth or sixth time we have corporate on a project. We also cooperate with embassies or museums, global institutes, and local communities.

LS: With local communities?

From Johannesburg, yeah. From Alexandra, from Soweto, from anywhere. Many partnerships.

FW: You emphasised two very important points, which I absolutely agree with. First, it is necessary to have your own idea of what you want to do, but as you said, partnership and cooperation is essential, because otherwise you do not have a real debate, an exchange of perspectives. Second, trusting each other is difficult to achieve but is of elemental importance. I think that is the base for continuity in cooperation.

Yeah, that is right. We have a big network that is growing, and because of the long-lasting partnerships we also gain some new partnerships internationally or in Johannesburg.

LS: In your background photo, I can see a wall with straight lines going to the sky. You mentioned that this contributes to the survivors of the Shoah and other genocides. How do you cooperate with survivors or their descendants in your working process? In the video from the Goethe Institute, you talked about their involvement in the building process — how did you do that?

I am the daughter of a survivor, so I am comfortable engaging with survivors, but not everyone is as comfortable. Sometimes people are afraid to hurt them. For me, we had to involve the survivors in the building of the Centre, the programmes, and the education. Their stories are part of our resources. Their stories are part of our educational publications.

For example, we did a publication about Jewish refugees and survivors who came to South Africa. Now the schools use their stories to teach about the Holocaust. We only have 14 survivors left in Johannesburg. Therefore, we need to think about the day after. We consult the survivors and we involve them as volunteers. They also have social meetings in the centre every month. They are Holocaust and Rwandan (Tutsi) survivors.

We also work with other groups. For example, refugees in South Africa suffer from xenophobia. In 2019, we did a wonderful exhibition called “My Congo — My Story”. This was about Congolese refugees that came to South Africa. Stories about how they got here, about their life in South Africa, and the challenges of Afrophobia and xenophobia. We published a book with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation called “[BR]OTHER” about xenophobia in South Africa. We did different exhibitions and the story of xenophobia is part of our permanent exhibitions.

We are working with many different survivor groups all the time on different projects. Concerning Armenia, there are no more survivors alive, so we are working with the descendants. We are working with a group in Johannesburg called the Arminian Youth Group. They are the descendants of the genocide victims. We also work with Ovaherero and Nama descendants, because there are no more first generations. We work with them in Namibia through partnerships. Actually, in July we had a webinar with descendants of the Ovaherero and Nama and activists in Namibia to look at issues of commemoration, memory, and memorials.

We need to work with survivors and descendants. Usually, the work is with each group independently but many times the groups meet, for example, Rwanda survivors, Holocaust survivors, and xenophobia survivors. They met many times through the years. The relationships between the groups are important. They have discussions, meetings, and so on. We are doing this quite successfully and we will continue doing this until the last survivor or descendant is alive.

LS: Are there reactions, maybe from visitors or survivors or descendants who were there, that moved you or had an impact on you? Could be a bad or good memory, do you have a particular story in mind?

On a study trip to Poland with participants from the University of Cape Town and Vienna, I was able to see the tombstone of my grandfather, Zvi Turner. My father’s father died of cancer when my father was very young, maybe two or three years old. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in a Polish town called Nowy Targ, which is in the Tatra Mountains and close to Zakopane. During the war, my father survived different concentration camps and was then saved by Oskar Schindler and liberated by the Soviet Army. When his brother, who also survived, went back to the town, the cemetery was destroyed. The tombstone of my grandfather was gone and that was it, we thought.

Last year, in May 2021, I got an e-mail from a friend of mine from Krakow who is working with a small non-profit organization in southwest Poland called “People, Not Numbers”. This organization was started by an Olympian gold medallist, Dariusz Popiela. This young man, who is a national hero in Poland, has dedicated his life to the memory of this little region of Podhale. His organization builds memorials, researches the history of each little town, and searches for tombstones from all around to bring them back to the cemeteries.

In history, you can look at cases side by side and analyse them, empathize with the victims, and tell the stories of the victims.

I went with this group of students to Nowy Targ. We met with Dr. Karolina Panz, who did all the research in that town. She is an amazing person and at that moment, it was the most moving educational experience of my life because it was very real to see my grandfather’s tombstone. I said a prayer. I am certainly not a religious person, but I said a prayer because I felt it was what I needed to do. We spoke with Karolina and learned from her about the past and the current difficult situation in Poland. It was very emotional. I cried a lot — they are brave people.

For me, this is the most important thing I can share with the world: continue to do the right thing against all odds. I think there are many stories from many amazing survivors, but this one is for me personally a moment I will never forget.

FW: Thank you so much for sharing this story, especially for giving credit to those people in Poland because, as you said, under these circumstances it is very difficult. I will research this gold medallist. It is great what he is doing.

I will try to support the organization because it is unbelievable what they achieved in such a short period. They just opened an amazing memorial for 12,000 people, for the Jews that were killed in Nowy Sącz. They did such an amount of work to research all the names, it is unbelievable. They are not asking anyone for help — they are doing it themselves. That is amazing.

Students visit the xenophobia exhibition at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. Photo: JHGC

FW: As you mentioned before, under these political circumstances it is very difficult to act in this way. On the other side, I perceive some kind of liberal, even progressive arrogance in Germany and other Western European countries towards Poland. People are sometimes trying to teach Polish people about the evil of antisemitism.

I don’t think it is a German’s job to lecture other people in that way, especially in a country that suffered as severely under the German occupation as Poland did. I think it can be helpful if we try to argue that remembering the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is not directed against the memory of Polish suffering. I suppose the problem in Poland is that their government and great parts of the population fear that their suffering is not acknowledged adequately.

Probably, an organization like yours is more helpful as someone from Germany. Poland does not need a lecture from Germany on the Nazi past. I am very interested to hear more about the word “connecting” because possibly this might be more helpful in the debate than using words like “to compare” or “put it into a relation to”. “Connecting” might be very helpful in finding a way to talk about the Shoah, other genocides. Can you explain to us why you use that phrase?

I think it is very important to speak about it. I am aware of the discussion in Germany and the difficulties around it. I was interviewed about that quite a few times. There we also talked about this “Angst” of comparing and the “Angst” of competition of suffering.

In history we always talk about different histories, that is what we do as historians. We speak about parallels and analogies, and we speak about differences and clear distinctions. However, when it comes to the Holocaust it seems like a very sensitive topic and it is difficult to speak about it as we speak about other histories. I can only speak about the debate in South Africa and the way we decided to tell the story and why the word “connecting” is so helpful to us.

South Africa also has a multi-layered history. Not only apartheid was devastating. Not only colonialism, which we do not know how to speak about it. It is not only the early genocide of the Khoisan people or the murdering of people who lived in the land before colonialism that we forgot and do not speak about. It is a complex history and many times, it is hard to speak about our history.

I will give you an example: South Africa controlled southwest Africa from 1916 until 1990. However, nobody talks about it — no talk about the implementation of apartheid there, no talk about our army fighting the liberation forces there, no talk about the crimes against the Namibian people during that time. There is a need for South Africans to look at themselves, but it is difficult.

We can look at ourselves better through other historical case studies, like Rwanda. In April 1994, we, South Africans, were preparing for our first democratic election. In the same month and year, there was the Genocide in Rwanda. We were voting on 27 April and at this time, the Genocide in Rwanda already had been going on for three weeks. We were thinking about ourselves, we did not care about what was happening at the same time on our continent. Rwanda is only three-and-a-half hours away by plane!

This is an example of a “connection” we need to make. We need to make connections today to what is happening around the world, like in Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, or Yemen. We have to make some connection to the choices made by people, communities, and governments. Dilemmas of how to act, from the issue of “them” and “us”, to “othering” where the victims change every time — the “other” is another. Tutsi, Congolese, and Jew, but there are themes you can connect. It is not a parallel, it is not comparing, it is connecting one to the other. This analogy is helpful.

I would invite you to listen to a series of podcasts on our SoundCloud called “sleepwalking through the assault on democracy”. It is a conversation between historians, academics, and practitioners, and we have about six or seven episodes and the first episode is about “dangerous speech”. We talk about examples from the past: the Holocaust, Rwanda, and others. We focus on the danger of rising nationalism now and the changing world in front of us. We are not comparing — we are connecting. We are using warning signs from the past, from case studies of the past to look at ourselves today and look at where we are.

I think it is helpful. I don’t think it is minimizing any case study, we are not comparing Rwanda to the Holocaust, and we are not comparing the Nama or the Ovaherero genocide to the Holocaust. We are connecting where there are connections.

FW: I think it would be very helpful. Actually, all three of us are historians, so comparing is a technique we urgently need. The problem is that people often say we should not compare but what they actually mean is you should not gleichsetzen, equate.

LS: Maybe they are afraid of the equalizing process, because some people will use this to minimize the voices of the survivors or descendants. Therefore, I think it is important to clarify that connecting something is not equalizing.

FW: In that sense, I think “connecting” might be very useful for the German debate.

I think Rwanda is a case that suggests that you don´t need an “Auschwitz” to commit genocide. That is not equalizing. Auschwitz was built and 1.1 million children, men, and women, mostly Jewish, were murdered there. In Rwanda, in three months, almost 1 million were murdered without an Auschwitz. Genocides sadly can be done using other ways.

It does not mean that we are equalizing Rwanda to the Holocaust or to Auschwitz, but we are just suggesting that genocides can happen in different ways. The Holocaust was unprecedented in many ways. Auschwitz was never built before and never after, so it is unique in that way, but I don’t like the term unique — as if it can never happen again. However, it does not mean that the genocide in Rwanda was less cruel. Maybe you can compare the methods of mass murder there to the Einsatzgruppen, or to what Father Patrick Desbois calls the “Holocaust by bullets”.

FW: First, I think to some point the Shoah is unique as you said as a specific kind of mass murdering of people by industrial means and ways. The second reason why so many people in Europe are so shocked about it was that the German nation claimed to be in the tradition of the enlightenment, a modern society, not a so-called “barbarian” society. Yet they executed such a mass murder on an industrial scale.

Of course, only such a so-called “modern” society was capable of doing this. Christopher Browning worked on the subject, and his work Ordinary Men is much better than Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler's Willing Executioners, although Goldhagen’s was more successful. Browning was doing what you call “connecting”. He did not say, for example, American war crimes in Vietnam and the Holocaust were the same. It was never the intention of the Americans to kill the complete Vietnamese civilian population, but the Nazis intended to do that to the Jews. Nevertheless, he asked, what are the circumstances in which not common criminals but “ordinary men” can commit such brutal crimes? I think you talked about it in the Taz, about warning signals for a genocide that is going to happen.

We should be looking at human behaviour, it is also important. Think about the Holocaust — people that were never killers before and never killed after, but for a period, they were mass killers. How does that happen? A normal, ordinary man, as Browning said, can become a killer and stop being a killer in 1945. I think there are warning signs that can help us prevent it.

It is more helpful if we find a way to move the conversation forward and not get stuck in the competition.

FW: Yes, you are right. To this triangle of Apartheid, Holocaust, and Rwanda, you can also add Cambodia, Armenia, and Namibia. Alternatively, you could talk about Stalinism and Maoism.

I don’t think what happened in Ukraine in the 1930s, sometimes called the Holodomor, was precisely a genocide, but I know that some historians have a different view on this subject. I don’t think the Soviet intention was to kill all the Ukrainian people as such, but many of them died as a consequence of Stalin’s policy.

How can we put these different types of mass crimes in history or crimes against humanity together? How can we use the case studies to connect let us, say, Cambodia with the crimes of colonialism in Africa? Because nowadays this dominates much of the debate in the United States and Europe.

I think it is very important to look at the definitions that we have, even if some are lacking and not perfect.

For example, if we start with the definition of “genocide”, we need to remember that it was a new word, coined in 1944 and used after that, mentioned first during the Nuremberg Trials. We did not have a word before. Lemkin tried many possibilities before he decided on this word, a combination of Latin and Greek words describing the killing of people. We need to look at the definition, according to the United Nation Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It is not perfect, because they had to work with Stalin, so they couldn’t put a political agenda for the killing of people in it.

A genocide is defined as the intent to destroy in whole or in part a defined group of people. Over the years, we developed more laws, but I think this is a starting point. For example, if you look at Cambodia, only a few years ago, through the ECCC process, it was recognized that genocide was committed against the Cham Muslims and Vietnamese. This is because the intention was to destroy all Cham Muslims and Vietnamese. The intent was not to destroy the Khmer people, for example, but in the end, the Khmer Rouge regime killed them, too. Cambodia is a very horrifying example, because, in the end, nobody was safe.

If you stick to this not-very-perfect United Nations definition of the intention to destroy a defined group, then you can look at different historical examples more clearly. For example, apartheid was a crime against humanity. People were killed, one by one by one, many people, but the intent was not to destroy all the people in the defined group. Therefore, I think definitions do help even if they are not perfect. Especially to prevent a “competition in suffering” with genocide being the “top crime”. There is no need to have the “gold medal”, which is genocide, and the “bronze medal” is a crime against humanity.

I think the Nama and Ovaherero case is a good example. In numbers, “only” about 10,000 Nama people were killed, but this was more than 50 percent of that population. Therefore, it is not about numbers, it was about the intent to destroy all the Nama people. It’s the same with the Jews during the Holocaust: nearly three-fourths of them were killed and there was an intention to destroy all the Jews. There was also the intention to destroy all the Ovaherero people even though it was “just” 65,000 people. This was 85 percent of the Ovaherero people.

Speaking about colonialism, the numbers of victims are staggering. Slavery victims’ numbers are staggering but it is not only about the numbers, it is about the intention to destroy all people from a specific group. We need to ask about the intention — was it for economic reasons, for other reasons like war, conflict, and so on? Each case is very different.

I think the issue is the competition — it is not about history. In history, you can look at cases side by side and analyse them, empathize with the victims, and tell the stories of the victims. I think the issue is the competition of suffering. As we spoke about before, it can have problematic consequences, like in Poland. Therefore, we need to find a way to speak about it without falling into the trap of competition. Without doing mathematics, “No, here it is 400,000, and here it is 10,000, and this is more than this.” We tend to do that, and it is a problematic practice.

FW: I do agree and I think, as you said, it is helpful to stick to definitions. However, sometimes it is hard to stick to systematic definitions. It may feel, of course, very insensitive to the individual suffering. However, I think it is necessary because only by doing this we can understand what kind of atrocities could happen again.

One example: in discussing with Irish republicans, I am emotionally sympathetic to them, but I don’t think the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s was a genocide because it was not in the British interest to kill all the Irish people because they were Irish — but it was still a crime. A crime of neglect, a crime of capitalism.

LS: I think the problem is also within white society and the way we talk about competitive memories. Crimes related to racism and antisemitism are rising. Maybe individuals are not offended by the way of connecting, but by the results evolving out of that. We still live in a society based on discrimination and maybe the individual is afraid of what can happen if they lose this competition. Because if this individual is losing, this person will have several consequences that the dominant white people who made the definition don’t suffer from. So power-holding people can sit there and decide how to deal with this in terms of comparing or connecting because they don’t have to face any bad outcomes.

Therefore, I can understand that an individual who is affected by this is afraid of the power other people have and afraid of losing the competition other people set the rules for. We are still living in a capitalist society and even the remembrance culture is impaired by that. Maybe that is why the word “connecting” is triggering. Nobody wants to lose something that their life depends on. Nobody wants to have disadvantages.

Yes, and maybe somehow, because of this connection, this could dissolve the competition within the suffering. Because suffering is suffering, let us connect what can be connected. It is more helpful if we find a way to move the conversation forward and not get stuck in the competition.