Sylvestre Sendacyeye, a Rwandan genocide survivor, and Holocaust survivor Veronica Phillips. Picture: CAROLYN RAPHAELY
Sylvestre Sendacyeye, a Rwandan genocide survivor, and Holocaust survivor Veronica Phillips. Picture: CAROLYN RAPHAELY

Ever since a small, unmarked building on Joburg’s busy Jan Smuts Avenue first announced its gloomy presence, many commuters have wondered idly about the reason for the rusted railway tracks embedded into its dark stone and concrete walls.

Against a global background of increasing xenophobia, Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and rising racism, the recently opened Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre (JHGC) was specifically designed to provoke conversations about race, acts of racial terror and the dire consequences of racial hatred.

“JHGC architect Lewis Levin consulted at length with Holocaust survivors and Tutsi survivors of the genocide in Rwanda who were living in Johannesburg,” the centre’s founding director, Tali Nates, explains.

“Jewish survivors identified train tracks as the most powerful symbol of the cattle-trucks used to transport them to the concentration camps during WW2. For the Rwandan survivors, the tracks represented colonial oppression and the trees that bore witness to the murder of their countrymen in forested landscapes.”

The building is replete with architectural symbolism.

“The centre’s large glass windows indicate genocide happens in daylight while the neighbours are watching,” Nates adds.

“The red-burnt English bond bricks used for the walls laid lengthwise and crosswise are reminiscent of the brick used in Auschwitz’s gas chambers; the granite gravestone off-cuts used to pave the courtyard are reminiscent of unmarked graves.

Though located thousands of kilometres apart, the Johannesburg Holocaust Centre and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (NMPJ) in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened in April 2018, seem to have similar agendas: promoting self-reflection, critical thinking and a reckoning with race informed by a belief that learning from past evil is necessary to guard against its repetition.

Given the racial polarisation ripping SA apart, the tide of racial invective contaminating daily discourse, the xenophobic violence in which at least 12 people were murdered in Gauteng in September, the recent anti-Semitic shootings on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar in Germany, and a staggering increase in mass-shootings and race-based hate crimes in the US, the timing couldn’t be better.

While the JHGC seeks to raise awareness of the evils of genocide specifically focused on the 6-million Jews murdered by the Nazis and the more than 800,000 Tutsis murdered in 1994 by Hutu extremists in Rwanda, the NMPJ — also known as the Lynching Memorial — honours 4,384 known black men, women and children lynched by white mobs in the American South between 1877 and 1950.

Mary Turner, an eight-month-pregnant black woman hung upside down from a tree by her ankles, set alight and her stomach sliced open so her unborn baby fell to the ground is just one of them.

Among America’s least recognised racial atrocities, these racially motivated extrajudicial killings — often witnessed by thousands of cheering spectators — were regarded as punishment for accusations ranging from rape and murder to arguing with a white person, failing to call a white man “Mister” or, in Turner’s case, for protesting her husband Hayes’s lynching the previous day.

More than 100 years after Turner’s lynching, extrajudicial killings remain a fact of life in SA. The SA Police Service’s 2018/2019 crime report released in September records 789 known public executions resulting from mob-justice and vigilantism.

“Genocide doesn’t happen overnight, there are always warning signs,” Nates cautions.

“Stereotyping, prejudice, propaganda and abuse of power are all dangerous. The road to genocide starts with these things. History has been shown to repeat itself. So we say: ‘Human Beings, Wake Up! You’re not learning!”

Nates happens to be the daughter of a Holocaust survivor father who, with his brother, was saved from certain death by Oskar Schindler; her grandmother and two aunts died in Belzec killing centre’s gas chambers. Driven by her own demons, she first dreamt of establishing “some sort of Johannesburg educational centre and memorial commemorating Holocaust and genocide victims” while on a 2006 visit to Rwanda where she was facilitating peace and reconciliation workshops.

After a chance meeting with a young survivor at the Kigali Genocide Memorial whose family was murdered and buried in a mass grave and the discovery of their connection to a common loss, Nates decided to take action. Conceived as a donor-funded public-NGO partnership built on ground donated by the Johannesburg municipality, it took 10 years to turn her dream into reality.

Nates is adamant the JHGC is an educational centre, not a museum: “We support schools and educators with the implementation of the compulsory human rights curriculum which has mandated the study of the Holocaust for every South African Grade 9 learner since 2007.

“We wanted to create a space for learning, dialogue and connection by exploring the history of genocide in the 20th century through case studies — the Holocaust in Europe and the genocides in Rwanda and the former South West Africa. We live in Africa, so learning about a European genocide only and ignoring two genocides that took place on our doorstep made absolutely no sense.” 

Implementing this brief was no easy task for JHGC curator Lauren Segal and her team.One of the biggest challenges we faced was representing the enormity of the pain and suffering and doing justice to the survivors’ stories,” Segal recalls.

“We made the perpetrators’ stories subservient to the victims’ stories, which we hoped would leave us with a sense of hope and resilience. We didn’t want to reduce the narrative of the centre only to stories of persecution and massacre. Also, the JHGC is currently the only place — apart from Kigali — where the Rwandan genocide is memorialised in Africa.”

One of the biggest challenges we faced was representing the enormity of the pain and suffering and doing justice to the survivors’ stories.
Lauren Segal

According to Nates, the Holocaust is the best documented genocide in history and provides an excellent case study because it includes every actor — perpetrators, victims, bystanders, up-standers, resistors and collaborators.

“Our role is to assist children [to] understand the critical connections.” In 2018, 14,000 students visited the centre even before it officially opened, and in 2019 more than 20,000 are expected.

Nates views herself as a “memorial candle” tasked with the responsibility of recording survivors’ stories.

“There will be no Holocaust survivors left to tell these stories in the very near future. We have to ensure their stories don’t die with them and ensure these lessons are applied to the present. SA understood it had to face its past to move forward but Rwandans didn’t speak about their genocide for more than 10 years. For me, silence is dangerous. Ignorance means there’s a very good chance mistakes will be repeated,” she says.

Genocide survivor Sylvestre Sendacyeye, whose parents and three siblings were murdered in Rwanda concurs:

“If I don’t tell the story it will happen again,” Sendacyeye said earlier this year standing before a JHGC display of  a mound of bloodied clothing belonging to men, women and children murdered in the Nyamata and Ntarama church compounds.

“It was only after I started telling my story that my healing started….”

For Bryan Stevenson, a celebrated public interest lawyer whose great-grandparents were both slaves, it was denial and the deafening silence surrounding Montgomery’s slave history that drove him to establish the Lynching Memorial and its companion Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. As executive director of the Montgomery-based legal non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Stevenson understood racial injustice, excessive punishment, racial violence and abuse of vulnerable populations by the criminal justice system better than most.

Sylvestre Sendacyeye, a Rwandan Genocide survivor. Picture: CAROLYN RAPHAELY
Sylvestre Sendacyeye, a Rwandan Genocide survivor. Picture: CAROLYN RAPHAELY

Credited with saving more than 125 inmates from execution on Alabama’s death-row and haunted by his own history, Stevenson determined to change the “distorted narrative” which defined his hometown. Regarded as both the cradle of white supremacy and the birthplace of the American Civil Rights movement, Montgomery is also the capital of what was one of the two largest slave-owning states in America. Yet 124 years after the abolition of slavery, the city remains what Stevenson describes as “a landscape littered with the iconography of the Confederacy.”

For example, the entrance to the Montgomery state Capitol building is still flanked by a controversial statue honouring Jefferson Davis, the pro-slavery first and only Confederate president. Directly opposite Davis, stands an equally contentious statue of Dr Marion Sims, a 19th century Alabama physician known for using twelve slave women as medical guinea pigs — including 14-year-old Anarcha Westcott, on whom he conducted thirty vaginal operations without anaesthesia.   

If I don’t tell the story it will happen again.
Sylvestre Sendacyeye

In 2012, when EJI researchers discovered their office was located in a warehouse previously used to house slaves, scores of markers and monuments in the city commemorated the defenders of slavery, honoured Confederate generals and documented milestones of the civil rights movement. Yet only a single marker — at one of the most prominent slave auction sites in America — referenced the city’s ignominious slave history. There was no marker on the Alabama River dock where hundreds of thousands of enslaved black people landed. Nor on Commerce Street — the most active slave-trading space in America for almost a decade — or anywhere else in Montgomery.

“We initially approached the Alabama Historical Association (a state agency) for marker sponsorship,” recalls EJI attorney Jennifer Taylor. “They confirmed our information was accurate but declined to sponsor markers because an official claimed putting up markers about slavery in downtown Montgomery ‘would create too much potential for controversy’. We ultimately partnered with the Black Heritage Council to erect three markers, and got permission from the city to install them in December 2013.” 

Undeterred, Stevenson then embarked on a personal mission to honour an unexamined, undocumented chapter of history his fellow-citizens were doing their damnedest to deny. Inspired by Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, Kigali’s Genocide Memorial and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, he proceeded to raise donor-funding, purchased a substantial parcel of land on an imposing hilltop site overlooking the city and commissioned Boston’s MASS Design to build the Memorial and Museum.

A visitor is seen on the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Picture: JAKUB PORZYCKI/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES
A visitor is seen on the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Picture: JAKUB PORZYCKI/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Today, America’s first, and only, memorial to lynching records the names and death-dates of thousands of murdered men, women and children on 800 suspended rusted corten steel slabs, each representing a county where lynching occurred. Visitors to the Memorial walk through, and under, a forest of coffin-like columns which initially appear to touch the ground but hang like bodies over their heads as the floor of the memorial slopes downward.

Not content with building a memorial and a museum, the unstoppable Stevenson also aims to change the built environment of the Deep South. To this end, exact replicas of the 800 hanging slabs inside the NMPJ have been lined up horizontally in the surrounding park awaiting collection, and installation in the counties they represent. Over time, says EJI, “the Memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth, and which have not.”

The Legacy Museum was designed with a slightly different agenda. Housed in a former warehouse where slaves lived in pens before being sold, it attempts to join the dots between slavery, lynching, the death penalty, racial violence, the civil rights movement and the problem of mass incarceration besetting America today — including the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of colour and the use of life sentences against minors.

Though the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865 the law still contains an exception clause ... slavery is illegal in the US, unless the person in chains is a convicted criminal.
Carolyn Raphaely

With 2,2-million people currently behind bars in America and 4.5-million on probation or parole, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world — the majority being people of colour. Interestingly, though the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865 the law still contains an exception clause. This means slavery is illegal in the US, unless the person in chains is a convicted criminal.

Meantime, more than 80,000 people descended on Montgomery for the opening of the museum and memorial and more than half a million people have visited since. The Museum’s powerful centrepiece soil collection project probably was, and remains, its most talked-about exhibit. Consisting of hundreds of identical simple glass jars containing different coloured soils collected from documented lynching sites, the jars are lined up in rows with the names, death-dates and places of lynching victims’ deaths inscribed.

“We believe that telling the truth about our history of enslavement, racial terror and segregation and reflecting together on this history and its legacy can lead to a more thoughtful and informed commitment to justice today,” Stevenson says. “We hope our museum and memorial will inspire individuals, communities and our nation to claim our difficult history and commit to a more just and peaceful future.”  

Jars with the names, dates and places of lynching victims' deaths as part of the Legacy Museum's soil project. Picture: CAROLYN RAPHAELY
Jars with the names, dates and places of lynching victims' deaths as part of the Legacy Museum's soil project. Picture: CAROLYN RAPHAELY

Whether facing history head-on can affect meaningful change remains to be seen. Decades after Holocaust survivor Irene Klass’ father vanished without trace and she fled Poland for England with a group of young orphans, the now Johannesburg-based 88-year-old remains sceptical:

“I thought that when the world learnt about what happened to us, it could never happen again. But it did ...” 

While SA was celebrating its first democratic elections in April 1994, the Rwandan genocide was taking place just a short distance away.

“This proves mass-murder in the name of race and ideology can happen anywhere, at any time,” notes Segal.

“As South Africans, we understand the importance of confronting past injustices, learning from history and asking questions about the kind of society we want. There is so much work to be done ...”

Some of this work begins at the end of the JHGC’s permanent exhibition where a wall-plaque confronts every departing visitor with a direct challenge:

“Survivors of the Holocaust and Genocide in Rwanda ... call on us to recognise the damage that indifference and silence may cause to our hard-won freedom and democracy in SA. We invite you to commit to creating a caring and just society in which human rights and diversity are respected and valued. What can you do to make a difference in your own family, your school and your country?”