I get goose-bumps as Tali Nates, founder and director of Johannesburg’s Holocaust & Genocide Centre, talks: "My father was a teenager on Schindler’s list. I am here today because of the choice made by a German, a member of the Nazi party."

In the early-morning sunshine, in a trendy Sandton café, it seems impossible that a government sought to eradicate Nates, her family and her people from this earth.

Science and ethics

From June 11 to August 28 the travelling exhibition Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race will be on display at Johannesburg’s Holocaust & Genocide Centre. It will explore the Nazi regime’s “science of race” and its implications for medical ethics and social responsibility today. For information on related lectures and talks, see the centre’s website.

The project behind the centre was begun in 2008, to prompt awareness of such realities. Nates explains that the founders dreamt of a centre in the heart of Johannesburg "with a mission about education, memory and lessons for humanity".

She says it’s because of SA’s own background that it needs this centre. "It is hard for a country to look at its own painful, deadly history, especially when it is recent. Talking about other people’s past liberates you to speak about your own. There are so many parallels between Nazi Germany and the apartheid state."

Ten years after inception, the project has become a living, breathing space. Nates explains how it came to be situated on busy Jan Smuts Avenue. "Two very stylish and eccentric sisters, the Bernbergs, left their couture collection and their home to the city on condition that their house became a cultural site. The agreement was that the city would give us the land, and we would raise funds for the building."

The house was derelict. "It couldn’t be saved, so an award-winning building was constructed. The architecture, by Lewis Levin, is rich with symbolism. Its facade is 10m high, with railway lines embedded in concrete and stone, symbolising a colonial past and suffering through the ages, from historic to modern-day slavery."

Learners during a workshop at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. Picture: CATHERINE BOYD
Learners during a workshop at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. Picture: CATHERINE BOYD

The architecture reflects the founders’ vision of an international museum in an African context. "We wanted to talk about genocide, SA and Africa.

"We limited ourselves to genocide in the 20th century. The exhibition starts with the Herero and Nama genocide in Namibia in 1904. I find people in SA know nothing about it, yet it happened next door to us," explains Nates. "Then we move to Armenia, to another genocide that is not well known."

Why Armenia? "We need to understand that the murder of Armenian Christians in the Ottoman Empire marked a significant point at which the international community said: ‘What is happening inside that country is an internal affair.’ At the time there was no word to describe the murder, and no law against it." And again, Nates adds, "when the Holocaust happened, there was no word [for it] and no law [against it]. The word ‘genocide’ was invented in 1944. The international law came later, in 1948."

To try to understand genocide, Nates says, one has to go from that point to Rwanda in 1994. She says what happened in that country exposed the hollowness of the "never again" declaration made after the Holocaust. "It is never again — until the next time," Nates says.

"Almost 1m minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were murdered in three months — a 3½-hour flight away from SA. It was in April 1994. We were voting, and they were killing.

The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre Learners at the entrance to the centre. Picture: CATHERINE BOYD
The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre Learners at the entrance to the centre. Picture: CATHERINE BOYD

"It goes back to the choice made by Oskar Schindler, by individuals, by the international community: to get involved or to ignore genocide. The foreign press was all here, covering Nelson Mandela. No-one was there, covering murder. So we have to look at Rwanda."

Commemoration

The centre had what it terms an unofficial opening last year, and will be officially opened later this year.

At the moment it is hosting a photographic exhibition by James Oatway and Alon Skuy titled Killing the Other. It confronts xenophobic violence in SA from the 2008 killings until the present day. "We are the place that is marking the 10th anniversary of the xenophobic attacks. Who else is doing it?" asks Nates. "We need to have a space where we can say: ‘The fact that we suffered does not make us people who will not cause harm to others.’

"We face hate speech. Where can you learn about the dangers of hate speech?" asks Nates. "At the centre we learn Tutsis were called ‘cockroaches’ and ‘snakes’ and then murdered with machetes.

"We face issues about freedom of the judiciary. At the centre we can learn about that through the Armenian genocide. We need to learn. We are not there yet," she says passionately.

For Nates, it is significant that at the centre one also learns about the sterilisation and killing of disabled people. "Over 220,000 disabled people were tortured and murdered in Nazi Germany. You listen in horror to the Life Esidimeni inquiry, and you wonder how much we have learnt. It is not about Roma, Tutsi, Jewish, Zulu or Nigerian people, or any other people; it’s about humanity."

There are more than 50 secure parking spaces underneath the centre, so it’s easy to visit. It has a coffee shop where events such as book launches and talks are held. Musical events, plays and films are hosted in the centre as well. "We don’t offer only serious lectures," says Nates.

• The centre is on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Duncombe Road in Forest Town, Johannesburg. It is open on weekdays from 9am to 4.30pm and on Sundays from 9am to 3pm. Entrance is free. Website: jhbholocaust.co.za

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