Teaching the Holocaust in Africa

The Shoah's relevance in Ghana and Ethiopia lies largely in the real risk of neighbors killing neighbors

For the second year in a row, for the week of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I was in Africa, this time as a guest of two of our Israeli embassies — Ghana and Ethiopia. Two of my colleagues from Yad Vashem, Yiftach Ashkenazy and Yoni Berrous, also traveled to other countries in Africa for the same reason. Why commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Africa? Doing so in South Africa with its large and active Jewish community, three Holocaust centers and mandated study of the Holocaust in the curriculum, of course is self-evident. But why mark Holocaust Remembrance Day in Ethiopia and Ghana? In more than one interview that I gave for television, radio and the press, I was asked this question.

The truth is that Africa is also part of the story of the Holocaust. Since the 1980s, more and more has been researched and published about the persecution of Jews in North Africa by the Germans, Italians and the collaborationist Vichy France government. This part of history is becoming better known in Israel and many other parts of the world.

Jews in Algeria were stripped of their French citizenship, Jews in Libya and Tunisia were sent to forced labor camps deep in the desert. Jews in Tunisia played an important role facilitating the Allied Invasion Operation Torch that would free North African from Axis forces in May 1943. But before that happened, some Jews from Tunisia were actually deported to France and then to extermination camps, and other North African Jews who had been in France before the outbreak of the war, also met their deaths at the hands of the Nazis and their partners. In addition, Jewish refugees fleeing Europe as well as Holocaust survivors after the war found safe haven in various places in Africa. So Africa is certainly a part of the story – an important part of the story.

No less significant is the relevance to Africa of the crime of Genocide and the Genocide Convention adopted by the United Nations in December 1948, which were conceived in response to the events of the Holocaust. Not a few events in African history share characteristics with such crimes to various degrees.

The singularity of the Holocaust lies in at least two main factors. One is why the Nazis embarked on the systematic mass murder of the Jews and the other is in how they ultimately went about it. There is no single reason as to why the Nazis came to the policy we know as the Final Solution, sometime in late 1941 or very early 1942 that placed every Jews everywhere under a sentence of death. But perhaps the most prominent of the reasons is that they considered the so-called Jewish race to be their archenemy, dangerous to the supposed biological health of their nation and indeed all mankind, and after trying a series of possible solutions to what they called “the Jewish problem,” they eventually decided to annihilate the Jews. This of course led to the murder of some six million, but it also included destroying everything they associated with Jews: Jewish values (like the Ten Commandments), Jewish sciences (like Freud’s psychoanalysis and Einstein’s physics), Jewish music (like that of Mendelsohn) and Judaism itself. This destruction, both physical and metaphysical, is something new and remains unique in history.

The way the Nazis went about much of the physical destruction, with mass systematic shooting and then the creation of modern industrialized murder in special extermination camps is also new in history. This was an impersonalized murder, like a conveyor belt system, in which there were no individuals. Of course racism and antisemitism lay at the heart of this.

The unprecedented aspects of the Holocaust strike a chord in all people around the world. The appeal of ideologies of hate and the accompanying danger of inverting good and evil for some supposed higher ideal remain pertinent in Africa as they do in many other places. The methods that were used and the harnessing of modern means to destroy an entire people and its civilization are also still very much a part of our world. In Africa today there are forces that to say the least, share the kind of politics of hatred that have set the stage for Genocide and kindred crimes.

Other aspects of the Holocaust, however, are deeply rooted in history, particularly when neighbors rose up against their neighbors. This is a subject being researched and discussed more and more by scholars of the Holocaust. Perhaps the most infamous incident, but certainly not an isolated case, is the murder of the Jews of the town of Jedwabne, Poland by their Polish neighbors. Although there is some dispute regarding both the number of Jews murdered by their neighbors and how many neighbors took part in the murder, indisputably a large number of the town’s Jews were sealed into a barn in the town in summer 1941 and then burned to death by their fellow townsmen. The intimacy of murder is old as history itself – think about Cain and Abel – and it has also continued after the Holocaust. In the Genocide in Rwanda for example, a significant part of the story is that neighbors murdered their neighbors. Unquestionably with its history and its current situation, this aspect of the Holocaust, indeed this aspect of Genocide, is very relevant in Africa today.

At the KNUST University in Kumasi, Ghana, I addressed some 600 students and a handful of faculty in a large auditorium, in 34 degrees centigrade with perhaps 90% humidity, without electricity, since the university suffers from frequent power outages. The conditions, however, apparently did not inhibit the crowd from listening. From the questions they asked after my address it was clear that many had paid close attention, even though it was the first time many had ever heard a lecture about the Holocaust. On my return to Israel I received an email from one of the students. He thanked me for the lecture and said that having heard me, he understands the need to explore his own history more. There is a connection between the African experience of slavery and the Holocaust, he said. And of course there is a connection. Not a one on one connection, since there are also great differences between the two. But both have a lot to do with racism and the trampling of human dignity, and both have left deep scars of human suffering, since they are both crimes against humanity.

It is often claimed that discussion of the Holocaust overshadows other Genocides and crimes against humanity. But the opposite is true: the study and commemoration of the Holocaust have triggered important explorations into tragedies that fit into or lie adjacent to the same general category of crimes. The study, commemoration and head on confrontation with these histories are crucial to all efforts to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. For Africa, and for the rest of the world, this remains all too relevant.

About the Author
Dr. Robert Rozett is Senior Historian in the International Institute for Holocaust Research a Yad Vashem, is the author of Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front (Yad Vashem, 2013), and co-editor with Dr. Iael Nidam Orvieto of After So Much Pain and Anguish: First Letters after Liberation (Yad Vashem, 2016).