The cattle train comes to an unexpected, metal-on-metal halt. It’s dark inside. The single toilet bucket – which 80 people had to share – overflowed days ago, and Veronica just wants this suffocating nightmare to end.
The sealed door’s bolts clank open from the outside. It’s freezing and she can’t see a thing. The windowless box of darkness extends outwards, into a December-winter night. There are soldiers with dogs; their vicious pack of teeth pierce the cold air in bursts of terror. A searchlight slices through the black sky.
Veronica is yanked out the cattle car.
Someone behind her falls down; a soldier kicks them while they’re on the ground.
The searchlight swings round and round.
Veronica doesn’t know where she’s running to.
Her feet can barely keep up but she runs as fast as she can into the night, past a barracks and towards a massive tent.
LOSS, AND A LIST
“Genocide often needs a train system,” says Tali Nates.
She’s a striking woman: dressed in a black poncho and matching knee-high leather boots, her long, blonde hair catches the light in gold gradients. When she talks about history, her eyes widen with excitement and flash with intensity.
Tali is the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre in Forest Town, a fascinating place that not many people know about, even though it’s directly across the road from the Westcliff. The idea to open it was borne in 2008. At that stage the South African school curriculum for grades 9 and 11 included – and still includes – Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
A few years prior, a Holocaust centre was established in Cape Town in 1999, but there wasn’t anything like it in Joburg. In 2010, Tali, along with a small group of the Joburg centre’s first board trustees, approached the City of Johannesburg for a partnership to set up an educational centre.
“We wanted a centre that didn’t only focus on the Holocaust, but also focused on genocide and human rights; the City was quite keen,” says Tali.
“The City had a property that was donated to them by the Bernberg sisters, who had a collection of fashion and clothes that was originally housed here, in Forest Town. “Part of the donation was that the property had to be developed into a museum, gallery or educational centre. The City agreed to give us the site and we’d develop the content and fund-raise – so it would be a public-NGO partnership.”
Construction started in 2012 and was officially completed in March 2019. The building was designed by Lewis Levin architects and it has a number of symbolic elements, like the criss-crossing, repurposed railway lines on its façade that symbolise genocide.
“The railway is a symbol of modernity and progress but it’s also a symbol of oppression – not only genocide but colonialism, slavery and forced labour,” explains Tali.
Originally from Israel, Tali came to Joburg just over thirty years ago – she met her future-husband, a South African, in Jerusalem, and she followed him back to Joburg, where he lived.
“I was working in a pharmacy as a poor student and I sold him a deodorant. True story!” she laughs.
Tali studied modern history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – she went on to become a historian, specialising in the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide; a somewhat unusual academic interest that makes sense when you learn that she comes from a family of Holocaust survivors, from Poland. Her father, Moses Turner, and her uncle, Hynryk, were both rescued by Oskar Schindler. Tali’s second name is Helen: her father gave her that name in honour of his sister, who, along with his mother and another sister, was killed in a gas chamber in Bełżec.
“I grew up without an extended family with the knowledge of loss, the knowledge of the void,” she says.
After the war, Tali’s father went to Germany and studied to become a mechanic; a few years later he followed his older brother to Israel, where he worked in a Volkswagen garage.
“My father never said a bitter word about the Germans. VW served the Nazis, but he was like that.”
Tali’s uncle, Hynryk, dealt with his trauma differently. Four years older than Moses, he was a teenager and not a child when he experienced the Holocaust, and he wanted justice. Tali tells me that her uncle often spoke about what happened to him, whereas her father preferred not to talk – his trauma would manifest in other expressions, she says, like waking up screaming in the middle of the night, and naming her after his murdered sister.
In 1965, Hynryk attended a trial of two Nazis in Germany. After testifying, he was interviewed by a German newspaper.
“I can live with whatever the judgement may be,” he said at the time. “In the end the perpetrators will have to face their maker, and their own last judgement.”
It’s a bitterly cold night, and Veronica is made to sleep in a massive tent. There are about 1 000 women in the tent, and she leans against her neighbour, sleeping upright. There are oil cans for toilets; all night the wind cuts through the canvas.
In the morning she and the other new arrivals are ordered to hand over their rucksacks, for the German war effort, they are told.
Veronica signs over the meager belongings she was able to salvage in Budapest, before she was put on the cattle train that took her here, to Ravensbrück. Her long hair is hacked off completely and clumps of it fall to the floor. There are no mirrors – she sees how the other women look and their shaved heads shock her.
A Nazi officer hands her dirty, mismatched clothes – she can see that they once belonged to someone else. Soon after changing into them an itch begins that does not go away; the lice eat at her skin, day and night.
Every morning, it’s appell – roll call. Veronica stands for hours in minus 30-degree weather, in a dead person’s clothes. She stands in a row of 10 other women while female Nazis in black capes bark out numbers in German and whip them. They count in tens and when one row doesn’t add up they start over, from the beginning. Some women freeze to death, where they stand.
THE GAS CHAMBER & THE AMUSEMENT PARK
“I went to Ravensbrück concentration camp about a year and a half ago,” Tali tells me. “It’s actually in really beautiful surroundings.”
It’s a few days after Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2019, and I’m back in her office at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. It’s late afternoon, and Joburg’s summer sky rumbles with thunder.
“There’s a lake and mountains. They still have some of the buildings and a museum. The gas chambers and the crematorium are still there. You look and you say… ‘What! This beauty is next to this?”
“And the village is still there – it was there then and it’s there now. The villagers saw what happened; the train station is in the village, the prisoners arrived there and they walked to Ravensbrück. You can’t imagine it, even when you’re there.”
Ravensbrück is 90km north of Berlin, and it was set up in 1938 by the Nazis. By the late stages of the Second World War conditions there were, well, beyond imagination. By the end of 1944, the camp was overcrowded and the barracks were full. The prisoners had to sleep in huge make-shift tents in double-digit, sub-zero temperatures. There was no sanitation, disease was rife, and food was scarce.
Ravensbrück was also a place of Nazi medical experiments: 74 Polish prisoners (the “Ravensbrück rabbits”) were subjected to torture that included deliberately infecting wounds with gangrene. By 1944, the Nazis were losing the war – so they upped their killings. At the end of that year, a gas chamber was set up at Ravensbrück, but it was only operational until the end of January 1945. In just a month, about 6 000 people were gassed to death. Ravensbrück has the dubious ‘honour’ of being the largest women’s-only concentration camp in the Third Reich.
It also served as a training facility for female Nazi guards, known as Aufseherinnen, which makes for an unsettling realisation: that heinous evil is not exclusively the domain of men. As Mary McGill states in her 2016 article for Broadly, “Once trained in the art of brutality […] these women were deployed to camps across the Reich. The infamous Irma Grese for example, nicknamed the Hyena of Auschwitz, began her career in Ravensbrück in 1942.”
Up to 50 000 women died in Ravensbrück from starvation, disease, gassings, hanging, torture, experiments, or execution by shooting.
Back home, I look at Ravensbrück on Google maps – like Tali said, there’s a body of water, and, zooming in, I can see the old crematorium and gas chamber buildings. There’s a boating company on the lake, and an amusement park on the other side.
My stomach churns.
G-D DOESN’T LISTEN
Veronica is standing in a line, she doesn’t know why – there’s a burning smell. As the line gets shorter the smell intensifies.
She realises the smell is coming from the nearby crematorium, and that it’s the smell of burning human flesh.
She also realises that she’s in the line for the gas chamber.
Before she can take cognisance of her imminent death, a Nazi officer announces that 140 women are needed to work in an aeroplane parts factory. German is her second language, so she tells the Nazi that she can speak the language – and she’s removed from the line.
The following day, after the 140 women are counted, they start marching to the factory. It’s bitterly cold and Veronica doesn’t know how long it’ll take to get there.
They finally arrive at a labour camp called Penig – exhausted, starving and freezing. There are barracks and the women share bunks and blankets. The food they get is rotten.
Veronica has to march to the factory every day; she works 12-hour shifts and she’s constantly sick and hungry. The Nazis give them just enough food so they don’t die. One day, while marching to the factory, they pass Dresden. It’s burning from allied bombing and she silently prays:
“Let the allies bomb us like Dresden, G-d, to end our suffering and finish the pain!”
But G-d doesn’t listen. They carry on marching to work.
‘EVERY STRANGER IS YOUR ENEMY’
Should we destroy a painful history or preserve it? Tali says there’s no easy answer to this question, and it’s a process.
“If we look at Germany and how they’ve dealt with their past, we can say that it does take time. Or when we look at Rwanda, the question comes up: how do you remember the genocide, specifically when perpetrators and victims still live side by side? Yet In Namibia, the Herero and Nama genocide is barely touched upon. We need to reflect on our past in order to move forward.”
She adds that, for South Africa, we have to face facts. “Apartheid was a crime against humanity: we don’t say that, but this needs to be said, publically. We have a long road to go.”
Tali sees the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre as an institute of dialogue and education; an institute for memory and lessons for humanity. Her hope is that the centre can play an important role in talking about difficult issues – not only about the Holocaust but for all genocides. Most importantly, the centre can help the public with making connections between the past and the present.
“If someone can make parallel connections between the Holocaust and the Genocide in Rwanda, for example, it can give us tools to prevent future atrocities,” says Tali.
“We have to raise our voices as well – we have to teach our children to write letters to the president to ask why South Africa isn’t getting involved in Darfur, in South Sudan. Otherwise we just don’t make the connection; we just live our lives.”
We talk about Trump, the growing, global threat of right-wing extremism, and how hate speech now appears to be somehow more permissible.
“We are witnessing a worrying side of something that was always there,” says Tali.
“Antisemitism is the most ancient form of racism; it will always be there. In Germany, Hitler never really invented anything: he used existing ideas of ‘the other’ and developed them further and more destructively. Trump is doing a similar thing and it’s really scary.”
What’s also scary, is that a 2018 poll – involving 1 350 American adults – found that 22% of the millennials surveyed had never heard of the Holocaust.
“It’s not compulsory to learn about the Holocaust in the U.S. – it goes according to state, and the majority of states don’t cover the Holocaust in the history curriculum,” explains Tali.
“Globally, there is a worrying trend to not teach history; there is more concentration on maths and science in most of the world. And we’re starting to see the result of that.”
Tali adds that history is important to understand consequences. For her, the worry in 2019 is not only the rise of antisemitism, but also racism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and afrophobia.
“We concentrate on antisemitism because it’s always the canary in the coalmine: the minute you see a rise in antisemitism you know trouble is coming. She quotes Primo Levi, an Italian-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, who wrote in his book If This is a Man, that “every stranger is your enemy”.
“Anyone who doesn’t look like you, doesn’t think exactly like you, is regarded as a stranger and is therefore your enemy – and this sentiment is growing,” she says. “On the one hand you have multiculturalism, but there’s also antagonism and hatred of the ‘other’.”
She says that people often come to the centre and they are genuinely shocked and surprised to learn about the Holocaust, Armenia, Rwanda, Namibia and Myanmar.
“Almost daily, someone tells me, ‘I just didn’t know’. History needs to be accessible, and we’re trying to make that happen.”
LIBERATION IS BROKEN GLASS
Without any warning, Veronica and a large group of women are rounded up by SS guards and marched out of Penig. The sick are left behind.
She doesn’t know what’s happening or where they’re going – and the SS guards don’t take their eyes off them. They head south and march on foot, day and night; despite being malnourished and exhausted, Veronica tries to keep at the front of the group – those who can’t carry on are shot on the spot.
Veronica doesn’t dare look behind her and she doesn’t know how many people are left for dead; there are too many gunshots to count. She keeps looking straight ahead, like a blinkered horse. She carries on marching; all she concentrates on is putting one foot in front of the other.
When the SS guards aren’t looking Veronica grabs a handful of grass and quickly eats it – she knows that if one of them sees her, she’ll be killed instantly.
On 11 May 1945 Veronica – and what’s left of the group – arrives at a town called Johanngeorgenstadt. Suddenly the SS guards leave and a hush descends upon the landscape.
Veronica sees troops and tanks, swarming and swelling from all directions. She doesn’t know what’s happening and she’s terrified.
Is this the end?
One of the soldiers comes up to the group, and says that they’re the allied troops – they have come to liberate them.
Veronica doesn’t know what to feel; up to now she has only felt fear.
Her thoughts are waves of confusion and everything is a blur.
The allied troops take the group further south to Karlsbad; there, Veronica and some of the other women find a factory storeroom filled with crystal glass.
Veronica feels an urgent, deep rage. It quickly rises up through her body, like a hot current, and, with both hands, she picks up an ornate crystal tray and smashes it to the storeroom floor. It splinters at her feet and the eighteen year old feels instant relief.
She knows that this is her liberation.
A SECRET SURVIVOR
“Veronica only started talking about what happened to her a few years ago,” says Tali.
About 15 years ago, before Tali founded the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, a survivors’ circle was set up, where any Holocaust survivor (or anyone who had traumatic experiences as a refugee from the Reich), was invited to take part in an informal social circle. Once the centre was established, the survivors’ circle was hosted there – and one day, Veronica joined.
“She came but she didn’t speak,” Tali remembers.
At that time, Veronica was in her early eighties and she had no desire to talk about what happened to her. The memories were too painful; she hadn’t even told her husband about it. She kept the fact that she was a Holocaust survivor secret, for decades.
But Tali wanted Veronica to share her testimony. By 2004 Veronica’s mother, brother and husband had all passed away, and she never had children (the Nazis gave her a chemical called bromide in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, which stopped her period and resulted in eight miscarriages, years later).
Tali gently pushed her to speak. It took a number of years, but eventually Veronica decided that it was time to share her Holocaust experience. In 2013, her spoken testimony was filmed at the centre.
“She had never been filmed before, and it was one of the first times she had ever spoken about it,” says Tali. “It was very difficult for her; you can see from that interview.”
A couple of years later, she was a guest speaker on the official commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day at the West Park Jewish Cemetery, and she’s since had her testimony written down in summary form, so that when she talks at a school, for example, she can follow it like a script.
“It’s easier for her to have that written testimony so that she doesn’t overshare, so that she doesn’t go to places that are too painful,” explains Tali.
“We do the same thing with the Rwandan survivors who are part of the centre. It is your story, you can get emotional, but you will not share beyond those ‘red lines’ that you don’t want to talk about.”
The Johannesburg Holocaust survivors’ circle is still going; once a month a group of men and women, in their eighties and nineties, meets for tea and a chat. Most of the members have shared their testimonies, except for two people.
“We have two people in our group who I still don’t know their stories; they come to all the meetings but they do not talk about what happened to them,” says Tali.
She adds that it’s a choice; she’d like to know their stories, but just like with Veronica, she’s not pushing. She does think it’s important for their children and grandchildren, though, “because we don’t live forever”. But she realises it is very difficult.
“Veronica didn’t speak about it for 70 years. We see it with others, even bystanders and eyewitnesses, who saw things but it took decades to talk about it. They now speak as elderly people, with vivid memories to the detail, and of course, they break down.”
Veronica Phillips is 92; she uses a wheelchair and her alabaster eyes give a little twinkle whenever she cracks a joke. The day we meet her hair is coiffed; she looks smart in a pastel-blue jacket, and a gold necklace with a round, coin-like pendant hangs around her neck.
Veronica was born in 1926, in Budapest, Hungary. She came to Johannesburg exactly 50 years later, in 1976, just after the Soweto riots.
“What can I say,” she shrugs. “I like a bit of excitement!”
After the war she moved from Hungary to England, where she studied genetics and microbiology at Brunel University. She started out as a technician at Brunel and she worked her way up to teaching. Her brother, who also survived the Holocaust, was head-hunted by a company in South Africa, and she followed him here, from England. Veronica taught microbiology and genetics at Wits University for 20 years.
She had just turned 18 when she was put on a cattle train and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She survived three concentration camps – Ravensbrück, Penig and Johanngeorgenstadt – as well as a Death March.
The last time she saw her father was just before getting onto the cattle car. Her mother and brother also survived the Holocaust – but they were forced to stay in the international ghetto in Budapest.
Some of her memories, 75 years later, are a blur, but others are still vivid. When she conjures them, she closes her eyes and covers her face with her hands, her fingers bent from arthritis.
“I can still see the SS guards watching us like hawks on the Death March; I can remember hearing people being shot behind me. It’s all in my mind’s eye.”
She’s met the German ambassador to South Africa, and she’s told him that she can’t live in hate; she says she can forgive, but she will never forget.
The Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre can be found at 1 Duncombe Road in Forest Town (opposite The Westcliff). It’s open Mon to Fri from 9am to 4:30pm; Sun 9am to 3pm. Entrance is free but donations are welcome. For more info go here. The centre’s permanent exhibition has been officially open for nearly a month; read Robyn Sassen’s excellent review about it here.
The centre also has an amazing coffee shop called Issy’s (which I featured as my very first JOBURG FOR INTROVERTS post).
Thank you Veronica for allowing me to interview you and sharing your trauma with me; thank you Tali for accommodating me in your busy schedule with multiple chats in your office, a million emails, and long delays with writing this. Some information was gleaned from The Secret Survivor (2018), a film about Veronica’s life directed by Johnathan Andrews.
In memory of Neil Bosman, who graciously filmed Veronica for me while I spoke to her. I’m sorry you never got to read this, but I hope you’re riding that motorbike of yours and still doing roadtrips in the afterlife.
All text © Ang Lloyd 2019