On the 27th April the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED), an affiliate of the South African Union for Progressive Judaism, held a ‘Memorial and Tribute to the Victims and Survivors of Genocide and the Holocaust’. As a Jewish organisation the choice of date was obvious for the holding of such a Memorial – Yom HaShoah, when Jews all around the world come together and mourn the loss of 6 million lives at the hands of the NAZI’s and their allies and pay tribute to survivors. Sacred frequently works with progressive allies to strengthen our message of inclusivity and cooperation. When we learned that the Armenian and Rwandan communities also have memorials to their genocides in April we reached out to include them in our Memorial.
Sacred paid particular attention to the role of women and music in the Shoah. Sacred chose to do so in reaction to the recent local notion that women should be banned from singing at Shoah Memorials – a notion based on extremist interpretations of Kol Isha. These sexist idea’s have no place in secular memorials commemorating secular events. The Chairlady of Sacred, Dr Dora Wynchank, in a moving and scholarly address, traced the history of Kol Isha, which began as a single opinion in the Talmud that a women should not sing whilst a man recited the Shema – Judaism’s central prayer – to a complete ban on women singing in the 19th century. The ban was put in place by the Hatam Sofer and his opinion did not, and still has not, gained mainstream acceptance in Judaism because it contradicts centuries of established practice in the Jewish world and ignores the fact that women are mentioned singing in the Torah.
The ban on women singing at Holocaust commemorations is made even more egregious by the fact that the central lesson of the Holocaust, as put by one survivor, is ‘the evils of discrimination’. Thus to do so at a secular memorial to the Shoah is perverse. It also ignores numerous examples, cited by Dr Wynchank, of women singing during the Holocaust like Shoshana Kalisch, Lubia Levitska and the 150 Jewish men and women who sang Verdi’s Requiem at Terezinstadt.
Dr Wynchanks address was followed by the singing of two songs written by Hannah Senesh by Jessica Sherman and Leigh Sussman, as well as the Partisan song. Their beautiful voices and choice of songs were a tribute to the day. They were made more poignant by the story of their author. Hannah was born into a Jewish family in Hungary before the Second World War. Her family made Aliyah to what was then Palestine prior to 1939. In 1943 Hannah volunteered to be parachuted back into occupied Europe to try and prevent the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. She was betrayed, captured, tried and executed for treason by the government of Hungary in November 1944.
Davit Abrahamyan read the 23rd Psalm on behalf of the Armenian community and recounted how his grandfather had been saved from the Armenian Genocide by his Turkish servant. The Rwandan High Commissioner, Vincent Karega, read out an interfaith ‘Prayer for World Peace’ by Dr Jane Goodall and the Israeli Ambassador, Arthur Lenk, lit mourning candles in honour of the memory of those who perished in genocides and the Holocaust.
The attendees to the memorial were all extremely moved by the performance of the Rwandan Ladies Choir, led by Grace Mukeshimana, comprised entirely of volunteers who sing to relieve the pain of what they endured during the genocide. They had chosen the songs they performed for their special meaning and left no one in the audience unemotional. Every single one of the singers had survived the Rwandan Genocide.
This year Yom HaShoah coincides with the day that South Africans celebrate Freedom Day – the day that all South Africans were able to vote in the first democratic elections ever held in South Africa and voted in a government of national unity led by Nelson Mandela. In tribute to that great day 20 years ago the Memorial concluded with the singing of the national anthem “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika” led by Jessica Sherman, who was actively involved in the struggle for South African democracy.