By Sophie Grais
On a quiet afternoon in Cape Town, a few of us wandered into the South African Jewish Museum. Next to the National Gallery and the Company’s Gardens, the museum is within South Africa’s first synagogue, built in 1863. After going through security, we entered a beautiful space both quiet and inviting.
Growing up in a suburb of New York, I’ve learned about patterns of Jewish immigration many times over, with field trips to the Lower East Side, books and movies about Ellis Island. But I hadn’t realized that while many Jews arrived on the shores of the East Coast, others had come to settle in Cape Town. By 1880, about 4000 Jews lived in South Africa; between 1880 and 1930, those numbers drastically increased. I was surprised to learn that many had come from Lithuania, home to my great-grandparents and many of my family members before them.
I’ve visited Jewish museums in New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, but I’d never seen anything like the South African museum’s recreation of an Eastern European Jewish village, or “shtetl.” We peeked through the curtains of the small wooden homes, walked by a tiny child’s bed and a dining room table set for the Sabbath. Before the entrance to this exhibition, in the main hall of the synagogue, was a quote: “Jewish consciousness constantly shifts between awareness of a physical space—Reality, a space of reference—Memory; and a mythical space—the Dream.”
Our consciousness is inextricably tied to place, to the spaces we inhabit and the associations they inspire. We move and take those memories with us, the concept of home a complicated one, our reality a complex architecture of memory and experience. This idea is especially powerful and relevant to the Jewish people, a group consistently displaced throughout its long history.
This notion of displacement—more often than not, synonymous with forced relocation—resurfaced at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, immediately next to the Jewish Museum. The permanent collection occupies a long, dark hallway and displays include artifacts, propaganda, and explanations of the events that began in early 20th century Germany. On a black panel, white text detailed the forced removals of Jews from various areas in Eastern Europe. Immediately to its left, a red panel compared these events to apartheid in South Africa.
This juxtaposition, a shared narrative of struggle, discrimination, and anguish, left a strong impression on me. The Holocaust Centre drew powerful parallels between the experiences of Jews and South African blacks in the 20th century. These people lived side by side in Cape Town’s District Six, a largely black area that was forcibly vacated after the first Group Areas Act was passed in 1950. These ideas of displacement and juxtaposition describe much of what we’ve seen throughout our trip. With stories of painful removals stand unsettling juxtapositions of extremes: of poverty and wealth, of emptiness and overcrowding, of people redefining their homes and places in history.