“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Quote from George Santayana but many other people re-quote or dispute this saying)
The Nuremberg Trial and the Nuremberg Laws
I write this post 75 years after the start of the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war crimes, antisemitism and genocide. It’s a day that grows more significant every year because we don’t seem to learn from history. 10 years before that trial the antisemitic and racist Nuremberg Laws were enacted by the Nazi regime to protect ‘German Blood and German Honour’. In the years between those two events, the Second World War took place and there would be almost no place and no nation in the world untouched by this conflict. John and I know this because in 2008 we travelled through 27 European countries – from north to south and east to west and we found no country without places of deportations and massacres and memorials to that war. It was a war that impacted Africa and in which African soldiers fought.
The war dead
Figures for casualties can never be absolutely accurate but an estimated total of 70–85 million people perished, about 3% of the 1940 world population.
Then there are the Holocaust deaths. 78% of European Jews, (about 6 million), were murdered. So, also, were Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, disabled people and political opponents of the Nazi regime. The total number who were exterminated is about 11 million.
About 11 million to 20 million people were displaced during the war and afterwards about 11 million displaced people remained in Europe. Most wanted to return to their homes and were encouraged to do so.
Italian and Polish war refugees in Northern Rhodesia
An interesting account about the Polish refugees sent to safety in Zambia can be found on Abercornucopia.com. Almost all of them returned home afterwards but this wasn’t possible for all displaced people in Europe as countries, borders and politics had changed. It was especially not possible or desirable for Jews to return to their country of origin. Where could they go? Jews had faced decades, even centuries of persecution and pogroms and by the end of the 19th century were searching for places to live in safety.
Finding refuge in the colonies
European empires encouraged displaced or workless people to immigrate to their African colonies. This was, of course, an arrangement that was done without the consent of African people, so I’m not defending it. Empires resolved their social problems by using the colonies to benefit their citizens or to imprison criminals. It’s the reason that my mother’s family came to South Africa 200 years ago and my grandfather almost 100 years ago – in both cases to escape the poverty that resulted from earlier European wars. After WW2 war-torn nations didn’t want immigrants at home but decided their colonies could absorb them. That meant, for example, that some children of refugees, among them Jews, were at my school in Rhodesia.
The contribution made by immigrants, no matter where they are from, is generally proven to be of great value to their new homes. African immigrants to the United States and to Britain, for example, often excel, ending up in the top 5% academically in spite of facing racism and discrimination as immigrants so often do. It is also true that people who had experienced injustice and persecution in their previous lives were often ready to support and endorse progressive and liberation movements. That happened in South Africa, Rhodesia and Zambia.
The Lusaka Synagogue, Zambia
Because my first husband was Jewish, I was fortunate to be able to participate in a small way with the Lusaka Jewish community. I felt very humbled when I saw the many prayer books and the Torah that community members had brought from their different synagogues in Eastern Europe. I knew at once that there was an important story to be told about the Jews of Zambia. Some years later the Council for Zambian Jewry would commission such a book to be researched and written by Professor Hugh Macmillan with initial help from Frank Shapiro. The book, Zion in Africa, is a wonderful and unique account of an extraordinary group of people who have made an enormous contribution to modern Zambia. I highly recommend it. It is an integral and important part of Zambia’s history.
Refugees in Africa
Zambia became a home for African refugees from both South Africa and Rhodesia during the liberation wars. American Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris’s grandfather P V Gopalan came to Zambia to advise on this matter in 1968. Another wonderful book is Petina Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light which begins in Zambia with the death of David Livingstone and the decision by the people who travelled with him to take his body back to his home. It is a story of an Africa devastated by the Arab slave trade that Livingstone hated. My own novel The Tin Heart Gold Mine is also about the impact of war and refugees on Africa. A new prize-winning book by Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift, is a huge story about Kariba Dam, the Zambezi, Africans and colonists and migrants and all of these things together.
Holding on to hope
Judge Robert Rinder spoke about the Holocaust on ITV in Robert Peston’s programme this week. He said it was important to recognise that the Holocaust was not the work of a backward poverty-stricken nation, but one of the most advanced in Europe. He said that we must all fight racism and antisemitism wherever we are. It seems to me that this is the only way for us to go forward to a better and safer world for everybody.