It’s a sad common denominator, but South Africa and Germany have a shared history of institutionalised discrimination. South Africa’s not so distant political system of apartheid, which saw society divided based on race, is as well known as Germany’s horrific treatment of their Jewish population during the period of history known as the Holocaust.*
There’s a well known saying that goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The permanent exhibitions on display at the KwaMuhle Museum help people to remember what life was like in Durban during apartheid, and another Local History Museums’ project, the Durban Liberation Heritage Route, serves to educate the public about the various buildings and public spaces that have links to the history of apartheid.
Along the same lines of thinking, there are various Holocaust museums around the world. The Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre (DHGC) focuses not only on the Holocaust, but also examines the pseudo-science of race, and how racism was institutionalised in South Africa under the apartheid government.
It is currently hosting a temporary exhibition of objects left behind by prisoners held in concentration camps. Perhaps the most famous of the Jewish concentration camps, or extermination camps, as they’re sometimes more accurately called, is Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was a complex of over 40 concentration camps that were operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. The various Auschwitz camps had different purposes, some used for administrative purposes and others as labour camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau was an extermination camp. It was here that the Nazis implemented their ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’, murdering an estimated 1.1 million Jewish people in the gas chambers.
What’s not widely known is that it was a South African Air Force (SAAF) reconnaissance aircraft that first discovered the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. SAAF were assisting with photographic surveys of German-held areas when Mosquito XVI aircraft of No. 60 Squadron photographed a rubber refinery plant that was earmarked for bombing by the US Air Force. The images uncovered the existence of Auschwitz-Birkenau:
When the photos of the complex next to the plant were analyzed, they found rows of people lining up in the camp. The photos also showed chimneys and all the other characteristics of a camp for prisoners. This, with other intelligence, brought them to the conclusions that extermination camps existed.”“The South African Air Force discovered Auschwitz extermination camp” samilhistory.com
* The word ‘Holocaust’ is derived from the Greek word, ‘holokauston’, which is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘olah’, meaning a burnt sacrifice offered whole to God. The word is a reference to the extermination camps where the bodies of the victims were cremated.
Cover image: Painting by Derrick Dickens of two SAAF Mosquito PR Mk XVI s of 60 Squadron, courtesy of samilhistory.com