Sins of the fathers

2018-09-18 16:31
‘Attempts to evade, deny, minimise or misrepresent historical offences are unsuccessful in the long run’.

‘Attempts to evade, deny, minimise or misrepresent historical offences are unsuccessful in the long run’.

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Theft seems to be a very clear concept for most people. Except when it comes to land. AfriForum’s hitman on the subject, Ernst Roets, who would probably respond appropriately if someone stole his lunch, must have had his Google Translate settings wrong when he made the case recently to the Joint Constitutional Review Committee that whites didn’t steal land from blacks.

They may steal pension funds, sell you shady deals, extort too much interest, break promises or bounce cheques, but steal land, never. The truth, as Roets would have it, was that whites got land through a diversified strategy: settling on empty land, buying it through treaties and agreements of various descriptions, and, wait for it, conquest. My understanding of conquest is that you charge into someone’s back yard, beat them to a pulp, rape the wives and daughters, kill the livestock, plunder the stores, torch the house and burn the crops. Maybe theft is too mild a word.

As I drove to work on Sunday, the issue showed no sign of subsiding, with newspaper street posters shouting: “Whites did not steal land”. This time it was Terror Lekota doubling down on the fact that he’s okay singing from the same sheet as Roets and Steve Hofmeyr.

I get that they don’t want to change the Constitution, but that’s a totally different argument. I also get that it’s distressing to be called a thief, and that there is a solid argument to be made against collective guilt. But when I find myself squirming away from the direct accusation inherent in the sloganeering that whites stole the land, my mind goes to a story told by a friend, Aron Mazel, not for solace but for the clarity of its echoes.

Some years ago, he and his daughter travelled to Lithuania to “commemorate the memory of my paternal grandparents, Mashe and Mordechai Mazel, and other family members who were murdered on Saturday 23 August 1941, and to say kaddish for them”, he wrote in a journal article on “Displaced Heritage”.

“On that day in 1941, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators killed 7 523 people in the Pajouste forest, around eight kilometres east of Panevežys. Panevežys experienced six recorded episodes of killing between 21 July and 23 August 1941. Altogether, the Nazis and Lithuanians killed 8 837 people in Panevežys, 99% of whom were Jews. When I planned the trip it was unknown to me that the Pajouste forest was also the death site for my maternal relatives from the village of Ramygala, some 30 kilometres south of Panevežys. The Jews of Ramygala had in fact been removed to the Panevežys ghetto in mid-July 1941. This realisation added additional poignancy to the visit. I have since learned, however, that my maternal great-grandmother, Sarah Nochemovitz, was likely to have died in Ramygala because the ‘elderly and sick were left in the Beit Midrash [house of learning] that was set on fire and they were burned alive’.”

As harrowing as this history is, it is another part of his account that keeps going around in my head. He describes what he calls a “fraught walk” down M. Valanciaus Gatve, the street where his family lived and owned properties. “As we walked, we considered that perhaps one or more of the houses on the street might have belonged to Abram Abelski, my great-grandfather. Moreover, we speculated whether my father was raised in one of the houses and whether there might still be items belonging to my family in one or more of them. These were unsettling thoughts.

“As we walked down the street people emerged from a few houses and watched us. I believe they were aware that we were not there as conventional ‘tourists’. This is not a tourist area of the town and we were walking slowly, with cameras, stopping intermittently and clearly discussing the houses. Furthermore, it is very possible that they would have identified us as being of Jewish origin. We did not avert our eyes, but watched back. Thus ensued an unexpected passive aggressive ‘standoff’ with some of the occupants of M. Valanciaus Gatve.

“Questions of ownership and restitution were uppermost in our thoughts during this walk.”

He found that Lithuanian society was not able to meet the questions raised. The complicity in the Holocaust was largely written out of local histories, and the laws meant to enact restitution were, like ours, insufficient, in that they don’t consider “the rights of the families of Lithuanian Jews, such as mine, who were dispossessed of their properties and other material possessions and savings during the Holocaust. Are our claims now buried and forgotten? Should the residents of M. Valanciaus Gatve continue to live in our houses and possibly use the belongings of my murdered family without even acknowledging how these came into their possession? Should the survivors from families decimated by murder be compensated for their losses? Or, does there need to be a process of recognition of the theft that occurred and for people to ‘move on’,” because a never-ending quest for justice can only lead to new injustices as the sins of the fathers are invoked against the innocent.

As he finds himself wrestling with pain, justice and personal reconciliation, and knowing that the new occupants of his family home had not stolen it themselves, he concludes by quoting the historian Saulius Sužiedelis: “[the] only way for Lithuanians to lighten the load of the difficult history of 1941 is to embrace it. However artfully presented, the strategies of denial and evasion, the finger-pointing and righteous indignation directed at the Other, serve only to further weigh society down ...

“Recognising a historic burden is not the same as accepting collective guilt. No honest person argues that Lithuanians are a nation of criminals, or that today’s Lithuanians are responsible for what happened in 1941 (any more than contemporary Americans are responsible for slavery). But the legacies of such crimes, the historical burdens, remain. As a general proposition, attempts to evade, deny, minimise or misrepresent historical offences are unsuccessful in the long run.”

As I think of Aron looking at his ancestral home, now the home of others, and wondering whether there were still family belongings inside, my mind goes to a scene in Jonny Steinberg’s Midlands. The book is about murder in the fight over farmland in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. There’s a description, towards the end of the book, which evokes the experience of seeing others having taken occupation of a countryside to which one belongs but which is denied one. Summarising his thoughts in correspondence with me, Steinberg recollects the moment: “I am driving the dirt road from the R56 to Highflats; the landscape, which when I arrived was merely beautiful, now evokes the struggles to which it was host; the pine forests in particular are full of the ghosts of the many people evicted to make way for them.”

These ghosts may not be visible, but they live where people were once at home, and where others are now.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  opinion and analysis

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