After darkness, light

Designing a Holocaust and genocide museum in a country at the tip of Africa raises aesthetic and moral challenges; Architect Lewis Levin’s solutions are both elegant and deeply rooted in Johannesburg

Johannesburg’s Holocaust memorial museum (photo credit: LEON KRIGE)
Johannesburg’s Holocaust memorial museum
(photo credit: LEON KRIGE)
Imagine an ordinary day in Johannesburg, South Africa. Architect Lewis Levin is walking with his daughter, Dalya, in a scrapyard in one of the city’s aging industrial areas.
The quest for gold drove the creation of this city in 1886 and, facilitated by a growing railway network, spread inexorably over the biscuit-colored landscape. Levin stops in front of a pile of railway tracks, detritus from gold mines now emptied. The discarded tracks are exactly what he’s looking for: symbols common not only to this African city, but that transport him instantly to images of Poland based German death camp Belzec.
Levin, responsible for the design of Africa’s third Holocaust museum, the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Center (JHGC), has researched many of the Shoah’s sites of destruction. But the stark pyre of sleepers and tracks piled on the empty landscape at Belzec haunt him. They are traces of the familiar industrial past – but industry that was diverted to murder.
Flashback – a day in 2014. The 54-yearold architect is sitting in the shell of the emerging Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Center as workers pound overhead. “Belzec had one purpose only: killing,” he says. “You’d arrive in a train, be gassed, burnt or buried. The Germans destroyed the camp in 1943 to hide the evidence. Walking through the recycling and scrap metal companies in Johannesburg and looking at the remains… [the tracks] look exactly the same.”
Railway tracks are a key ingredient of industrialization, of the language of brick and steel shared by Europe and its colonies. When Levin speaks of the ubiquitous shape of a railway track, he calls it the “profile of modernity,” both beautiful and eerie. “It is everywhere.
It can be used to dig out gold in Johannesburg, or to transport Jews to their deaths. The same track built Africa, Cape to Cairo – it’s a colonial symbol; there’s a connection to Rwanda. It’s the ghost; it’s our 20th-century ghost.”
The new museum in the heart of South Africa’s biggest, wealthiest city will teach children and educators about the Holocaust, but also about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as proof of the ongoing danger of prejudice and racism. The need arose after both histories were added to the national teaching curriculum in 2007, which also deals with apartheid. There are two other centers in South Africa – in Cape Town and Durban, also under the umbrella of the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation – but the JHGC is the first to integrate Rwandan stories in its permanent exhibition. The need for human rights education in the young democracy was highlighted again when xenophobic attacks killed more than 60 people in 2008 and in 2015, displacing thousands. The Jewish community committed the funds for the new building after the JHGC was formed in 2008 (it has been working from temporary premises).
Levin believes there is great support for outreach education that, by looking at some of the worst examples of racism, can help entrench a culture of human rights.
He is particularly drawn to the materials he builds with. He became an architect through a love of textures (“architecture is about the veneration of all life really, it’s sensory”). A colleague describes how Levin has “an emotive connection” with materials that is more like a relationship with people. He was born in Johannesburg’s lush suburbs, but his father worked as a businessman in the mining industries. Lewis grew up visiting the industrial working class areas of Main Reef Road and Selby; exploring the streets in Crown Mines.
This landscape of aging mining headgear and brick power stations held “the memories of Joburg as a mining town.”
It was a powerful crucible.
Other forces shaped Levin. His family was religious. His mother was a Hebrew teacher, and his education included studying under Jewish intellectuals. At university, he discovered Emil Fackenheim and his 614th commandment: “Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories.” And there was his uncle Boruch Seftel – his grandfather Louis’s brother, from Shavl in Lithuania.
Boruch came to live with the family after several years in Felderfing, the American- run displaced persons camp near Munich. He survived Dachau because he’d claimed to be a cook rather than a horse trader and was granted work in the kitchens. Lewis, who shared a room with him, says, “he was like a second father.” And it was in Boruch’s copy of Gerhard Schoenberner’s The Yellow Star that six- or seven-year-old Levin saw his first images of victims of the Holocaust: “the murders and the bodies, the hangings, the executions, the Gestapo, the undressings.” Such photos have since become “emblematic”; seared into the contemporary consciousness in complicated ways that make Levin question if we can still truly “see them.”
HOW TO “represent the unrepresentable,” the horror that was the Holocaust, was the big question when Levin was tasked with designing a new museum and education center in South Africa’s biggest, richest city. The vision, says Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Center director Tali Nates – a dynamo who has driven the project energetically since 2008 – “was to have a center where we learn from history and tell the story of history, yet make connections to Johannesburg and South Africa and our continent and community.”
From inception, they planned to be inclusive – the center would also tell stories from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where at least 800,000 died, and the 1904-1907 Herero and Nama massacres in Namibia. As a result, city authorities sensitive to the need for education that highlights the danger of racial stereotyping were happy to help locate a site.
Former city arts and culture director Steven Sack and Levin – whom Sack already knew (Johannesburg circles are small that way) drove around searching for the right place. An old farmhouse, a former library in a park, sites in Jewish suburbs Raedene and Glenhazel: all were rejected.
Then they stopped at a house left to the city by the Bernberg sisters, themselves Jewish. The Bernberg Fashion Museum had long since shuttered and died due to lack of funding. “It was a no-brainer; it was the perfect location,” Sack says. The center aimed to talk to communities beyond the obvious localized community of Jewish citizens, and this site on Jan Smuts Drive was in the middle of an easily accessible cultural node that included the zoo, a cluster of excellent art galleries, and a university museum that showcases humanity’s origins.
The property was leased for a mere R400 ($30) a year, a token amount from the city. Design could begin in earnest.
This meant wrestling at length with a visual language that could deal with “the Holocaust, humanity’s great flaw” without impoverishing the memories of individuals. Levin describes how in the graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman found himself drawing piles of bodies.
Levin found himself asking whether “the making of art, an image, a museum” could ever be violations in themselves.
He sympathized with Elie Wiesel’s original 10-year vow of silence: the idea that “efficiencies of the system” in Auschwitz, say, and the suffering of millions, “couldn’t be represented through art, through literature, through narrative, through anything.” But he believed vehemently – as Wiesel later decided – that silence encourages the tormentor.
Levin’s solution? The decision to focus on recovering memory through art.
“The Holocaust is not just about Jewish death, but about Jewish life, about the importance of a world that was lost, the books that Anne Frank didn’t ever write, the culture that was destroyed.
It’s about the love affair the Jews had with art and culture in Europe,” Levin says. “You don’t want the museum to celebrate Jewish death.”
TO HELP identify ways of recalling and symbolizing the past, the architect and center director met with a key resource of the center: the local community of Holocaust survivors. Rwandan survivors living in Johannesburg were also consulted.
Most commented on railways.
Also, forests: much of the murder took place within “the panoramas of forest settings,” as Levin put it, trees the only witnesses. (Here, images from Claude Lanzmann’s epic nine-hour Shoah may come to mind.) Similarly, the Rwandan genocide took place in hills covered with verdant vegetation. “Landscape and industry are the ‘tabula rasa,’ the slate on which this awful event takes place. They were our way in.”
Levin also looked at other memorials to the Shoah from California to Berlin. He analyzed the subterranean Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, buried under a park in which children play; the classical façade and industrial trimmings of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; Boston’s arguably sanitized half-dozen glass columns.
At the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial, with its mirrored candles set in darkness, he saw “school kids coming in and playing hide and seek…” The message Levin found crucial for the building to convey is that genocide “doesn’t happen to Martians, it happens to us, or to humanity – to families.
It is not a massacre hidden away. It’s all about the familiar; that’s what gets you about it. Imagine: there was an architect who designed the concentration camps. He would have a degree and he would sit at a table and this would be his job. And he would use a drafting pen made by Rotring or Staedtler: the same pen that I use.
“When you look at a drawing of a concentration camp or of a death train or of a factory, you’re hit by the familiarity of it all. It is so ordinary. You know, when you see a cattle car that has transported Jews to their deaths and you see one in [the Johannesburg area of] Witbank, they are the same. The Holocaust used the industrial institutions we idolized.
Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture is a poem to the railways, to the steamship. It’s a love affair with the airplane.
But that same railway network could take you to Auschwitz. In other words, these forces of modernity, these networks, these systems, these telephones… all became diverted to serve a killing machine.”
Thus it transpired that the “way in” to the design was the all-familiar, industrial past: simple brick railway stations, warehouses and factories that became sites of murder or “arenas of the Shoah.” But also buildings that were deeply rooted in Johannesburg’s past. Brick and steel and concrete. Accordingly, the new museum, two stories high, modest in size, is built out of exposed brick, set in a distinct pattern known as English Bond. Workers had to be taught to replicate this old tradition, once meant to “delight the eye,” but then turned by the Nazis “into an envelope of horror.” The bricks themselves were rejects, “accidentally scorched” and sold at a third of the price. These walls radiate industrial energy, unnervingly so in more confined spaces such as the bathrooms. Steel girders and window frames add to the factory feel, although the beautifully proportioned exhibition spaces themselves are flooded with sunlight.
“The exhibitions will be seen in daylight, says Nates, because “genocide happened while the world was watching.”
(Nates herself is the daughter of survivors: her father was on Schindler’s List, but was saved by a German.) This is also true of the Rwandan genocide, which took place as all races went to the polls for the first time in South Africa.
After the Holocaust, many said “never again.” “But it’s always never again until the next time,” says Nates.
“Questioning and asking the difficult questions is important. [Recognizing] the fragility of democracy, which in South Africa is only 20 years old. How do we safeguard it? Do we look at history for warning signs?” The center’s location in post-apartheid South Africa carries its own resonances.
Apartheid used race to diminish and subjugate the majority of the population.
To black South Africans, gold mines were associated with discriminatory labor and movement laws; with compounds and dehumanizing single- sex “hostels.” Nates speaks of how in this yet-to-heal society, many see racism as black versus white. She believes it is important to teach examples of how people of the same race turned on each other. “Very simplistically, the message is: Be warned. To make people ‘other’ can happen anywhere, in any scenario,” says Nates. “Othering can be about religion, gender, culture, politics… we need to learn from experience. We do not say they are the same; we say there are similarities that need to be looked at and can be learned from.”
FAST FORWARD to September 1, 2015, at a celebration for the near-complete building. Hundreds of community members who have invested in the new center are standing in its courtyard, gazing in turn at the façade as a saxophonist blows music into the air. One of the many is Tony Herman, who ended up donating the railway tracks Levin had set his heart on integrating into the center. Now they stand upended, sunken into hand-packed stone walls made of local granite, the stone itself chosen to evoke a sense of lost souls. There is something of tree trunks in the steel tracks pointing skywards. Inside the foyer, a similar wall is scored by spaces for vanished rails – in this case reminiscent of the gashes left in flesh.
Unusually for Johannesburg, there are no high walls shutting off the street; passersby can look in, visitors out, because “genocide takes place before our eyes in broad daylight, in high streets and suburbs,” says Levin. Long horizontal windows have been oriented to city vistas. Outside, facing a busy street, steel screens designed to recall cattle trucks sheath the facade. “Haunting images of the Shoah that accompany us are the long lines of industrial cattle trucks at the deportation centers,” Levin tells the crowd. “We can barely look at the photographs of the bewildered families as they board and disembark from these trains. We’ve tried to recall these images on the public façades of Jan Smuts Avenue, to remind visitors that these railway tracks, so familiar in our South African landscape, can never be neutral images again.”
The layout of the center also suggests a passage from racial oppression to recovery and restoration, says Levin. The paving in the courtyard is made from gravestone offcuts – reminiscent of European city public pavements and squares. One walks over “granite slabs that resemble unmarked graves,” passes a memorial wall inscribed with the names of children lost in both the Shoah and the Rwandan genocide, and enters the foyer.
The exhibition then takes visitors “into the darkest recesses of humanity, but ends in a memorial courtyard promising hope and revival – a final kaddish, a space for reflection.”
“It is great symbolism,” says Irene Klass, 84, who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto. “The building is very dear to me. It will stand and teach the next generation and the generation after that what happened to us. It almost feels like my home – the home that I lost during the war.”
EARLIER, THE crowd listened in silence as Tutsi Rwandan genocide survivor Emmanuel Mwezi related how a Hutu hid and protected members of his family.
Another Rwandan survivor bequeathed a house key and a rosary to the new center – deeply personal items found in the hands of his slain mother. And in a cruel, tender moment, Veronica Phillips handed Nates a small doll that her family had kept safely for her after she was taken to a camp, and that she’d kept safe ever since her return. “That doll is my life that ended in Hungary,” Phillips said later. “I also gave the center my grandmother’s candlesticks. It will be for eternity.” The exhibitions are still to come, but these items hint at what will be foregrounded: the victims’ stories, rather than the perpetrators.
For part of 2015, Levin lived in The Hague while his wife, Dora, worked on a doctorate. His work related to building the center had to be managed from afar, yet in ways Levin felt even closer to the events of the Holocaust. “In The Hague you live under the shadow of World War II in a way you don’t experience in South Africa,” he told me as his three children played around him in a local park. “Everyone has a story… it is much closer.”
But back in Johannesburg on this warm spring morning, with stories collected from history and strangers and family now part of him, Levin stands in front of the people whose commitment and donations have culminated in the realization of this new center. The brick and stone glow in the morning light, far removed from the distancing shades of black and gray that so many Holocaust images are captured in. You can teach the tragedy, Levin told me in that park, but you can also teach this other extraordinary thing: the human spirit.
Now, addressing the crowd, he recalls the children of Theresienstadt, who in the days before death drew the cruelty they were witnesses to, but also drew butterflies, rainbows, gardens (a stainedglass panel will reproduce some of these works). “Never relinquish art and language as a way to find meaning,” Levin says. “We should transform the experience of oppression into an embrace of creativity and action.” 
The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Museum is scheduled to open to the public in 2016.