South African anthropologist, Steven Robins, has just published a memoir tracing the history of his family who perished in the Holocaust in Europe. Far from focussing narrowly on this cataclysmic 20th Century event, this extraordinary account of trauma, history and silence is a layered excavation, tracing the roots of the racial science that informed it; all the way back to South Africa and indeed Stellenbosch University where Robins is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology. By MARIANNE THAMM.
South Africa is a country weighted by the burden of generations of silent histories. There are stories of pain and anguish that will beg to be told for years to come. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission excavated many of those testimonies in the raw aftermath at the end of 48-years of National Party rule. But so much was left unspoken, so many personal histories left untold.
It is the children of those who have been silenced by history who will be tasked with the burden of speaking their truth as many children of Holocaust survivors, like Steve Robins, have done.
The result is Robins’ extraordinary memoir “Letters of Stone – From Nazi Germany to South Africa” (Published by Penguin), a 27-year labour of love that saw Robins criss-crossing several continents – the US, Europe and South Africa – in an attempt to piece together the stories of the mute relatives who stared out of a family photograph that perched on a black wooden table in the dining room of his childhood home.
These were people that Steve’s father, Herbert, did not speak of. Robins writes that in his teens he grew aware that they had died in the Holocaust, but that they had remained nameless, just three women on a post-card sized family portrait.
But these women and their loved ones have now been brought back to terrifying life in Robins’ profound book, a forensic and spiritual journey not only into these personal histories, but also the racial science that informed Nazi policies and which had their origin in southern Africa. It was this view of science that the German colonial power in then-South West Africa used to justify the 1904-07 Herero and Nama-qua genocide.
This mass murder in the name of racial purity, in which over 100 000 Herero and Nama were exterminated, is considered the first genocide of the 20th Century and a precursor to what occurred in Nazi Germany from the early 1930s to the end of the Second World War.
What Robins brings to this deeply personal and shattering family story is a scholarly subtext that transcends time and history and that finds resonance in contemporary politics whether in Palestine or Syria.
“As I write, I am acutely aware that similar scenarios must be playing themselves out now, as hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other war zones flee to Europe. Should they manage to safely cross the Mediterranean and find refuge in an increasingly hostile fortress Europe, their thoughts will immediately turn to the loved ones left behind. Should they not be able to rescue them, they too will have to live with the guilt.”
As such, this story of one family’s tragedy and anguish becomes universal and a reminder that we appear to learn nothing from history, including the Holocaust, a defining 20th Century event that led ultimately to the international understanding, acceptance and adoption of universal human rights that apparently inform 21st Century thinking.
For much of his adult life, Robins, an activist and anthropologist, paid no attention to his own or his family’s history. His parents, Herbert and Ruth, had created an apparently happy and insular life for their young family in Port Elizabeth in the 1970s. It was here that Robins and his brother Michael grew up in a secular Jewish home, their identities partly shaped by the world around them, Apartheid South Africa, while they might have been unaware of it at the time.
Robins grew up, like many young, white, middle-class kids, with a sense of insecurity and dread, surrounded by high walls and the notion of some vague imminent threat the adults sought to keep at bay. Later, as an awareness of the realities of apartheid life dawned, Robins enrolled at UCT to complete a BA, became a student activist, completing his studies on the social and economic consequences of forced removals in rural South Africa. Later, on his travels to Israel and the US Robins stumbled into anthropology, a career that shaped his life for the following two decades.
Today he is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch and has published academically on a wide range of topics including the politics of land, development and identity in Zimbabwe and South Africa; the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC); urban studies and most recently on citizenship and governance.
His skills as a researcher were to prove vital as he embarked on a journey beginning with little more than a taped interview in 1989 with his father before his death a year later. But it was an interview punctuated still with too many silences.
It was later, while working as a researcher for the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies in Cape Town that Robins was to begin to engage with his own Jewish identity. With it came the inevitable curiosity about his roots and those of his family, particularly the three women who started out of the black and white photograph that had been part of his childhood.
Robin’s father, Herbert had arrived in South Africa in 1936, escaping from Nazi Germany. Herbert’s brother, Artur, too managed to get out and found himself in what was then Northern Rhodesia. The rest of Herbert’s surviving family, his father David, his mother Cecilie, his brother Siegfried and sisters Edith and Hildegard remained in Nazi Germany. Their surname then was Robinski, later altered to Robins to hide its Jewish roots and pass as a more “English” surname.
It was the expression in the eyes of one of the women in the photograph, Edith Robinski, Robins’ aunt, which haunted him. In response to this “melancholy and defeated” look the author embarked on his search for the truth of her life and her fate.
It was during a visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington that Robins was to first learn of this fate and that of the rest of his family. He recounts how a museum staff member scoured a bulky black book called the Berliner Gedenkbuch which contained the names of Jews who had lived in the city.
“He stopped at the names of the six Robinski family members; Cecilie, David, Edith, Hildegard, Siegfried and another Edith (Siegfried’s wife). Next to their names were their addresses in Berlin, dates and places of birth and dates and places of deportation.”
Stumbling on this evidence, writes Robins, “I felt like a detective stumbling across the first hard evidence that ties a murderer to a crime scene. What had once been vague and abstract knowledge about the fate of my father’s family now took on a concreteness of form.”
It is only later with the discovery of a stash of letters that had been stored by two of Robins’ relatives, the children of his uncle Artur, Steven’s cousins, David Robins and Cecilia Robins, that the author’s family and their stories are made flesh.
The detailed letters, written by their parents in Germany to Herbert and Artur in Africa, present a shattering account of hopes and dreams of escape from Berlin with its threatening anti-Semitism and the slow dissolution of these dreams as they face the inevitable eye of the storm with no chance of reprieve.
We read these letters now with the hindsight and awareness of the terrible fate that will befall them all. What is so painful are the small domestic details, the attempts by Cecilie to keep up her spirits, Edith’s growing despair, and it is through these that we can only begin to understand the truth and anguish of their histories and that allow them to speak across the silent chasm of history.
Because Robins is an anthropologist and the story served him with many curve balls he could not ignore, the story took him, now and again, into unexpected but related territory, including chasing the trail of Dr Eugen Fisher, a Nazi scientist whose work directly led to Nazi policy decisions on racial classification and indeed influenced the author’s own field of study.
Robins could not, however, have known then that Dr Fisher would lead him back to South Africa and the small town of Williston in the Northern Cape where his great uncle, his grandfather’s brother also named Eugen, had managed to carve out a life for himself in this arid landscape.
This was territory once inhabited by people who were descendants of white Boer fathers and KhoiKhoi mothers and who became known as Basters. The Basters, who had been dispossessed by the trek Boers, had been given protection by Rhenish missionaries at Amandelboom near Williston.
The Baster community had eventually moved northwards to Rehoboth in South West Africa in 1870 where Dr Eugen Fisher found them and had subjected them to his “tests” on racial purity, photographing his subjects after measuring their heads and comparing their eye colours.
In 2013 Robins was to discover that a box containing a set of Dr Fisher’s Eugenics instruments had been found stored in the University of Stellenbosch museum. The box had been stashed away after the closure of the university’s Volkekunde Department which had closed in 1997. Two of apartheid’s architects, DF Malan and HF Verwoerd, had been graduates of Stellenbosch and must have been aware of and influenced by Fisher’s work at the time.
“Letters of Stone” is a unique and significant book which pulls together various threads and pieces of lost history to create an unforgettable portrait of not only the author’s family but of history across continents.
It is a deeply moving and brilliantly written work, never soppy or sentimental but also not with the eye of a cool and detached academic. Robins allows himself to explore his own responses to learning that his very existence is a miracle and that his father’s silence, which he had never understood, was because of the crippling guilt he carried at not being able to rescue his family from certain death.
The “Stone” referred to in the title could be read in several ways. First the weight of the letters and what they revealed to Robins, his family and now to us the readers, but also in referencing the “stolpersteine” (stumbling stones), small brass plagues that nestle between the paving stones in the sidewalks of Berlin. These stones are made by Berlin-born artist, Gunter Demnig, who had clandestinely planted dozens of stones at the entrances of buildings from which Jews had been deported.
The stones served as a reminder and a commemoration of the millions who died including the Robinskis. DM
Steve Robins will be in conversation with Marianne Thamm at the Book Lounge on Tuesday 9 February 5.30 for 6pm.
Photo: Left to right, Edith, Cecile and Hildegard Robinski
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