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SMGLC’s Director, Professor Shirli Gilbert, is delivering the keynote panel at the Schwartz-Reisman Graduate Student Conference In Jewish Studies, “Among Transgressors”, in Toronto.
Between 1933 and the outbreak of World War II, around 6,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany landed on South Africa’s shores. Most came not because of any particular connection to the country, but simply because—for a time, at least—it was one of the few places in the world that would let them in. Unlike many other places of refuge in the global south, however, South Africa became a place of settlement rather than of transit: the vast majority who arrived chose to stay.
In this talk I will explore how the German Jewish refugees’ historical experiences of antisemitism informed their engagement with South African racism before and during the early years of apartheid. While a number of refugees were outspoken in their opposition to the regime, the majority engaged with their adopted country in more ambivalent ways. A limited body of research has documented the refugees’ contributions to South African social and cultural life and the close-knit communities they established upon arrival, but almost no work has been done on how the Nazi past informed this particular Jewish group’s protracted engagement with the post-war world’s quintessential racial state.
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Shirli Gilbert is Professor of Modern Jewish History at University College London. She has previously held positions at the University of Southampton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Cape Town. Her publications include Music in the Holocaust (2005), From Things Lost: Forgotten Letters and the Legacy of the Holocaust (2017), and, with Avril Alba, Holocaust Memory and Racism in the Postwar World (2019).