In mid-September, writer Adam Cohen’s “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck” (published by Penguin this year) made the long list for this year’s National Book Award. The book explores a deplorable moment in early 20th-century American history when much of the American establishment – from John D. Rockefeller Jr. to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – were ardent supporters of “eugenics,” the pseudo-scientific classification of humans according to supposed “superior” and “inferior” traits.
The crackpot racial science that underpinned the eugenics movement provided the justification for the sterilization of those who were declared feeble-minded, and the well known Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell, which is the focus of Cohen’s book, legitimated such a practice in 1927. But, as readers of AIAC no doubt know, the eugenics movement also perpetuated the racism and anti-Semitism that constituted much of mainstream politics in the US, Europe, and colonial Africa for a good part of the 20th century.
Yet, few works, including Cohen’s, sufficiently recognize the truly transnational character of the eugenics movement, and the ways in which experiments conducted in colonial Africa served as the launching pad for the propagation of ideas and practices that were central to the movement elsewhere in the world. To unpack some of these elements, I interviewed Steve Robins – an anthropologist at the University of Stellenbosch – about his book, Letters of Stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa, which was also published by Penguin this year (and only available on Amazon if you do not happen to be in South Africa).
Robins’ book tells the story of a Jewish family that is torn apart by events in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. It follows the lives of his father and uncle who settle in South Africa during the 1930s, and pieces together the gradual dehumanization and eventual extermination of those relatives who remained behind in Germany.
The story begins with a mysterious photograph. What is the significance of that photograph?
When I was growing up in Port Elizabeth I was aware of a photograph of three women in the dining room, but I didn’t know who they were. I had a sense that they were my father’s family and that they died in Germany during World War II, but no one spoke about them. I didn’t even know their names. It was only much later in life that I discovered that they were my father’s mother and his sisters, i.e. my grandmother and aunts. Those are very close relatives, and yet they weren’t talked about. I was particularly haunted by one of my father’s sisters, Edith.
The book is multi-layered and multi-genred. It is part memoir, part social history, part ethnography. Let’s turn first to the book as memoir, as a personal history of your family in South Africa and of your German relatives. Much has been written about the Holocaust, the death camps, why is this book different?
What makes it different is the time period and the way it crosses continents. The part of the book that deals with my family history really focuses on the 1930s whereas many films, books, exhibitions focus on the early 1940s and particularly on the extermination of Jews. I was incredibly fortunate to have access to family letters to tell a different story. The letters begin in 1936 after my father has emigrated to South Africa and continue until the family who remained in Germany (except for my father’s brother who also comes to southern Africa) was deported and exterminated.
This is a period when the family members don’t know what will happen to them. They are subjected to a raft of about 100 racial laws introduced in 1933 that strip them down to bare life. Throughout this period my father’s family is desperately trying to leave, but the dehumanization of Jews – the stripping of their citizenship, their dignity, their belongings, the process of making them invisible – is relentless.
I wanted to capture the incremental paring down of their lives and I also wanted to show the quotidian or everyday aspects of life that are conveyed by the letters. They are a portal into what this family did with their lives on an everyday basis: the card games they played, the food they ate, their conversations with friends while at the same time my grandmother – who wrote most of the letters – is desperately trying to hold this transcontinental family together and worrying about the health of her sons in Africa. I wanted to do justice to those letters while recognizing that these are not my memories. They belong to others.
For your father and his younger brother, the escape to South Africa in the 1930s saves their lives and allows them to start over again. Your father spends the rest of his life in Port Elizabeth, but South Africa in the 1930s was hardly welcoming to Jews. Can you tell us what was going on and what the effects were on Jewish emigration to South Africa?
During the 1930s and 1940s a number of rightwing Afrikaner nationalist movements, such as the Grey Shirts and Ossewabrandwag, emerged with the aim of mobilizing poor white Afrikaners who had been displaced from the land in the 1920s. These rightwingers, as well as the more mainstream Afrikaner nationalists, portrayed Jews as a particular threat to poor whites because of their purported uncanny commercial acumen, secret brotherhoods and dominance in commerce and the professions. This mobilization culminated in campaigns to prevent German Jews, like my father’s family in Berlin, from finding refuge in South Africa at a time when the clouds of fascism were sweeping across Europe. In 1937, Afrikaner nationalists, such as D.F. Malan and H.F. Verwoerd, successfully lobbied the Hertzog-Smuts government to introduce the Aliens Act, which shut the door on German Jews attempting to flee Europe.
In fact, throughout the book, you draw several linkages between the discrimination against, and the destruction of, Jews in Germany and the exploitation of Africans during the colonial and apartheid periods. Can you talk about what those linkages were and why you thought it was important to connect the two?
Typically accounts of the Holocaust present this catastrophe as a unique event that cannot be compared to any other genocide. This also implies a hierarchy of suffering. In 1996, while visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., I stumbled across an account of Eugen Fischer, a German anatomist and physical anthropologist who, in 1908, studied the consequences of “racial mixing” amongst the Rehoboth Basters in German South West Africa. Fischer’s study was internationally acclaimed, and helped launch his career as a leader in the field of eugenics. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Fischer’s career took off further and he soon became the leading Nazi racial scientist. Together with the Herero and Nama genocide, Fischer’s scientific career hints at the role of the colonies as laboratories for the incubation of racial hygiene ideas that later boomeranged back to Europe. This calls for us to recognize the entanglement of colonial and European histories of scientific racism and genocide.
To continue the line of thought above, can you talk about the challenge of balancing a personal, emotional story with a more social science approach, as you do when you discuss racial eugenics and the embrace of it not only in South Africa, but also Europe and the US?
I did not want this book to simply be a Holocaust family memoir. Quite early on, I began to realize that the personal story of my family needed to be situated within the wider canvas of world historical events of the 20th century – colonialism, the Shoah and Apartheid. I felt the intertwined histories of the 20th century that my father’s family bumped up against in Europe and South Africa needed to be told in a way that transgressed the straightjacket of histories that stop at the borders of nation-states. This was made very apparent by the transnational scientific trajectory of Eugen Fischer, whose scientific ideas influenced global eugenics as well as immigration restriction policies in Europe, the US and South Africa.
One of the strengths of the book is that it draws attention to the participation and the contribution of many countries, not just Nazi Germany, to the rise of global eugenics
Yes, I wanted to decenter the conventional account of the racial science that underpinned the extermination of Jews, which is typically confined to what happened in Europe; but the United States was one of the leaders in the study of racial eugenics in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Already by 1924, the US had adopted an Immigration Restriction Act establishing quotas for so called “inferior races” who were coming into the United States from Eastern and Southern Europe and these included Jews, Slavs and Italians. Great Britain too had its share of scholars who were involved in the eugenics movement. As Keith Breckenridge has shown, Sir Francis Galton drew on observations of indigenous peoples in the 1850s in what is now Namibia to inform his views on Britain’s urban poor and the “lower classes.”
So the Germans were relative latecomers in this respect. In fact, Fischer’s institute, the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, was partially funded by both Carnegie Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation.
In some ways, the book clearly implicates also the social sciences in the growth of “racial science”
Anthropology, as I mention in the book, was implicated in the science of racial classification, taking measurements, using anthropometric photographs, collecting artifacts and devising intelligence tests. But, for a long time, anthropology has been doing a lot of critical reflection on race, and on the connections between anthropology and colonialism. Starting with Franz Boas at Columbia in the 1920s, there’s been this effort to unpack the association. Boas refuted the ideas of popular eugenicists, such as Madison Grant, HH Goddard and Charles Davenport. On the other hand, other disciplines, such as sociology and political science, haven’t done this kind of soul searching.
I was surprised to learn in the book that Karl Pearson, famous for Pearson’s correlation coefficient, was a committed eugenicist, who relied on statistics to “prove” the superiority of the professional classes and even advocated removing indigenous people in Uganda for the benefit of Britain. Anyone who uses stats – from simple correlations to big data – knows of Pearson.
The book tries to address some of that. It is part memoir, but also an engagement with the social sciences and even my own place of work, the University of Stellenbosch. When it was founded in 1926, the Volkekunde Department at Stellenbosch (the precursor to the anthropology department) was heavily influenced by racial science. In fact, in 2012, the curator of the museum at Stellenbosch found a skull and several eugenics measuring devices that belonged to the old department. They included a hair color table in a silver case engraved with Eugen Fischer’s name.
Finding Fischer’s “scientific footprint” at Stellenbosch University reveals the transnational character of scientific ideas such as eugenics. This is also part of a film I am making with Mark Kaplan that links together Fischer’s study of the Rehoboth Basters with the racial science policies propagated by the Nazis. In 2015 we also ran a Mellon Foundation-funded project called Indexing the Human that included a series of lectures focused on questions of racial classification and histories of the social science disciplines at Stellenbosch University.
One very important thread in those entangled histories is the parallel you draw with Apartheid.
In fact, that is how I got interested in this. Attending the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 and hearing all these stories from South Africans whose family members had died in detention or disappeared triggered my interest in wanting to know more about my family. Many of those who spoke in front of the TRC, they knew their family members were gone but they just wanted to know how they had died and where their bodies were. And that got me started on the journey.
You spoke earlier about the anti-Semitism that your father confronted when he first arrived in South Africa. Why did the treatment of Jewish South Africans change after WWII? Would you say some were co-opted into supporting Apartheid? Having experienced so much discrimination in Germany, Lithuania etc. why do you think some Jewish people overlooked the treatment of Africans during Apartheid while others clearly challenged it?
During the 1930s, South African Jews were fearful of the consequences of rising anti-Semitism and increasing support for Nazi Germany. Afrikaner hostility towards Jewish immigration intensified in the build-up to the war, and later nationalists and future prime ministers B.J. Vorster and Verwoerd openly supported the German war effort. In fact, Vorster was interned at Koffiefontein detention center for his pro-Nazi stance. After the war, Prime Minister Malan’s ruling National Party did a complete about turn. Malan visited Israel in the early 1950s and returned very positive about future relations with the Jewish state. This created the conditions for a long-term rapprochement between Afrikaners and Jews. Whereas the whiteness of Jews had been questioned by both the English and Afrikaners during the early part of the 20th century, the post-war era ushered in a period when the National Party invited Jews into the white fold. It was their concern for their place in the white social order that pushed mainstream Jewry into a Faustian bargain, whereby they became bystanders as Apartheid laws were enforced. It was left to radical Jews in the Communist Party to forcefully resist Apartheid. They become the torch bearers of the historical memory of anti-Semitism and anti-fascism in Europe and South Africa.
Another sub-theme in the book is the complicated relationship that Jewish South Africans have with Israel and Palestine. Can you elaborate on this?
Attending Theordor Herzl Primary School in Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s, I was exposed to an understanding of the Shoah that was tightly tethered to Israeli nationalist accounts of the making of the Jewish state. In this account, the Shoah was spliced onto an ethno-nationalist narrative of collective suffering and redemption. But over the years I began to question this account and I now endorse the late Edward Said’s comment that the Palestinians have become “the victims of the victims”. This has made me increasingly suspicious of all ethno-nationalist projects that appropriate historical accounts of collective suffering for instrumental political ends.
It’s hard to know how to categorize this story – is it personal memoir? At one point, on page 41, you seem to admit it is not your story, that you are “intruding upon… cannibalizing my father’s memories.” On the other hand, in an email to me you called it “experimental ethnography.” Can you explain? What are the challenges in this kind of writing?
While I was writing this book I was not particularly concerned with questions of what genre I was writing in. I was conscious of crossing genre boundaries but it is only now, after the book’s publication, that I have begun to think about this book as an experimental ethnography-cum-family memoir-cum-social history.
To conclude, tell us the significance of stumbling stones or the Stolpersteine, which the title references?
In 2000, the German artist Gunter Demnig laid these small bronze commemorative plaques into the stone pavement outside the Berlin buildings that my father’s family members were deported from. These material objects of memory – with victims’ names and dates and destinations of deportation – reside in everyday, public spaces. Their small size and subtle presence appeals to me precisely because these plaques do not impose themselves on the urban landscape. You hardly notice them until one day the tip of your shoe may bump up against one of them. In fact, the name Stolperstein, which translates into “stumbling stone”, resonates with the ways in which I stumbled across the traces of my family’s past in Germany and South Africa.