Object DomicileThis lace jabot was found in the suitcase of Edith Bruch (later, Edith Sorrell) that was bought at an auction, and donated to the Cape Town Holocaust Centre in 2011. Bruch was a dressmaker and clearly had an eye for fashion. The collection of jabots found in her suitcase are made from high quality lace, with intricate details on each one. In the photographs of Edith that were also in the suitcase, she can be seen wearing the jabots regularly, and they appear to have been a staple item within her wardrobe. These jabots accompanied Edith from Germany to Cape Town, and remained part of a collection of important belongings that now form part of The South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation collection.
Object OriginGermany Circa 1920s
This lace jabot was made in Germany; not much else is known about the exact location in which the object was made. Jabots are garments worn across the upper body. They cover the shoulders and are fastened behind the neck. They were a popular accessory amongst upper class men and women in the early 20th Century.
Viewing Edith Bruch’s collection of jabots in person evoked an overwhelming sense of familiarity. Here are the tangible memories, the photographs, correspondence, documentation and ephemera that were pieces of a woman’s life. I felt that I wanted to understand, to look back into an unknown past and to stitch the fragmented moments in her life into a coherent story, of course with a couple of gaps. The jabot that stood out was one made of lace and velvet (fig.1). It was sheer and elegant but the black velvet string that was attached to the top of the garment gave it an indescribable edge. This woman was fashionable and eccentric as the newspaper clippings and documentation depict. She was a Jewish dressmaker born in 1915 in Zulpich, Germany (AtoM@Uct, 2011). She travelled to and worked in Amsterdam and then moved to Munich before immigrating to Cape Town in 1936 as the Nazi party’s anti-Semitic sentiments grew and the imminence of a fascist dictatorship became clear (AtoM@Uct, 2011). Edith Bruch fortunately was able to immigrate and to create a new life in Cape Town, one that is well documented with pictures of her wedding, her husband Roy and her children, Roger, Hugh and Marc (Fig. 2 &3). While looking at Edith’s life through the belongings she was able to carry with her, I was constantly reminded of the contemporary immigration crisis that pervades our global community. The racist, anti-immigration rhetoric that has continuously sparked hatred and fear, makes it incredibly difficult for immigrants, especially those of a darker hue and of a lower class, to restart their lives, hold onto their belongings, family and identities in the same way that Edith Bruch was able to in 1936.
Jewish people hoping to immigrate to South Africa in the 1930s were caught between a rock and a hard place. The worsening situation in Germany coincided with the rise of anti-Semitism in South Africa that sequentially led to more restrictive immigration policies when it came to Jewish refugees (Hellig, 2009). The Quota Act of 1930 restricted Jewish immigrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe, to enter into South Africa (Belling, 2009). Luckily for Edith Bruch, German Jews were not specifically targeted by this act but had she decided to immigrate just two years later, the Aliens Act of 1938 would have made that practically impossible (Hellig, 2009). It is evident that the social situation concerning Jewish refugees in the 1930s is very similar to the current refugee crisis regarding the reluctance of many countries to let civilians who are escaping war, find some kind of peace and refuge. As anti-Semitism grew in Germany, so too did it grow around the globe. Millions of Jewish people attempting to flee persecution and violence were barred from entering countries like the United States as well as South Africa. The difference is that in the 1930s the Geneva Convention had not yet happened, and the global awakening to blatant genocide was still some time away. Today, the refugee crisis exists alongside the fourth Geneva Convention “relative to the protection of civilian persons in the time of war”. Unfortunately no lessons have been learned, refugee rights seem non-existent and hatred towards people based on their skin colour or religion remains rife.
Of the 6500 German Jews who came to South Africa between 1933 and 1942, Edith was one of them (Hellig, 2009). Perhaps her life was easily restarted by a stroke of luck or perhaps it wasn’t as easy as the photographs made it seem. There are questions about the ease with which she moved and with which she travelled. How was she treated everyday in Cape Town? Did she have refugee status? Was she happy?
There are thoughts of everything Edith brought with her and then thoughts of everything she and many refugees have undoubtedly had to leave behind. Chinese artist Ai WeiWei confronts this loss of belongings and ultimately identity in his installation Laundromat (2016) that comprises of thousands of items of clothing left behind by people fleeing war and oppression (Brown, 2018). Laundromat (Fig. 4) consists of “2046 articles of clothing that have been washed, steamed and organized after being salvaged from the abandoned refugee camp in Idomeni in Northern Greece” as well as photographs and installations that depict the everyday life of the contemporary refugee (Brown, 2018). Christian Boltanski is another artist who, in his exhibition called No Man’s Land (Fig. 5), used 50 tonnes of old clothes in conjunction with the sound of 15000 heartbeats to discuss absence and death linked to deportations and genocides (Searle, 2010). The work is haunting and makes the anonymity of death become visible (Searle, 2010). It is a reminder of how easily we forget about the injustices in the world, so easily in fact, that we allow them to reoccur. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, “by the end of 2017 68,5 million people were forcibly displaced” 3.1 million of which were asylum seekers (Unrefugees.org, 2019). The statistics are overwhelming as it becomes difficult to envision the fact that every 2 seconds, a person becomes displaced (Unrefugees.org, 2019). The crisis is global as civilians continuously attempt to flee from countries like Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Myanmar to name a few. Forced displacement has reached its highest worldwide and the urgency to flee violence, war and persecution has meant that families have had to sacrifice their livelihood in order to survive.
When looking at Edith Bruch’s life and the love she was able to find with Roy Sorrell in Cape Town, a photograph by Lynsey Addario comes to my mind (fig. 6). It is of a love letter written in Arabic on the back of a cigarette box. It was found at an Italian port after 250 refugees were rescued at sea on their way to Sicily in 2014. It is a heart-breaking photograph that serves as a reminder for all that is lost during war and forced displacement. I could not escape the juxtaposition between the love found by Edith and the love lost by a man about whom we only know the first letter of his name.
Edith seemed to have escaped the physical traumas of forced immigration, although it is impossible to know for sure. Her documented life is personal and intimate which differs from the refugee caught up in the current global crisis who becomes a statistic with no means of identification or the ability to start afresh. The contrast between Edith’s life as a woman seeking refuge in 1936 differs tremendously from the lives of other women during that time as well as women seeking refuge today. Many Jewish immigrants were barred from entering the United States as a result of eugenic propaganda that was circulated by the Nazis and as a result numerous Jews were sent back to Germany and into concentration camps (Gould, 1981). This fact alone, demonstrates the life that Edith lived and how it differed from the lives of most Jewish people during that time who were constantly at risk of ending up in a camp. The UN has estimated that 70% of women living in refugee camps today have been raped (Hruby, 2018). The story of Nykeer Mut unveils the traumas faced by women around the world that seem to be intensified amongst the violence of war (Hruby, 2018). Nykeer Mut was raped in front of her daughter as she collected firewood outside of the camp, a task that needs to be carried out and is predominantly done by women. Soldiers hide in the tall grass and “if you’re in the forest to collect firewood and the soldiers see you, they will rape you”(Hruby, 2018). The psychological and physical burden that weighs heavily on female refugees today seem so far removed from the photos of Edith smiling in Sea point (Fig. 7). The palpable blitheness of her smile allows one to assume that her immigration process sits on the opposite end of the spectrum to that of Nykeer Mut. Perhaps Edith’s movements were made easier because of money or class status.
In the 1650s jabots became an essential garment of the upper class and remains a display of intellect and power today, most commonly worn by judges. Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, a renowned justice of the Supreme Court in the United States, has a collection of jabots much like Edith and each one is used to mark a different occasion (Rivas, 2018). Jabots are usually strewn across the shoulders and fastened behind the neck and they are typically made of lace. Edith had a collection of high quality lace jabots and it makes it easy to assume that despite her marginalized place in Germany, perhaps she had the means to move to Amsterdam, then to Munich and eventually to immigrate to Cape Town more easily than most, following the anti-Semitism that would have threatened her life in Germany at the time. While it is impossible to access or understand the emotional impact that immigrating had on Edith, she restarted her life and created a family in Cape Town. It appears that she settled down and was able to move past the traumas experienced in Germany but it is unknown whether she had to leave her family or loved ones behind. The question of the way in which we she was treated when she arrived in Cape Town remains. Was she faced with anti-Semitic threats or insults? Was she ever attacked based on her religion? These questions surfaced recently as the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks unfolded. These Muslim immigrants were able to find refuge in New Zealand but their presence disorganized the mind-set of a white supremacist to the point of murder. White supremacy lies at the basis of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia so the question of Edith’s treatment remains, especially given the fact that she lived in Cape Town amongst Nazi sympathizers at the time.
While it is easy to find differences between Edith’s process of seeking refuge and that of contemporary refugees, it is much harder to find the similarities despite knowing that they must exist. The emotional trauma that is experienced during displacement is equally as unquantifiable when looking at the refugee crisis as it is when looking at Edith. Her ability to maintain her identity and her belongings throughout her life and movement seems impossible for the refugees fleeing Syria and South Sudan. Her ability to begin a new life does not seem that attainable for the asylum seeker from Myanmar. Of the 3.1 million refugees seeking asylum, how many have a suitcase filled with happy memories, favourite items of clothing and reminders of a life lived? While these differences are somewhat quantifiable and comparable, perhaps the similarities lie within the mind, amongst the memories of a previous life that can no longer be lived. This is a statement that remains true to the experiences of contemporary refugees as well as to the experiences of Edith Bruch almost 85 years ago and sheds light on the fact that throughout history, human rights have never been universal but instead they have always been contingent on race, class and religion.