Thursday, May 05, 2005

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Orac reminds us that today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and offers a tour through his previous writings on the subject.

Say it together: "Never again."

More when my little computer recovers from a nasty allergy it developed to something.

And it's worth noting that my anonymous benefactor ordered Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Roméo Dallaire, a reminder that "Never again" has to be more than a slogan. So does Darfur.

(Warning: what comes next walks a careful line. I'm not minimizing the importance of anything, I want to increase the importance of something else that gets overlooked, all while maintaining the importance of something else. This is a touchy subject, and I don't want wild accusations flying around.)

One thing I'm always conflicted about is the emphasis in Holocaust memorials on the Jewish victims. As a Jew, one who just read the Hagaddah, where it says "in every generation there arise those who seek to destroy us," I know the need to remember the destruction of half the world's Jews. It was an abomination, and one that stains the German soil and soul forever. Hitler targeted Jews very specifically, and that alone makes it special and worthy of separate treatment.

Six million Jews is a lot of people. But 12 million died in the Holocaust. Gypsies, Catholics, communists, anarchists, cripples, blacks, gays, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Jews all died in gas chambers and forced labor camps. Hitler wanted to get rid of Jews, it's true, and dedicated tremendous effort to his attacks on the people and the culture. But he was also vicious toward the Gypsies or the Catholics. And that's part of the horror of Nazism. It wasn't hate for one group, it was hate for anyone but a select few.

It's worth remembering the other victims, because anti-gay posters are being plastered up just outside the museums at Auschwitz, by (Polish!) neo-Nazis. Poland's relationship with Jews has always been complicated, a mix of respect and distaste. In a Yiddish class I took in college, one student was researching the use of Jews in Polish advertising. Because Jews tended to be wealthier and urban, anything marked Kosher or featuring a Jew on the packaging was seen as higher quality. Jews were invited to settle in Poland, and my impression is that the pogroms were less common in Poland than further east. Still, there's enough latent anti-semitism that if the Holocaust is remembered as an attack on Jews, the horror of Nazism to young Poles is diminished, making it easier to draw in young Polish Catholics to attack gays at a concentration camp.

If they understood that young people like themselves were gassed alongside Jews and gays, would they be less likely to turn to neo-Nazi groups? What about young American skinheads, who simultaneously deny the Holocaust but praise Hitler for carrying it out? If they knew that their religious groups would have been gassed, too, would they pass up neo-Nazism?

If more people thought genocide as an attack on people in general, would they react differently to Rwanda and Darfur, let alone Kosovo? I don't know.

None of this should be taken to minimize the horror of the Holocaust. If it had never gotten past Kristallnacht, or if, instead of 12 million people, one million Jews died, it would have spurred the nations of the world to condemn Hitler, fascism, and the deadly nationalism that made that possible. As an attack on Jews, it was a horrific and inhuman assault on the entire human race, and the fact that the Jews were the specific targets of Hitler's machinery of death certainly deserves special attention.

But so do the other 6 million. So do the bodies floating out of Rwanda, and the massacre of the Armenians before the Holocaust, and the genocide of Slobodan Milosevic. Each is a tragedy, an incurable cancer on the soul of every person. On this of all days, we should glance over our shoulder to remember, but our gaze can't be caught in the glitter of our victory over Hitler. We have to look around us and step forward to prevent genocides that are happening. No one who appreciates the lessons of the Holocaust can do anything less.

I'll probably return to this theme as I work through Shake Hands, which was written by the Canadian UN commander in Rwanda.

Consider this scene, flipped to at random:

"The RPF had fired three to four artillery rounds into the hospital compound. … One bomb had landed in the middle of a large tent erected as shelter for about thirty injured persons. Staff were cleaning up pieces of charred bodies and trying to put the tents that had surrounded it back up. Inside the nearby walled compound stood the pharmacy and dispensary. … After a closer look I was aghast. On the wall there were outlines of people, of women, of children, made of blood and earth. It was like a scene out of Hiroshima. There had been over forty people standing against the wall, caught between the shell blasts and the solid building. A medical person said that some people just exploded into the air. None survived."

From the ground, Dallaire demanded action, but in Europe, New York, and Washington, people just wanted to evacuate the foreign nationals and leave Rwandans to butcher one another with machetes. In Darfur, jeeps full of irregular militiamen drive pickup trucks into villages, open fire, rape women, and toss bodies into desert wells, poisoning them and dooming the village. Sometimes the Sudanese air force provides air support.

These are my brothers in suffering, on this and every day, just like the Jews, Catholics, gypsies, and gays of the Holocaust.