Monday, January 28, 2019

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It commemorates the tragedy of the Holocaust, remembering the genocide that resulted in the death of an estimated 6 million Jews, 8.7 million Slavs, 1.8 million ethnic Poles, 220,000 Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, 312,000 Serb civilians, 1,900 Jehovah's Witnesses, and 9,000 homosexual men by the Nazi regime.  Yesterday marked the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on January 27, 1945 and the end of the Holocaust.

We remember and commemorate these events so that we never forget them.  So that we learn from them, for that is the purpose of history.  For us to be able to look back and see the events that led to such events and to be able to recognize them as they occur around us.

"The International Day in memory of the victims of the Holocaust is thus a day on which we must reassert our commitment to human rights [...]

We must also go beyond remembrance, and make sure that new generations know this history.  We must apply the lessons of the Holocaust to today's world.  And we must do our utmost so that all peoples may enjoy the protection and rights for which the United Nations stands."
Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, January 19, 2008

This day has taken on a greater significance in our household this year with the play Jamie will be putting up for One-Act, Ghetto by Joshua Sobol.  A 1984 play, set in the Vilna Ghetto during Nazi occupation in World War II.  It's a play about how we react when faced with the worst of humanity.  And it's a difficult play, as it shows the variety of responses that were found within that Jewish community.  

The research into this play has also led to stark reminders about the genocide.  That there were many preambles to the Holocaust: the Armenian genocide, the Ukranian genocide, the Herero and Namaqua genocide.  That every day citizens of Germany knew what was going on and would have had to turn a blind eye to it.  When Jamie visited Dachau, the first concentration camp, she was struck by how it was right there, next to the town.  The citizenry may not have known about the gas chambers and all the specific atrocities, but they knew of the camps and their purpose because they were prominently reported in officially inspired German media articles and posters.

According to the president of Genocide Watch, Gregory Stanton, there are eight stages of genocide that are predictable.
  • Stage 1 is classification, where people are divided into "us" and "them."
  • Stage 2 is symbolization, where symbols are forced upon unwilling members of the "them" groups.
  • Stage 3 is dehumanization, where one group denies the humanity of the other group.  Members of the "them" group are equated with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases.
  • Stage 4 is organization, where special army units or militias are trained and armed to combat the "them."
  • Stage 5 is polarization, where propaganda is deployed.
  • Stage 6 is preparation, where victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity.
  • Stage 7 is extermination.  Stanton notes it is extermination not murder or genocide because the killers do not believe their victims are fully human.
  • Stage 8 is denial, where the perpetrators deny that they committed any crime. It was a service.

This is why we have to combat any attempt to paint another group as a "them."  For while it can be slow and insidious, it is a stepping stone in dehumanizing the other group.  I can think of several groups where the first five stages might even be met, ranging from the way people treat political opponents, to ethnic minorities, to members of the LGBTQ community, and beyond.  All it takes is a demagogue to exploit these existing beliefs to make them truly dangerous.  

And I think we are, in fact, seeing this play out.  There is a global rise in Anti-Semitism, particularly in the United States and in EuropeHate crimes in general were up in 2018 in the largest ten American cities, with a spike between 2014 and 2017.

It seems history is more important to us than ever before.  If only we would listen.  May we never forget and may we ever be vigilant.

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