Sixty years ago on Jan. 27, soldiers of the Russian Red Army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. This camp symbolizes the ultimate example of man’s inhumanity to man. What innocent human beings endured in fear, subjugation, humiliation, starvation and finally death is mind-boggling. The few who survived the onslaught of the Nazi torture and killing machines in this and other death camps vowed “never again,” and the world community said, “Let us not forget.”
How quickly we forgot, and “never again” has become “again and again.”
Adolf Hitler came to power with a vision. He wanted to build a “pure” community of nations, with Germany as the major superpower controlling and keeping order. To this end, he “needed” to rid Germany of so-called “undesirables.” He considered Jews and Gypsies to be sub-humans that had to be eliminated to save Germany and the Aryan race from pollution. Over ten million innocent people perished in the process. Hitler justified his actions as being “in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.”
One has to ask: How did Germany, one of the most scientifically and industrially advanced countries of Europe, perpetrate the Holocaust long after the dawn of Enlightenment? Where were the highly educated citizens of Germany? Were the Brown Shirts and the highly effective propaganda machine used by Hitler to control and manipulate his people through fear, intimidation and misinformation? What lessons, if any, does this teach us?
Eva Schloss, stepsister of Anne Frank, was fifteen years old when the Nazis took her and her mother to Auschwitz. In an interview she gave for the documentary, The Genocide Factor: The Human Tragedy, she talked about the constant humiliation, hunger, fear, sickness and abuse they experienced. On a daily basis, they never knew whether the shower they were led to was going to spew water or a deadly gas. And, all that time, one nagging question haunted her: “Why has the rest of the world abandoned us?”
As a child growing up in Jerusalem I heard many accounts of brutality experienced by Armenian survivors at the hands of the Ottoman Turks at the beginning of the last century. To this day I recall with horror the tale of one whose seven children were beheaded in front of her. Tales of priests being crucified, of inhabitants of villages herded into their churches and burnt alive and of pregnant women with their stomachs gouged with bayonets were being reported in the news media around the globe.
One recurring question asked by survivors of the Armenian Genocide — a precursor to the Holocaust in which over a million people perished — was, “Where was the rest of the world to help us out?”
Millions upon millions perished under Stalin in the Soviet Union, under Pol Pot in Cambodia and under Mao Zedong in China. To this day, the Japanese government denies the atrocities and cruelties inflicted upon innocent Chinese during the Rape of Nanking. Man’s inhumanity to man continues to this day in Indonesia, East Timor, Africa and the Middle East where subjugation, dehumanization and killing have become a way of life. Fortunately, our government, although late in responding, intervened in the Balkans to stop “ethnic cleansing” and provided guidance in resolving the conflict in Ireland. However, we ignored the genocide in Rwanda and continue to ignore the genocide in the Sudan.
Of all of humanity’s evils, by far the most egregious is genocide — the mindless destruction of entire groups of innocent men, women and children simply because of race, ethnicity or because they stood in the path of a more dominant force.
Renowned jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide.” He worked feverishly to get the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” on the books of the United Nations.
Yehuda Bauer, Professor at the Hebrew University, added three commandments to the Biblical ten. He said, “Thou shalt not be a victim; Thou shalt not be a perpetrator; And above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” I would add a fourteenth commandment: “Thou shall be a peacemaker.”
There appears to be some hope. This week, after all these years of silence, the United Nations General Assembly declared “never again” on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Let the tears and cries of millions that emanated from the Holocaust and all genocides guide us toward human rights and peaceful coexistence. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Peace is the way.”
Manoug Manougian is a USF mathematics professor and the co-author and associate producer of The Genocide Factor: The Human Tragedy.