[ As published in the Columbia Spectator]
The Burning Flames
At the age of 71, Chaya Bornstein is a psychologically broken woman who, still mentally able enough to demand her independence, travels the Tel Aviv boardwalk in her old cocktail singer’s dress. She picks legal battles with the authorities as revenge on the world for what, she cries, it did to her half a century ago.
Chaya–my grandmother–was around the age of nine or 10 (she lost track of her age in the heat of the furnaces) when her small body found a way through the barbed wire window fencing of the packed cattle car filled with her family, which was on its way to the ovens of an extermination camp. She fell to the ground from the speeding train, mangled her ankle, and ran through a hail of bullets into the cold woods.
When my grandfather found her in hiding two years later, she was under the care of a religious Catholic who abused her to the point where she had forgotten her identity and people. My grandfather, an escapee from Treblinka and a freedom fighter with a story no less horrifying, still calls out the name of his baby sister at night from a kibbutz he built in Israel with his bare hands.
These snapshots are of but two of the lives broken in that terrible chapter of human history that will be remembered around the world on Tuesday, April 29–Holocaust Remembrance Day. An average copy of The New York Times contains 250,000 words; the names of the victims of the Holocaust would fill 48 full copies of the Times, and are only footnotes to the memoirs, biographies, hopes, and dreams of the victims, which would fill all of the libraries of Columbia University.
This was not the first instance of genocide. Many say that Hitler took heart from the fact that the world did nothing to stop the Young Turks in Armenia where, as R.J. Rummel of the Hellenic Resources Network reports, various Turkish regimes killed from 3,500,000 to over 4,300,000 Armenians, Greeks, Nestorians, and others between 1900 and 1923. Another 34 issues of the Times, full of names.
One would think the genocides of the Armenians and the Jews would be enough for the world to realize that something was wrong. One would think the United Nations, formed from the ashes of the Second World War, would put an end to this horror. Yet the flames burn on, and with half a century under its belt, the U.N. has not averted a single genocide.
The carnage continues in the Sudan, where it is estimated that two million, principally from the Dinka and Nuer peoples, have been murdered, and four million have been displaced by the Sudanese government. Sudan is one of the only countries in the world where there is still slavery, as the Muslim northerners draw on some antiquated laws of Islam in order to justify slavery and hold the black tribes of the Nuba mountains in bondage. In Rwanda, over 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by the Hutu government over a mere 100 days. Many women were raped and infected with HIV, leaving them to a slow and deliberate death. Genocides abound in Chechnya and Algeria, among other places, and certainly in Bosnia where, if the United States had not ignored the Security Council, countless more souls would have been lost.
The terrors and horrors of genocide are on a scale so terrible that comparing them to any other misfortune, no matter how harsh that misfortune may seem to the victims, is to disrespect the memories of all the people who were the targets of genocide.
So it is despicable when pro-Palestinian protesters rally carrying signs depicting Zionism as Nazism. Or when the soon-to-be director of the Middle East Institute, Rashid Khalidi, writes in an article published by the American Committee on Jerusalem that the truly serious hardships of the Palestinian refugees were “on par” with the the atrocities experienced by the Jews during the Holocaust–referring to the expulsion and emigration of 750,000 Arab Palestinians from British-controlled Palestine before and during the 1948 war, during which over 800,000 Jews, members of the oldest ethnicity in the Middle East, were forcibly expelled from Arab lands. It is also despicable when Assistant Professor Joseph Massad writes in Al-Ahram that Zionists helped the Nazis due to the Zionists’ alleged interest in “evicting [the Jews] from Europe and transporting them to an Asian land to which they had never been.” These statements trivialize the crime of genocide.
In remembering the horrors of the past century, we should strive to prevent such crimes in the future–just as we should work to prevent all injustices, no matter how many people have been killed–but also never forget the singular evil of genocide or trivialize it through comparison. Some see the liberation of the Iraqi people from Saddam, who himself carried out genocidal acts against the Kurds and the Shiia, as a step in the right direction. Others would rather do nothing, assuming, perhaps, that those targeted by genocidal regimes would find a way out on their own. Some of us have never forgotten. Some of us might never learn.