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The dangers of ignoring the Holocaust lessons

Opinion

‘I ask nothing of the Jews except that they should disappear,” said Hans Frank, the then Nazi governor of Poland in 1941.

In 2005, the UN General Assembly declared January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day in memory of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. This was exactly 60 years after the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops. This day has since been observed by the UN Headquarters in New York, as well as in other cities around the world.

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Visitors view the display as they walk in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The International Holocaust Remembrance Day was marked on Sunday, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.People walk in the the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010 to attend solemn ceremonies  marking 65 years since the camp was liberated by the Red Army, in Oswiecim, southern Poland. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

With an event hosted this past weekend by BDS South Africa at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa joins a growing list of countries where this commemoration takes place.

The Nazi Holocaust was a crime against humanity of unspeakable proportions. The historical reasons which led to this are complex. The ethical questions posed about the seemingly limitless capacity of human beings to inflict such cruelty on others and the equally astounding ability of the overwhelming majority of others to turn a blind eye to it all are bewildering – yet so horrendously banal.

According to most reliable historical sources, this is what the price in human life cost us:

* Jews: 5.9 million

* Soviet PoWs: 2 to 3 million

* Ethnic Poles: 1.8 to 2 million

* Romani: 220 000 to 1 500 000

* Disabled: 200 000 to 250 000

* Freemasons: 80 000

* Slovenes: 20 000 to 25 000

* Homosexuals: 5 000 to 15 000

At the heart of the Nazi Holocaust was the idea of the inherent biological superiority of a particular group – and not only the inferiority, but the non-humanness of everyone else.

As is evident from the figures above, the Nazi Holocaust was targeted at every group that was perceived – and systematically constructed – by the Nazis as threatening (Jews, Romani, Slovenes etc) or weakening the Aryan race (homosexuals and disabled persons).

In the limited space available to me, I want to single out one particular aspect of this crime against humanity – anti-Jewishness – one of the longest recorded hatreds known to humankind.

Frank’s blood-curdling “I ask nothing of the Jews except that they should disappear” of 1941 is frighteningly alive and well.

“The only good Jew is a dead Jew” is not an uncommon expression in the community that I come from; and I am ashamed – bloody ashamed. This is a hatred I hear often and this is one of the reasons why I am singling it out.

From “Jew-boy” to “blood-suckers”, “Christ-killers”, “slayers of prophets”, and “off-spring of pigs and monkeys” … the litany of insults carries on. Very few of us want to be conversation stoppers or party poopers. So we sit it out, making lame attempts to change the topic of conversation – pretty much in the same way that the vast majority of Germans and Europeans and the entire “civilised” world sat it out as an attempt was made to wipe an entire religious community off the face of the earth.

Many of us feel compelled to connect the Nazi Holocaust to a historical moment (“It started in 1933 and ended in 1945”) and ascribe it to particular aberration (“Hitler was a madman” ). This helps to disconnect ourselves from it (“We are not Germans”, “We are German, but we never supported the Nazis”, “We are of a different generation”, “We are not Christian Europe”, etc).

For Jews, the Nazi Holocaust was only the culmination of many centuries of demonisation actively sustained by monarchs and the church and underpinned by religious texts and sacred myths.

It was a dramatic culmination of a thread of venom – and it is a thread that remains alive.

In this thread there are few innocent bystanders. In Japan, where until the past two decades there has been no significant interaction with Jews, there is a huge undercurrent of anti-Jewishness and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – a forgery of a tale of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world – continues to be a bestseller.

Muslims, as a matter of faith, deny the idea of original sin and that Christ had to die in order that humankind may be saved because guilt or innocence cannot run in the blood of people.

When it comes to Jews, we happily – and sickeningly – ascribe to a contemporary religious group from India to Israel to Peru culpability for the putative acts of a particular group of people more than 1 400 years ago who betrayed the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

I have an abiding commitment to the struggle for justice for the Palestinians, yet this is not the place to be speaking about another part of the world, Palestine, where today many Jews may be complicit in other crimes against another people, the Palestinians.

More than 40 years ago, I, then a black teenager, in an era when it was an insult to be described as coloured, walked around at Black Consciousness rallies, singing “Arson, rape and bloody murder, when the Black Revolution comes”!

Notwithstanding the moral justness of our struggle against apartheid and undeniable reality of our oppression in this reflection of our own racism and misogyny, we were diminished as human beings when we spat this poison at others.

Yet, for the sake of my own humanness, I am deeply grateful that another tendency – non-racialism – overtook the politics of our people’s liberation struggle; that another slogan holds a much deeper and abiding resonance for me; “An injury to one is an injury to all”.

“Never again” is not a promise that we make once and get over with it – it is a lifetime of resistance to all forms of discrimination – at every forum – from campus, to mosque, to synagogue, to the changing room in the gym and to the soccer stadiums.

If the Jews disappear, then so will all of us; an injury to one is an injury to all.

* Professor Esack is a Board member of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against Israel in South Africa (BDS South Africa, www.bdssouthafrica.com). This is an excerpt of an address that was delivered at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event held at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg on Sunday.

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