‘I ask nothing of the Jews except that they should disappear,” said Hans Frank, the 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 at UN headquarters in New York as well as in other cities around the world.
With events at Liliesleaf and Constitution Hill in Joburg held on Sunday, South Africa joined a growing list of countries where this commemoration takes place.
The Nazi Holocaust was a crime against humanity of unspeakable proportions.
The historical reasons that 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 most others to turn a blind eye to it all are bewildering – yet so horrendously banal.
According to reliable historical sources, this was the price in human life:
l Jews: 5.9 million
l Soviet POWs: 2-3 million
l Ethnic Poles: 1.8-2 million
l Romani: 220 000-1 500 000
l Disabled: 200 000-250 000
l Freemasons: 80 000
l Slovenes: 20 000-25 000
l Homosexuals: 5 000-15 000
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 people). 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.
This is the hatred that I hear most frequently and this is why I am singling it out.
From “Jew-boy” to “blood-suckers”, “Christ-killers”, “slayers of prophets”, and “offspring of pigs and monkeys”… the litany of insults continues.
Very few of us want to be conversation stoppers. So we sit 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 a 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”).
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 best-seller. Muslims as a matter of faith deny the idea of “original sin” and that Christ had to die so humankind could be saved as 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 over 14 centuries ago who betrayed the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
I have an abiding commitment to the struggle for justice for the Palestinians.
This is not the place to be speaking about another place in the world, where most Jews may be complicit in other crimes against another people.
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 the 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 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 we forget. 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.