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Holocaust - a different perspective

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Letter from an Economist – 2nd February 2004.

This week I was invited to speak to some young people on the topic of conflict. The invitation came from someone wanting me to add a contemporary dimension to their thoughts during Holocaust Week.

As a small child my father suggested to me that I watch a series called ‘Valiant Years’. It was an unashamed tribute to the career of Winston Churchill during the Second World War but during one of the later episodes the BBC showed footage of the Warsaw Ghetto and its destruction and the freeing of those who had survived the horrors of some of the concentration camps. The look on the emaciated faces of those who had survived as they stared through the barbed wire fencing introduced me to the potential for hideous cruelty that can appear within our species.

By using this recollection from my own experiences it made me aware that for those listening to my talk the attempted extermination of one race, or ethnic group by another was really little more than an entry in their history books. Events of sixty years ago are to this generation what the pictures of the Great War were to me. I looked at them with the detachment of someone needing to learn the facts and produce the subsequent homework. Seldom did I appreciate the sheer waste of human life that the futility of the events I recorded held within them.

With this fact firmly established in my mind I returned to the task of relating disparate events to the theme of my talk. I knew that for me the Holocaust came to mean much more to me when, in 1989, I attended the last meeting of those who had been sent out of Germany by their parents in 1939. Thousands of children had left with little more than a suitcase and had travelled to the UK and USA. I was one of just a handful of Gentiles in The Royal Festival Hall on a Sunday morning in July. Individuals recalled their experiences and as these terrible stories were related to us so members of the audience nodded, or softly mentioned that a particular story was similar to theirs. As the morning evolved so my emotions were stretched almost to breaking point and I came to realise one tragic fact. It was that all of these elderly people never saw any of their relatives alive again. We all know their fate. They wrestled with their age, the need to try and understand why such events had taken place and just what epitaph they would leave behind them.

My audience sat attentively as I developed the main theme of my talk, namely that such events did not end with the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Amongst my friends I am fortunate to include people who have worked for Medicine Sans Frontier and other agencies in such trouble spots as the former Yugoslavia, Sudan and East Timor. Others I know have served as EU Directors of Humanitarian Aid in some of the most notorious wars to have inflicted Africa and Southern America. Each of them can recall countless incidents that though not on the same scale as the Holocaust remind us of what we are capable of when our thin veneer of civilisation is removed. Though this introduction of more contemporary names and places possibly helped those gathered in front of me to relate to the talk I was giving I still felt that to assist young minds to focus on just what all of us could be capable of doing I needed to speak from personal experience.

So, I moved onto my own first hand experience of what can take place when one group of individuals loses respect for the sanctity of human life. In the summer of 2001 I visited Freetown, in Sierra Leone, West Africa. On a warm but humid day I stood in front of what had once been my home. It was a burnt-out ruin, with slogans painted on most of the sections of wall that remained. This rather unpretentious building had been selected because it was associated with Europeans and they in turn had supported the government. Saddened by the waste of somewhere to which I could actually relate I wandered off into the crowded streets of the ‘East End’ of this bustling city. Once I had been one of just three European who lived in that part of town. I had walked around the area in complete safety and considered many of the local residents to be friends. As I walked along the crowded streets I noted that a considerable number of houses had been burned down but not in any apparent order. Why was this I asked? Oh the rebels knew who they were looking for and only ‘torched’ their homes came the reply of the elderly man I had asked. By ‘torching’ the locals meant that the houses were set alight with the occupants still inside. An examination of several houses showed me the obvious signs that human beings had indeed met a terrible death within those walls. The majority of those who tried to escape such a hideous inferno were shot as they emerged into the daylight. Others were merely captured and then had their limbs hacked off. This showed to all who witnessed both the event and its aftermath the power of their attackers and just what might happen if they ever returned. The next day I visited a home for children who had suffered this terrible fate and saw some as young as three with only one arm or leg.

By now my audience was sitting rather quietly and I moved onto what I felt their generation needed to be aware of. In a very minor role I had been involved in what is called ‘conflict resolution’. I put to them three main characteristics that had become apparent to me as I reflected on my experiences. These were:

* that the presence of nationalism is seldom a healthy factor within a country. It seems to lead to part of the population believing that they are truly superior to others and that can enforce their ways on those that they come into contact with

* that the human failing of needing someone to blame for whatever problems they and their community were suffering tended to lead to the emergence of groups being treated as the single cause of such difficulties

* that intolerance of the beliefs and cultural characteristics of others often leads to increased tension between groups and can have tragic consequences

I noted to my audience that those I have met who have committed such atrocities are ordinary people, just like you and me and that they never expected to carry out such actions. Naturally, they blamed others for the causes of their actions. They also hid behind the excuses of ‘acting under orders, or not actually being the person who directly carried out the acts’.

I concluded by suggesting that all of us cannot ignore the fact that apathy was also a primary cause of actions that left us all feeling ashamed of what our fellow human beings have done. Those who eventually do carry out barbarous acts do send out clear messages before they actually commit the actions that horrify us all. It is our failure to note these and respond to them that contribute to the carnage that so often occupies our television screens and newspapers.

Alas, as we remember the terrible events of sixty years ago we also have to be aware that in the years that have elapsed since they were committed similar atrocities have arisen.

It rests with those of the age I was addressing to be aware of our past mistakes and to resolve to try and find ways of ensuring that such events do not arise again.

I am a realist and accept that one talk to a group of young people will not eradicate extreme violence but at least they are now aware that such atrocities do occur in their times and not just in history books.

John Birchall



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Thank you for such a poignant and eloquent posting, John. I too have tried to impress upon my students the vital point that whilst the Holocaust may now be regarded as another 'event' in history, the messages that need to be learned are as valid as ever. I recently gave an assembly to most of the students in my school about the genocide in Rwanda, using images by an artist, Helen Wilson who had visited the country after seeing the news reports of the massacres. I also quoted two extracts from my mother's play 'I have before me a remarkable document given to me by a young lady from Rwanda'. The first passage was a description of what happened to one family who were attacked, leaving only (by chance) two survivors. The second passage described the reconciliation of the two survivors several years after the event. I felt that it was important to show both the horrors of the genocide and also the way in which survivors can begin to rebuild their lives. Whilst the assembly was received respectfully by the students it is always difficult to know how much of an impact these kind of events have. After all within days I have had a number of students in my form and some of my classes involved in rather serious fights. The discussions that we have had in our pshe lessons about relationships also leaves me fairly disturbed about the level of anger, frustration and in some cases what can only be described as 'neanderthal' attitudes that are held by my male students.

I don't know if any one saw the documentary on BBC 4 on Wednesday evening called 'Black Boy' about an 18 year old from Birmingham who had just come out of prison and was returning to his 'gang'. It was very depressing as ultimately the only way this boy/man could deal with any situation was through the use of violence including hitting his girlfriend and narrowly escaping death on a number of occassions. I realise that this is not directly related tothe teaching of the Holocaust, but I feel that some thing does need to be done to tackle the problem of (male) violence. I believe that conflict resolution should be a massive part of school life and maybe History teachers (and others) can play a role in this by looking at the past and how these issues have been handled (well or badly) and what they can teach us today.

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The Swedish government started in 1997 with information campaign and later with conferences on Holocaust in Stockholm. This year there have been a fourth and a last of them this January week. 27th of January was proclaimed as “Holocaust’s Day of Remembrance”.

Schools are advised to commemorate this day in the teaching. Each school did receive a big box filled with video cassettes with movies like “Swing Kids”, Schindler´s list” etc., books written by survivors from concentration camps and others materials on Holocaust.

There is a government agency called “ Forum för Levande historia”( “The Forum for Living History”) which is acting towards the schools and the public in order to spread information on Holocaust. The address is: http://www.levandehistoria.org

The English information page is at: http://www.levandehistoria.se/default.php?cat=27&s=flh

One of the privious task of this agency was to publish a book “Om detta må ni berätta”. In English “Tell ye your children”. This book was and is delivered at least in Sweden to every one without any cost.

Edited by Andy Walker
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Here are the extracts from my mother's play 'I have before me a remarkable document given to me by a young lady from rwanda'. This is a fictionalised version of true events and it is quite harrowing in places:

He was the one who answered the door, when they came. they came to our house in the morning with our neighbour. This man, I used to play with his children. You can't imagine how much I loved his children. You know in Africa, people, they love each other... They lived just opposite, we used to go to each other's houses. He was just like a family friend, he was close to us. We used to invite him when we had a party, we did lots of things together. But it was he who brought the killers to our house. He didn't do the killing himself, he bought these and said, 'I think you should kill them'. He gave the order to the interahamwe. He wasn't a soldier, he was a civilian like my father, he was a businessman, he sold furniture. Then they told us, 'Don't move, don't do anything, stay there' My mother said to us 'Now, please pray, pray, pray'. They asked my father how he wanted to ie. they told him if he wanted to die with a bullet he would have to pay money, other wise they would cut off his hands and then his arms and then his legs, everything slowly. My father begged them to take everything and leave. He gave them money but they aked for more. they asked for the rest of his money. My father went to his safe. As he was showing them the safe,one of them cut off his leg from behind. My father fell. While he was screaming they cut his throat and then sprayed him with bullets. My little sister Dominique was near my father and one of the bullets killed her. Then they cut my brother above the ear with a blade. He fell down. Then they said it will take too long 'look, look this place is crawling with these Tutsi cockroaches'. They used their pistols and they shot all my uncles and my other brothers. Then they said to me and my cousin and my older sister and my mother, 'You come with us in our car'. And then they took us where there is other women. (pause) We survived too much, me and my mother and sisters and finally they said, 'Now you must go with us to another place'. We were about forty women and they shot us one by one by the side of a big pit. Only me, I was alive, the bullet didn't hit me. I was just lying there with the dead bodies around me, the blood running into my nose and my ears. I was the only one alive. It was then that I made my contract with God. I tried to climb out but I kept falling down. I tried for hours. Then I did it. It was night time now and I escaped into the forest. I will never forget this. Never. This is what happened to me and my family.

Dear Simon, the smell of Africa is all around me now, as I write you this letter. I was very fearful on the airplane, so nervous about coming back to Africa. My brother I find him on the second day. I can't describe how it was, like a miracle, we was so joyful. He is very big now, tall like our father. I have a bad shock when I see him because he has a very terrible scar on his face where they cut him with machete. His life has been very bad, even here in Uganda. He has been living on the streets. But now he is with good people, Jehovah's Witness. He works for them and they are helping him. We spend all the itme together. We cry a lot but we also laugh sometimes. I want that he goes to university. i will send him money if i can help him. Maybe he will go to Canada - if they take him. So then maybe I will try to go there. The most important thing for me is that he is alive. Now I want to finish my book very soon, so when I come back to London I will try to finish it with your help. thanks you for everything you do for me Simon, and thank you a million times for sending me to Uganda. You are like a father to me, really. Kisses from Juliette.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Cruelty and History: Relevance or Exaggeration

The reality of barbaric cruelty in modern history is so often downplayed by the politcal personalities who were in some way instrumental in supporting violence. At the same time to reference leading supporters of violence in western politics is to be denounced as an extremist. Name calling being a common tactic to divert attention from a nasty social reality.

Briefly my background in humanitarian aid has been in war zones in five or six locations from Bafria in 1969 to Bosnia in 1995. Let me take up the many comments that seemed like folk stories while I was in Bosnia. During 12 months in 2 contracts in village after remote village I would be told of the horrors of rape, torture, disfigurement from land-mines, homelessness of the refugees and the displaced, these were the everyday atrocities of violence on defencless women children and the elderly.

There were the other horror, or folk stories. Muslim and Serb people told of activies by Croatian priests in World War II, there were allegedly families massacred because priests offered Nazi troops details of where they could find hidden Serb or Muslim families or individuals who, when found, would be summarily murdered.

The Bosnian murders were, in part, revenge attacks on those individuals who were thought, or known to have been responsible for killings sixty years ago.

I could not argue against these allegations of revenge, or past blame, in 1995 I didn't know, I was concerned with getting emergency support to the suffering without the so-called moral high ground of the conflict, that was a concern for the future, but I never forgot that stories told with emotion and in private.

Forward to 2002 when I came across the book by: John Cornwall (1999) "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII" Penguin Books, London. The Hollocaust is mentioned as an event deliberatly avoided by Vatican leaders. Silence and inaction was again the high level strategy employed in the Vatican when reports of atrocities by priests complicit in the slaughter of Yugoslavs at the hands of the Nazi troops.

The subject of history in the context of fact does not find space in the curricula of young people. Nor are the activities of faceless foriegners reported who represent the shadowy influence of major impereal power seekers who continue to apply their destructive influence in country after country.


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I think it is important to give human sufferings and human atrocities a "face". I know that while preparing for the Nurember trials some suggested to choose some examples and put the perpetrators on trial based on the fate of some families (Albert Speer always said that he pleaded guilty after he had learned about the fate of one Jewish family and had seen their photos) and not on the death and fate of 6 million.

Once students realize that those who died and those who committed the crimes are human beings as you and me/ or they =the students, they can identify with the victims and they start losing the confidence that they never will act like those who killed and kill obviously without any feelings of pity, remorse and guilt.

Besides the historic and international perspective Dan mentioned a phenomenon we have to face and deal with: the growing violence and aggression among young people, boys and young men and in growing numbers girls.

They might leave our history and politics lesson deeply moved by what they have seen and determined that they will never turn into killing machines only to start a fight in the schoolyard over a triviality.

How can we "bridge" this gap; how can we make them see that peace, tolerance begins in our/their ordinary lives, that all the genocides mentioned in the various postings and the everyday violence and aggression especially against kids and people who are different - whatever the differnece is - have similar roots: finding a scapegoat; being afraid of the unknown and foreigners and their cultures, minority complex - to name only a few. The economic, political and social situation in Germany with a high unemployment rate and more cuts into our welfare system to come exacerbate these emotions and xenophobia seems to be am easy outlet for frustration and anger.

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