Genocide and Others

After visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem I must have been visibly upset.  An Israeli woman who was part of our tour group, knowing my Jewish heritage, approached me to ask who in my family was killed.  When I answered that my family had immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century and that I didn’t know the names of any of my family members that had been killed, she was confused.  Why would I have such an intense reaction if my family was not directly persecuted?

My relatives were persecuted.  We are pretty sure all my family members who did not immigrate to the United States when my great-grandparents did, before the war, perished during the war. As far as I am concerned, the fact of their murder is not relevant to my reaction at the museum. I cried for every unjust act committed during the Holocaust. I do not want to malign the strong and just reaction that anyone would have when their loved ones and their people are persecuted and killed.  But do I have to be related to care so much?   

Then I spent last August in Cambodia, which is healing from its own genocide.  The wounds are still fresh.  Millions of people perished, yet before I began preparing for this trip the genocide was barely in my consciousness.  I knew that it had happened, but not much more.  I now know much more.  And I cried for every unjust act committed in Cambodia. 

But why didn’t I know about it?  

I didn’t know about the Rwandan genocide until an Academy Award winning film about it was released.  I should have known.  I am interested in the world.  I am a student of war and peace and violence and nonviolence.  But, I did not learn about these genocides in school.  I never saw a documentary or read a book about them.  They were not discussed at home.  I think I didn’t know about these atrocities because the victims were too dissimilar from myself.  Just as the Israeli woman assumed my tears were for relatives, Cambodians and Rwandans were too distant from myself–nationally, politically, racially, religiously–to get true attention.  

There was an assumption in Israel that my tears were for the my relatives who died in the Holocaust.  The assumption included a larger assumption that I am more likely to shed tears for the victims of the Holocaust because I am of Jewish decent than someone who is not Jewish.  The flip side of this is that I am not of Cambodian or Buddhist decent, so I would naturally care less for their genocide as for the genocide of the Jews.  Even if that were true, rarely does someone suggest I should shed equal tears for the victims in Rwanda who were not targeted because of their religion but where in fact largely Catholic. I am also of Catholic decent. They are as much my people as the Jews who died in the Holocaust are.

At S-21, the school-turned-torture-prison in Phnom Penh that is now a museum, there are rooms full of pictures of the victims of the place.  There are hundreds of photos, row after row, room after room.  Some of the faces show defeat, some show defiance, some show a haunting bit of a smile.  One room is dedicated to the, mostly Western, foreigners that were also taken to S-21.  Their photos are displayed along with their histories and the accusations that brought them to the prison.  Why were all the foreigners’ stories shared while the nationals’ stories remained largely untold?  Because the foreigners’ stories provide a point of connection for the museum visitors who are mostly Western tourists. 

For me the most important section of the Holocaust museum was a room dedicated to heroes of the Holocaust who attempted and often succeeded at helping the persecuted groups of the Holocaust.  We have all heard tales of people who, at great personal risk, hide victims of persecution in their homes, sign illegal visas so persecuted people can escape the country, or smuggle supplies into ghettos to relieve the suffering.  We hear these stories and we love these stories.  I believe that as least part of the appeal is that these are people helping each other not because they are related, not because they share a religious or philosophical position, and not because they have anything to gain, but because it is the right thing to do.  Period.  

Image courtesy of the author.

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8 thoughts on “Genocide and Others

    1. At this year’s Walk to End Genocide Event in Fountain, in Orange County, California, on April 6, 2014, organized by Jewish World Watch, I made the attendees aware of the genocide, burning of religious books, humiliation, kidnapping of young girls and marrying them to Muslims or selling them as slaves, persecution, forced conversion of the Zoroastrian (Zarathushti) population of the Persian Empire, especially Iran, after the Arab Muslim invasion of Iran around 630 A.D., after the death of Prophet Mohammed, which continued for several centuries.

      At the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council booth, I distributed copies of an article on this historical event written by an Iranian Zoroastrian (now settled in USA), Dr. Daryoush Jahanian M.D. of Kansas City, Kansas, displayed placards titled “GENOCIDE OF ZOROASTRIANS AFTER THE ARAB MUSLIM INVASION OF IRAN” at the booth, and mentioned this on the microphone. This is not to create hatred, as the current generation is not to be blamed for the misdeeds of the past generations, but merely to record history, which would otherwise be forgotten.

      1. Maneck, I think what you have described is a good inclusion to a walk to end genocide event. Remembering all genocides is important. How well were the inclusion of these events taken by the participants? I only ask because reading your comment reminded me of an essay by Abraham Heschel (unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the essay right now) when he spoke at a Holocaust remembrance event and was basically run off the stage. He was saying that the reason to remember the Holocaust is to stop genocide from ever happening again to anyone. And he cited contemporary conflicts that they should address. I agree with him completely, yet his remarks were not well received.

        1. Thank you for your feedback, Wendy.
          My short comment on the microphone about the importance of such events to make people aware of horrible things suffered by different ethnic and religious groups as well as distribution of copies of the article by Dr. Jahanian, was well received. Several people appreciated what they heard from me.

          I have followed that by contacting the Museum of Tolerance and the Holocaust Museum directors, asking them if I could display information about the Zoroastrian genocide at their facilities, and I was asked to send them via email a copy of the article, which I did. I will follow up to see if they have reviewed the article.

          1. I am glad to hear it was well received at the walk. And I would be interested to hear what feedback you get from the Museum of Tolerance and the Holocaust Museum.

  1. You raised an important question: why don’t we hear about these genocides that happen every day around the globe? Why don’t they teach at schools about other people’s suffering?

    Why doesn’t the average person know or care about the genocide in Burma for example? And if someone care, what can he/she do about it?

    I know about Burma, about Syria, about the kidnapped Nigerian girls, and many other things happening right now. But what can I do? I do care and I pray for the people. I do write about these stories whenever I get a chance, but what is the impact of this reporting?

    The Holocaust is one of the world’s most atrocious injustices that happened at a time when I wasn’t even alive. I don’t know why people watched in silence and didn’t do anything about it. I mean, people who live far away from the scene. Because as you said, there were many people who helped many victims. Many Muslims extended a hand to the Jews and hid them in their homes and lands. But what about the powerful governments? Why wasn’t that genocide stopped?

    The purpose of my comment is to try to brainstorm for a way to make average people who care able to do something about it.

    Any thoughts?

  2. When I was living in Cambodia, I read “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” How, I have wondered, did I not learn about the Armenian genocide? Or what was happening in Cambodia? Or even really grasping what happened in Bosnia?

    The Holocaust has been the terrifying example of where prejudice and “Othering” can lead us. I was heart broken when I walked through Yad Vashem, but I like you wept for the Jews who died and also for all the forgotten victims of genocidal acts.

    So, what are we doing here at State of Formation? Isn’t part of our underlying interest in Interreligious dialogue and conversation motivated by a desire to end prejudice, bigotry, scapegoating and this terrifying extremism based on “Othering” groups of people? How do we carry this conversation forward? How do we engage in this task while remembering all those who are victims, but not being frozen in time?

    I like Dina invite the opportunity to brainstorm, and to think critically about how Othering can be dismantled and how we (yes, us!) can be the instruments of that dismantling.

  3. Laura and Dina, I would love a brainstorming session around this topic. Unfortunately, I feel at a loss when it if comes to situations that are already is full swing. How do we erase hatred that already had deep roots and illogical or forgotten foundations? These situations must be addressed, but how?

    I do strongly believe that the only real way to stop genocide and large-scale violence is to start earlier, much much earlier. I truly believe that hatred, violence, and genocide would be forestalled by working on basic necessitates. Working on clean water, adequate food, comfortable shelters, basic safety would remove the instinct to blame others or kill them to take their resources. I don’t believe this is the complete solution but I think it goes a long way. And also, working on these problems provide opportunities to work together. I believe local service projects that help the community at the same time as they bring disparate parts of the community together are the key.

    Also, I think what we are doing, having conversations among widely different people, is important. But, by and large, the people who participate in these kinds of conversations are already open to embracing others as they are. The people who really need to be in these conversations, the people who are avoid people who are difference from themselves, who fear them or hate them, rarely join even if they are invited. So how do we get them to participate?

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