Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values

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Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values

by Claudia Moscovici 

In a recent article published in The Guardian on August 7, 2014, Jon Henley begins with an ominous headline: “Anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis’”. He cites several sources for this alarming conclusion, including Crif, France’s collective Jewish organizations, which reported that in the last month seven synagogues were attacked, a kosher supermarket looted and crowds gathered to chant with banners “Death to Jews” and “Slit Jews’ throats’”. In Germany, Henley pursues, people threw Molotov cocktails into the Bergische synagogue in Wuppertal, the same building that a mob led by the SS attacked during Kristallnacht. Henley goes on to cite that a Berlin imam called on Allah to destroy the Zionist Jews… Count them and kill them, to the very last one”.

These recurring incidents are reminiscent of Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”), angry crowds, led by SA paramilitary forces, attacked Jews in Germany and Austria on November 9-10 of 1938, destroying and looting Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues. This anti-Semitic rampage ushered Hitler’s even more drastic economic and racial persecution of the Jews, paving the way for the Final Solution.

Such violent incidents led Dieter Graumann, the President of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, to state “These are the worst times since the Nazi era”. In France, Roger Cukierman, the President of France’s Crif, similarly expressed his concern that the severe anti-Semitic backlash goes far beyond opposition to Israel’s current policies in Gaza or even against the state of Israel: “They are not screaming ‘Death to the Israelis’ on the streets of Paris. They are screaming’ Death to the Jews’”. As Henley explains, it’s not only the Jewish communities in Europe that have serious reasons for concern. These hateful anti-Semitic outcries signal a danger for human rights and democratic institutions in general. Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, rightly declared the current wave of anti-Semitism as “an attack on freedom and tolerance and our democratic state”.

As much as these hate-filled actions and demonstrations against European Jews are cause for concern, it’s worth noting that the situation can’t really be compared—at least not yet—to Europe during the reign of Fascism. For one, it’s somewhat reassuring that European heads of government don’t endorse these hate messages and assaults. Second, I’d be interested in finding out more about who is expressing such anti-Semitic violence: if it’s mostly Islamic extremists, sadly, that’s to be expected. It’s not only Jews, but also the United States and Western civilization in general, that are often the target of their rage.

We face a grave danger, I believe, when such attitudes gain ground with the mainstream public: that is to say, when the general population of European countries becomes used to the anti-Semitic rage and remains indifferent to it or, even worse, begins to support it. This can easily happen when legitimate humanitarian concern–for the welfare of the Palestinian population in Gaza, for instance—turns into anti-humanitarian hatred against the Jews. I have described briefly the nature of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza in an article about Yariv Horowitz’s film on the subject, Rock the Casbah:

 

http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/impossible-conflict-gaza-strip-rock-casbah-directed-yariv-horowitz

 

I mention this article here because the most recent outburst of anti-Semitism in Europe was fanned by recent Israeli air strikes in Gaza, in July 2014, which killed over 200 Palestinians (according to Palestinian sources). These strikes were launched in retaliation to over one thousand rockets fired against Israel from Gaza (according to Israeli reports). Most of us have opinions, and many of us have strong feelings, about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. It’s perfectly defensible to disagree on this subject or to disapprove, from a humanitarian perspective, of the violations of human rights that occur on both sides. For as long as our standards of value remain humanitarian—to defend the lives and human rights of all people—I think we will be safe, as civilizations, from the ravages of another Holocaust.

The greatest danger, I believe, occurs when the mainstream public loses sight of democratic and humanitarian values and asks for the annihilation of one people (in this case, the Jews) in the name of defending the human rights of another (in this case, the Palestinians). This violation of the humanitarian standards they claim to support risks destroying not only the Jewish population once again, but also the democratic values which underpin Western societies. It happened to the Weimar Republic and other governments during WWII and it could, indeed, happen again.

Those who protest Israel’s policies in Gaza on universal humanitarian grounds while engaging in Anti-Semitic actions or speech are showing that they don’t really care about humanitarian values or causes in general. They defend only the rights of one group and are prepared to trample upon the rights of another. In my opinion, defending human rights in general—and disagreeing openly yet respectfully about how governments, political parties or individuals violate them—is far more important than being either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. If we don’t want to witness another genocide, first and foremost, let us all be pro-human.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Filed under Angela Markel, anti-Semitism, Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values, Claudia Moscovici, conflict in Gaza, Crif, Dieter Graumann, Holocaust Memory, Jon Henley, Kristallnacht, Rock the Casbah, Roger Cukierman, The Guardian, Yariv Horowitz

The gas chambers: Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz

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Philip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1979) is one of the most disturbing and valuable books about the Holocaust I’ve read. This testimony offers in gruesome detail an eyewitness account of what actually happened in the gas chambers: from the moment hundreds of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners arrived hungry, thirsty and terrified on cattle trains; to the separation of families and the selection process; to the brutal beatings and threats by SS officers; to the lies intended to induce prisoners to think that they were about to be “disinfected” in public showers rather than killed; to the sadistic torture of some; to the gassing of the terrified victims and the desecration and pillaging of corpses, and finally to their cremation by fellow prisoners condemned to the Sonderkommandos: prisoners like Filip Muller.

The members of Sonderkommando, composed almost entirely of Jewish inmates, were forced under threat of death to do the most disturbing work for the SS: dispose of the countless corpses of the victims killed in the gas chambers. They did not themselves commit the murders. That task was left to the SS soldiers, who often did their job zealously. Mass murder was daily business at Auschwitz, but it was also “top secret”.

Although information had leaked about the mass gassing of prisoners, the Nazis tried to cover up their massacres. They kept the members of the Sonderkommando isolated from other prisoners, to reduce the chances of reports about the mass gassing of prisoners with Zyklon B reaching other Auschwitz inmates and the outside world. Usually, after having removed and incinerated the bodies of the victims, the members of the Sonderkommando were themselves killed in the gas chambers, so that there would be no prisoner eyewitnesses to the Nazi atrocities.

The author, Filip Muller, is one of the rare survivors among those condemned to work in the Sonderkommando. Born in 1922 in a small town (Sered) in Slovakia, Muller was only twenty years old when he was brought to Auschwitz in April 1942. After a short while, as punishment, he was assigned to dispose of the corpses of the victims. Many of them had wasted away to skin and bones in Auschwitz or in Polish ghettos; others had died of typhus and other diseases in the concentration camp; some had been brutally beaten and shot by the SS, others were hung to set an example for other prisoners, but by far most—hundreds of thousands of men, women, children and babies–were collectively massacred in the gas chambers. As Muller recalls, the sadism and brutality of the SS soldiers knew no bounds: “Shouting and wielding their truncheons, like beaters at a hunt, the remaining SS men chased the naked men, women and children into the large room inside the crematorium. All that was left in the yard were the pathetic heaps of clothing which we had to gather together to clear the yard for the second half of the transport” (33).

Although vicious and violent, the SS officers would sometimes pretend courtesy towards incoming Jewish inmates to persuade the victims to cooperate and expedite the extermination process. The Nazis adapted their behavior to the circumstances. In some cases, when the prisoners already knew they were doomed to death—as was the case with many of the groups arriving from nearby ghettos in Poland—the SS soldiers would beat them into submission in order to force them into the gas chambers. At other times, when prisoners arriving from far away locations falsely believed that they would live, the SS would set up an elaborate ruse to cultivate false hopes. They even went so far as to place hooks with numbers inside the gas chambers, to suggest that the prisoners would retrieve their clothes after the “showers” and be sent off elsewhere to work.

This was the case, for instance, with the “Family Camp”, made up of prisoners from Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. They were the only Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who were allowed to wear civilian clothes, whose hair was not shaved off and who, as the name of their group suggests, were not separated from their family members. The Family Camp was subject to less abuse not out of any Nazi kindness, of course, but to provide to the outside world a false model of what life in Auschwitz was like for Jewish inmates. Although Muller and other prisoners from the Sondercommando tried to warn some of the leaders of the Family Camp that they’d be soon exterminated and encouraged them to rebel, by the time the victims believed these dire warnings it was too late. In the end, every last man, woman and child from the group was gassed by the SS, many of them after having been beaten by soldiers or bitten by dogs to the point of disfiguration: “The people,” Muller recounts, “crowded together on one side of the room, were shaking with terror. Almost all of them were now sobbing: their weeping sounded like a heart-breaking dirge. Most of them were badly hurt from truncheon blows as well as from the sharp teeth of the dogs” (109).

Muller heard countless times the heart wrenching attempts of the doomed prisoners to escape, once the SS officers pushed them into the gas chambers, bolted shut the door and dropped in from above the canisters of poison gas: “The prelude to death was repeated with equal brutality and with the same ending. Finally there were about 600 desperate people crammed into the crematorium. A few SS men were leaving the building and the last one locked the entrance door from the outside. Before long the increasing sound of coughing, screaming and shouting for help could be heard from behind the door. I was unable to make out individual words, for the shouts were drowned by knocking and banging against the door, intermingled with sobbing and crying. Only now and then there was a moan, a rattle, or the sound of muffled knocking against the door. But soon even that ceased and in the sudden silence each of us felt the horror of this terrible mass death” (33-34).

The horrific spectacle of death, repeated several times a week, and at times several times a day—particularly during the deportation of almost 440,000 Jews from Hungary in the spring and summer of 1944–did not destroy Muller’s humanity. It only strengthened his resolve to survive the Nazi nightmare in order to provide testimony about this unprecedented genocide, which the Nazis tried to erase from history and which some so-called “revisionist historians” continue to deny today.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, Eyewitness Auschwitz, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers, gas chambers, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nazi regime, Philip Muller, The gas chambers: Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz, the Holocaust, the Sonderkommando

Would you forgive the Nazi perpetrator? The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal

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The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness is a philosophical narrative by Simon Wiesenthal about moral responsibility for crimes against humanity that raises the possibility of forgiveness of genocide. In this parable, the narrator describes his hellish daily existence in the Lemberg concentration camp.  The story reflects, in some respects, Wiesenthal’s own experience in several Nazi concentration camps during WWII: including Janowska, Plaszow and Mauthausen. Although the narrative shies away from graphic descriptions of violence, it alludes to the sadistic mistreatment of Jewish inmates by SS officers as well as to the starvation, disease and constant threat of being shot or selected for the crematorium that were part and parcel of the daily horrors experienced by inmates. The book, originally published by Schocken Books in 1976, has been taught for decades in schools as an introduction to the Holocaust. Written in simple yet elegant prose, The Sunflower has been especially popular because it raises the important questions about moral responsibility for national crimes and explores the victims’ capacity for forgiveness. The latter point was particularly relevant to Wiesenthal, who spent years of his life tracking down Nazi fugitives and bringing them to trial for their crimes against humanity.

In a moment of rare beauty in his somber existence in the concentration camp, the narrator, a Jewish prisoner on his way to forced labor, sees a row of sunflowers planted on Christian soldiers’ graves. In a poetic scene, the narrator describes how he’s initially enthralled by the flowers’ beauty, only to be later struck by its implications: “I stared spellbound. The flower heads seemed to absorb the sun’s rays like mirrors and draw them down into the darkness of the ground as my gaze wandered from the sunflower to the grave… It was gaily colored and butterflies fluttered from flower to flower. … Were they whispering something to each flower to pass on to the soldier below? Yes, this was just what they were doing; the dead were receiving light and messages” (The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal, New York: Schocken Books, 1998, 14). As he overcomes his awe, he realizes that, as a Jewish prisoner, he’ll be deprived of dignity not only in life, but also in death. He’ll be shot and tossed into a mass grave or gassed and incinerated. For him, as for millions of other Jewish prisoners, “No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb” (15).

When the narrator arrives at work, where he’s charged with throwing away medical waste, a nurse signals him to follow her to a hospital bed. There the narrator sees a man enveloped in bandages, pale and rail thin. As this man addresses him with great difficulty, the narrator realizes that the dying man is a young German SS officer: a mortal enemy. Astonishingly enough, the officer begs for his forgiveness for what he’s done to other Jewish people. He doesn’t excuse his behavior, but he describes some of its causes. He tells him about the Nazi indoctrination when he was in Hitler Youth. He speaks of the manuscripts and speeches that depicted Jews as a “subhuman race” and called for their annihilation, which he later encountered in his training as an SS officer. He also speaks of being subjected to tremendous peer pressure from fellow soldiers as well yielding to the pressure of following orders from his superiors.

And yet, now that he’s about to die, he feels a sense of responsibility and guilt for his murderous acts against defenseless civilians. He confesses that he was part of an SS brigade that hunted Jews down, forced dozens of them—defenseless men, women and children–into a house, then tossed hand grenades into the windows to kill all of them. Some people jumped, while on fire, from the broken windows. Still haunted by this vivid memory, the SS soldier can’t expire in peace without some kind of atonement from a Jew: from a member of the group he and other soldiers victimized. The narrator is surprised by the request and paralyzed by indecision. He doesn’t know how to respond.

When he returns to the camp that evening, he tells his friends about this strange encounter. Adam, an architect, finds the SS soldier’s request preposterous—and trivial—given that the Nazis were murdering millions of Jews. One less Nazi, he states cynically. Josek, a deeply religious Jew, maintains that he’d have refused the pardon with a clear conscience. How could his friend have forgiven atrocities of such a magnitude? And who was he to speak for millions of other victims? Both friends remain suspicious: Why would the “Aryan Superman” need the forgiveness of an “inferior” Jew? The narrator, however, sees the dying SS soldier as a fellow human being. “The SS man’s attitude toward me was not that of an arrogant superman. Probably I hadn’t successfully conveyed all my feelings: a subhuman condemned to death at the bedside of an SS man condemned to death…” (67). Of course, their circumstances were far from symmetrical. In fact, they were diametrically opposed. Still unsure of his own ethical stance, the narrator asks each of us, readers, to ask ourselves: If faced with the Nazi soldier’s dying request for forgiveness, “What would I have done?” (98)

If we read the transcripts of the Nazi leaders put on trial, we see that the question of forgiveness doesn’t come up often for the perpetrators: at least not in the public trials. Adolf Eichmann or Rudolf Hoss, for instance, express no regret or compunction for their crimes. They deny all sense of personal responsibility and blame only the Nazi system and their superiors for their murderous deeds. Yet for the victims, the question is extremely relevant because it asks them to consider at least some of the perpetrators as human: as men capable of guilt and regret for their crimes.

Wiesenthal’s simple moral parable shows the Nazis as a diverse group who nevertheless behaved similarly. Not every SS soldier hated Jews. Not every SS soldier was a ruthless sadist. Not every SS soldier gladly followed orders to butcher innocent people. Yet almost every SS soldier chose, like the man in The Sunflower, to follow such orders, to commit such crimes. Almost every SS soldier killed countless innocent Jews. How could this happen? Understanding what forces were at play to make genocide possible doesn’t mean forgiving perpetrators or exonerating them of blame. But without a sociological, and historical, understanding of how tens of thousands of German citizens—some of whom were ordinary men, like the soldier in this story–were capable of such atrocities, we are likely to overlook the vulnerability of our own times.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under ethics, Holocaust Memory, Simon Wiesenthal

Genocide in Rwanda: Me against my brother, by Scott Peterson

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Unfortunately, the question of whether humanity as a whole learned a valuable moral lesson from the Holocaust was dramatically answered in the negative during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Not only did history repeat itself, but so did world indifference to the misfortune of a million victims. In Me against my brother (New York: Routledge, 2000), journalist Scott Peterson vividly describes, based on personal observations and extensive research, the ethnic tension and the genocide in Rwanda. In the chapter “Genocide Denied” he also covers world reactions, including, unforgivably, France’s defense of the Hutu aggressors and the isolationist policies of the United States. He argues that these were important international factors that made the mass killings possible. Above all, the author persuades us that, unlike other ethnic tensions in Africa and the Middle East, the Rwandan genocide could have been averted by effective U.N. involvement: “In Rwanda Hutu extremists were often just young men with machetes or ill-disciplined soldiers” he states. (292) As the title of the book suggests, neighbors, former friends and even family members killed many of the victims in Rwanda using rudimentary weapons: most often machetes that had been previously employed for everyday household purposes and agriculture. Why then did the U.S. refuse to intervene?
Peterson points out that a few months after giving the inaugural lecture at the United States Holocaust Museum in April 1993 and expressing his commitment to fight the evil of genocide throughout the world—“But as we are its [evil’s] witness, so we must remain its adversary in the world in which we live”—President Clinton, having just pulled humiliated American troops from Somalia, urged the United Nations not to intervene in the ethnic conflict in Rwanda (289). Peterson elaborates: “Genocide must be organized to be effective, and in Rwanda that took time and left many traces. But Washington feared ‘another Somalia’, and so the first instinct was denial that genocide was even occurring—that would have legally required action to stop it. The second instinct was to disengage entirely, as the US sought to slash UN troop numbers. The third move—at least from the part of American policy-makers—was to bully any other nation from acting” (290). In hindsight, Bill Clinton would later declare that not interfering in the Rwandan genocide was the biggest regret of his presidency.
Between April and September 1994, the Hutu majority in Rwanda ruthlessly massacred almost 1 million men, women and children of the Tutsi minority. Tensions between the two ethnic groups rose during the early 1990’s over control of the country. The Hutu government of Rwanda, backed by Belgium and France, had more or less ruled the country since their revolution against the Tutsi elite in 1959. However, the Tutsi minority in exile, led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) under the leadership of Paul Kagame, was attempting to reaffirm power in Rwanda. The Hutu extremists, who called for a “final solution” to the “Tutsi problem”, gained political momentum during the 1990’s.
The Hutu Power movement galvanized the support of part of the army and of powerful politicians. The assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana (1937-1994), the third president of the Republic of Rwanda, on April 6, 1994, only stocked the Hutu extremists’ hatred and their suspicion that the Tutsis were out to destroy them. They blamed the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front for the crime, using the assassination of the president as a pretext for mass murder. Transmitting their message mostly via radio stations, they urged vendetta against Tutsis as well as against moderate Hutus.
The result was atrocities that are almost beyond description. Nonetheless, Peterson attempts to give readers an impression of the sheer volume and violent nature of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. “In the next weeks, the death toll began to merge into a statistical mass. In this village one Tutsi survived from a population of 400; in that town some 2,800 were slaughtered; dozens of parish churches were turned into abattoirs. To fully appreciate the nature of Rwanda’s mass killing, however, requires extracting the terrific agony particular to each death. That is now an impossible task. But an extermination rate of 45,000 each day means little, unless you explore and taste the charnel house yourself” (263).
The Hutu Power movement reinforced one simple, hateful message: in the power struggle with the Tutsis, it’s us versus them. Either we kill them or they’ll kill us. We’ve seen over and over again throughout history how this “us versus them” mentality can lead to the dehumanization of members of another ethnic or religious group. This makes genocide not only possible, but also–in a dramatic inversion of ethical standards of right and wrong–a moral duty. Scott Peterson’s well-documented book, Me against my brother, shows the danger of this dualist mentality and, perhaps even more so, the danger of lack of intervention by the rest of the world when genocide occurs. Genocide, he points out, is not just a “humanitarian crisis”–as the international news conveyed the Rwandan disaster–any more than mass rape in Bosnia was a “gynecological crisis”. Genocide is a massive crime against humanity that reveals the moral breakdown of our civilizations in general: particularly when the world refuses to intervene and help the victims. As the UNAMIR commander in Kigali, General Romeo Dallaire, notes with great regret about the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda: “The biggest crime of all is that we weren’t able to keep it from happening” (290).

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, genocide in Rwanda, history, Holocaust, Me against my brother by Scott Peterson, nonfiction

An incredible tale of survival: Alicia, my story

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Raul Hilberg estimates that over a million Jews living under German occupation survived the Holocaust and were still alive at the end of WWII. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 186). Each of their stories constitutes a minor miracle: a combination of fortitude and luck, which was relatively rare. Most of the million Jewish survivors were those living in Romania (in the Old Kingdom regions) and Bulgaria. In both of these countries, the leaders of the government, for various complex reasons, changed their minds about sending all Jews to concentration camps.

A second group of survivors made it against all odds, despite the dehumanizing conditions of the concentration camps. They were either liberated by the Allies from Auschwitz and other concentration camps or escaped the grueling death marches, once the Germans evacuated the concentration camps.

A third group of survivors attempted the near impossible: they hid, resisted or fled the Nazis. Many had to adopt more than one disguise or alias. They ran the risk of being shot or sent to concentration camps as soon as the Nazis and their collaborators discovered their real identities. These survivors, Hilberg observes, tended to be young, in good physical condition, and usually had a particular psychological profile that set them apart from most victims: “The contrast may be glimpsed in three important traits: realism, rapid decision making, and tenacious holding to life” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders 188). Because they tended to be not only incredibly lucky but also exceptionally resourceful and resilient, their stories sound the most “fictional” and even implausible, particularly to readers today, which are far removed from the hardships of the Holocaust.

If any survivor story shows that truth can be stranger than fiction, it’s Alicia Appleman-Jurman’s Alicia: My Story (New York: Bantam, 1988). In a glowing review, The Pittsburgh Press called the book “As exciting as it is inspirational. In fact, a good bit of Alicia: My Story reads as if it were written by one of our better writers of fiction”. This book reads like fiction, indeed. In an autobiographical narrative the author describes her survival against all odds in Nazi-occupied Poland. While Alicia lost one of her brothers under the Soviet occupation of Poland (when he disappeared without a trace after having been recruited for training by the Red Army), once Germany invaded Poland the situation for Jewish families became far worse. The Gestapo systematically went from house to house hunting for Jews, often aided by the Ukrainian police and the Ukrainian Nationalist guerillas (Banderovcy). The Nazis and their collaborators searched every nook and cranny of Jewish homes, even in basements and attics. Often crying babies would inadvertedly betray entire families trying to escape capture and an almost certain death. Jews were rounded up to be placed in ghettos, or shot on the spot, or sent to concentration camps. Alicia was not yet a teenager when she was compelled to leave her home and go into hiding with her mother, after the Gestapo murdered her father and brothers. Over the course of the next few years, she adopted various disguises and provided not only for herself and her mother, but also helped others. She disguised herself as a peasant, worked hard labor on several farms, and even aided some of the Soviet partisans who took refuge in nearby forests.

Once the war ended, Alicia’s incredible story did not stop. She began working as a guide for the Brecha, the Zionist Underground Railroad that smuggled Jews into Palestine. She made it her life mission to share her survival story in order to inform and inspire generations to come. Talking about her painful past became a therapeutic, not only educational, experience: “As I continued talking I realized that if I were to survive at all and escape from the swamp of anguish and despair, I would have to reach out to people, to those who survived like myself, and perhaps sometime in the future, to all people. I would not be able to continue to hate, because I knew in my young heart that hate could eventually destroy me. But I would always remember what had happened to my family and to my people and would never be able to forgive those who committed the crimes” (Alicia: My Story, 272). To this day she describes her experiences during the Holocaust in schools, at conferences and on her website, http://aliciamystory.com/.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Alicia Appleman-Jurman, Alicia My story, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, history, Holocaust Memoir, Holocaust Memory, memoir, my story, Poland during WWII

Remembering the “forgotten Holocaust”: The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang

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Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WWII describes one of the most brutal mass murders in world history: the massacre of over 300,000 Chinese men, women and children by Japanese soldiers in what she calls “an orgy of cruelty” in the (then) capital city of Nanking, during the winter of 1937. The blood bath took place in the span of about six weeks, from December 12, 1937 to February 10, 1938. As Chang states, “Indeed, even by the standards of history’s most destructive war, the Rape of Nanking represents one of the worst instances of mass extermination” (The Rape of Nanking, New York: Penguin books, 1997, 5). What is remarkable about the sheer cruelty of Japanese attack is not only the mass murder of countless innocent civilians, but the also the systematic rape, torture and maiming of women and children.
Chang describes in gruesome detail how Japanese soldiers would gang rape women, ranging from girls only nine or ten years old to elderly women in their 80’s and 90’s. Nobody was safe anywhere, at any time. The rapes occurred at all hours of the day and night, everywhere: in homes, in the streets, in apartments, in offices or stores. Often girls would die from these savage rapes. Not content with raping and humiliating women in a culture that prized female virtue and chastity, some of the Japanese soldiers went on to savagely beat their victims, maim them, cutting off their breasts or vaginas, disemboweling them, ripping babies out of the bellies of pregnant women, and even impaling them with bayonets. Their sadism knew no bounds.
Men were not immune from harm either. In fact, the Japanese first targeted soldiers—and prisoners of war–luring them in groups of about 200 men to designated parts of the city with promises of food, water, and humane treatment. Nothing could have been further from the truth than these false promises. After leaving them without food and water for days, thus weakening their health and spirit, the Japanese soldiers would round up the Chinese prisoners and murder them. Sometimes these mass murders would turn into game-like killing sprees, in which some of the Japanese soldiers would compete with one another in who could kill the most Chinese prisoners. After luring Chinese soldiers to their deaths, thus depriving the city of its defense, the Japanese soldiers turned their rage upon the civilian population of Nanking.
How can one explain this brutality? Chang traces historically the roots of Japan’s martial mentality, starting with the samurai warrior class. She also discusses the more recent, twentieth-century doctrine, of racial superiority to the Chinese. Then she outlines some of the economic factors—particularly the depression of the 1930’s—that, along with the doubling of the population of Japan to 65 million persons, made it “increasingly difficult for Japan to feed its people” (26). The country’s leaders came to view imperial expansion, particularly the conquest of China and its territories, as a solution to these economic and demographic problems.
Ultimately, however, part of the explanation has to do, as in Germany’s case with Hitler, with the malicious decisions of evil leaders. The Japanese leadership—perhaps Prince Asaka himself—issued a clear order to the rank-and-file soldiers: “KILL ALL CAPTIVES” (40). This command was motivated by a total disregard for human life (at least, for the lives of the Chinese captives), as well as by practical concerns. Killing their victims would mean having fewer mouths to feed, fewer people to shelter, and fewer worries about Chinese retaliation. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1887-1981), the temporary commander of the Japanese forces in Nanking, was known for his ruthlessness in war. Kesago Nakajima (1881-1945), the Lieutenant General of the Imperial Japanese Army largely responsible for the atrocities committed in Nanking, was far worse. By all accounts, Nakajima was a reputed sadist. According to Chang, David Bergamini describes him in Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy as a “small Himmler of a man, a specialist in thought control, intimidation and torture”. Even his biographer, Kimura Kuninori, calls him “a beast” and “a violent man” (37).
The rape of Nanking, the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges and the many atrocities of WWII don’t prove that humanity, as a whole, is evil. However, these massive atrocities across cultures do prove that there is a percentage of human beings who are capable of unleashing boundless violence in the right conditions. As Chang herself states, “Looking back upon millennia of history, it appears clear that no race or culture has a monopoly on wartime cruelty. The veneer of civilization seems to be exceedingly thin—one that can be easily stripped away, especially by the stresses of war” (55). The Rape of Nanking is a well-documented, remarkable history that goes a long way in making sure that “the forgotten Holocaust” will be remembered by generations to come.Iris

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under book review, by Iris Chang, Claudia Moscovici, genocide, history, imperial Japan, Iris Chang, literature salon, mass rape, The Rape of Nanking, WWII

An Impossible Conflict in the Gaza Strip: Rock the Casbah directed by Yariv Horowitz

scene from Rock the Casbah, image from Timesofisrael.com

scene from Rock the Casbah, image from Timesofisrael.com

The Holocaust underscored for the Jewish people—and for a large part of the world as well–the necessity of having your own nation. Deprived of full citizenship rights in many European countries and entirely stripped of human rights once the Nazis came to power, the Jews became ostracized and persecuted throughout Europe. They were branded as outsiders and eventually stomped out by the Nazis like “vermin” even in countries they had inhabited for centuries. One of the greatest ironies of history is that to claim a land and establish a country of their own in 1948—the state of Israel–the Jewish people had to displace another people, the Palestinians, leading to one of the most fierce and insoluble conflicts in modern history.

Nowhere was this conflict more heated than on the West Bank and the Gaza strip, a thin strip of land bordering Egypt and Israel. When Israel won the Six Day War against Egypt in 1967, the Israelis took over control of Gaza, an area already populated by over one million Palestinian Sunni Muslims. Although, after signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinian Authority governed the Gaza Strip, Israel maintained control of its airspace, borders (with the exception of the border with Egypt) and waters, monitoring what went in and out of the area. Thus, for all practical purposes, Israel acquired enormous control over the entire economy. Much of the local Palestinian population viewed this control as an occupation by an enemy nation. Encouraged by Hamas and other militant organizations, Palestinian youth launched their own form of protest, or “Intifada” (uprising), throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails and engaging in suicide bombing expeditions against the Israeli forces and, sometimes, against civilians. The Israelis, in turn, launched counterattacks and enacted punitive measures. This conflict led to the death of countless innocent civilians on both sides.

Director Yariv Horowitz, Rock the Casbah

Director Yariv Horowitz, Rock the Casbah

Was my brief summary biased? Although I tried to sound impartial, many would say that I wasn’t. It’s nearly impossible to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict objectively, without seeming to favor one side or another. Impartiality itself tends to be viewed as a bias, given that members of both communities feel that the other side behaves in an immoral and indefensible manner. Given how difficult it is to be fair to both sides, it’s all the more remarkable that the recent independent film directed by Yariv Horowitz, Rock the Casbah (2013), does justice to this thorny subject. The movie manages to capture the complexity of the conflict in Gaza during the First Intifada, in 1989. Although the film is narrated from the perspective of four young Israeli soldiers sent to the Gaza strip to suppress the uprising, it doesn’t dehumanize the Palestinians. It also doesn’t convey the Israeli soldiers as righteous heroes. In fact, the movie’s strength—acknowledged by several film critics, including Jordan Hoffman in film.com and Alissa Simon in Variety—lies in its realism and strong characterizations.

Not surprisingly, not all these soldiers go into this mission with enthusiasm. In Israel, all citizens over the age of 18 are required to serve in the military (with some exemptions, such as for Druze Arabs who are citizens of Israel). Men generally serve three years, women two. Many go willingly and gladly, others can’t wait to get the experience over with and escape alive. In his depiction of the Israeli soldiers, Horowitz captures an entire spectrum of attitudes towards the Israeli-Arab conflict: from the ideologically patriotic stance of the Israeli commander (played by Angel Bonnani); to the ambivalent reaction of the main character Tomer (Yon Tumarkin) who, for the most part, is traumatized by violence; to the hot-headed hatred of Aki (Roy Nik); to the easy-going attitude of their likable leader, Ariel (Yotam Ishay), who tries to calm down his fellow soldiers when they seek vengeance. In fact, Ariel can’t wait to complete the few weeks he has left of military service and go to Amsterdam.

The plot centers on an initial act of violence, which sparks a greater conflict: a young Israeli soldier is killed by a Palestinian youth who throws a washing machine on him from a rooftop. During the rest of the movie, four of his fellow soldiers are stationed on that roof, trying to prevent further violence and to hunt down the man who killed their friend. This isn’t an easy feat, since the perpetrator’s family and friends try to protect him. In the process of seeking the killer, the Israelis gather up, in a more or less haphazard fashion, all the young Arab males they suspect of being involved in acts of aggression, blindfold them, shove them into a van and send them to a Secret Service prison, guilty or innocent. I found this to be one of the most brutal scenes of the film.

The movie also captures the understandable resentment of the Palestinian family on whose roof the Israeli soldiers are stationed. Although they themselves—a mother, a father and their children—are not directly involved in violence, they refuse to turn in their nephew, the young man who killed the Israeli soldier. Their young son, not understanding what’s happening, wants to play “soldier” games with the Israelis. Caught in the middle—ostracized by their community as “collaborators” and suspected by the Israelis of protecting the enemy—this Palestinian family is stuck in a lose-lose situation that reduces the parents to despair.

Rock the Casbah sustains suspense not only through its strong characterizations, but also through the sparing use of violence. Unlike most American war films I’ve seen, which showcase countless scenes of blood and gore through spectacular special effects, this movie included only two main acts of physical violence: the scene of the killing of the Israeli soldier at the beginning and one at the end. These deaths were so well staged that I felt like I had watched a film of incredible violence.

Above all, to its credit, Rock the Casbah achieves a rare and difficult feat: it describes the polarizing and complex political tension in the Middle East in as realistic and unbiased a manner as possible, neither idealizing nor demonizing either side of this impossible conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

 

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