When I was a young boy in Brooklyn in the early 1950s, I vividly recall a man on the block rolling up his sleeve and showing me a blue tattoo of a numbers running up his forearm.The meaning of this had to be explained to me. I was perhaps five years old, but it left as indelible an impression on my mind as it did on his arm. He was reverently called a ‘survivor.’ He looked like an old man to me–I thought he had old eyes–but he was probably not. Old men did not survive the death camps. Nor did very young ones. Adolescents had the strength and resilience to endure unspeakable hardships over years. And nearly as many died away from the death camps. My grandmother came here in around 1910. Her village in Poland was wiped off of the map in the late 1930s, all of its occupants–Jews–murdered.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is thought of as a Jewish because it began in Israel in 1953 to commemorate–a word that I take to mean ‘commit to memory,’ the slaughter of over six million Jews. The toll of civilians murdered, and I chose that word deliberately to distinguish it from ‘killed” is more like ten to eleven million. These were people that an insane regime butchered not through military action or collateral damage, but through systematic murder. Tens of thousands of German and Eastern and Central European men and women rose from their beds every day, dressed, and went to work where they would put to death infants, mothers, grandfathers, daughters and sons, with less far humanity than they would put down cattle. Then they returned to their homes and have dinner with their spouses and children. They would tuck their children in, chat with their spouse, and prepare themselves for another day at the office. They murdered every Jew and Romani they could find, every homosexual, anyone with disabilities, Soviet prisoners of war, and both Soviet and Polish civilians.
Was this the worst mass extermination ever? Probably not. By 1933 Joseph Stalin as head of the U.S.S.R. had slaughtered over seven million Ukrainians through systematic starvation. [Think about this when you read about the current Russia-Ukrainian conflicts]. And he was just getting started. In the late 19th Century, King Leopold of Belgium enslaved and murdered eight million Congolese. It was the royal family, not the nation of Belgium, that perpetrated this genocide. China’s Chairman Mao murdered between 49 and 75 million Chinese and Tibetans, and thus holds the title of greatest mass murderer of all time.
And it continues. In the Sixties we had Biafra where between one and three million Igbo were killed by Nigerian forces. Less than a decade later the same number of innocents were killed by their government in Cambodia. Later came Rwanda, then Dafur, and now Syria.
The genocides I just described span just over a century of ‘civilization.’ Between Leopold and Stalin, as many as 1.5 million Armenians died in what much of the world refuses to call a genocide for fear of offending the current nation of Turkey, which was founded in 1922 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The word ‘genocide’ was coined to describe what was done to the Armenians who lived under Ottoman rule. In one of history’s many ironic twists, the Armenians were targeted because they were an ethnic group with a minority religion–Christianity. The Muslim Turks and Kurds, the dominant ethnic groups in that corner of the Ottoman empire, perpetrated the genocide using many of the same methods Hitler would later employ to eradicate another ethnic group with a minority religion.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day let us pause for a few moments and grieve for all those who die at the hands of genocidal maniacs and those who abet them in carrying out these atrocities. Whether you are a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, animist, or anything I’ve left out, somewhere in your holy books is a prayer for the dead. Please, say it now, and grieve for all the innocents who wanted no more than to just go about their daily lives, raise their children, and die in their sleep. Pray and grieve for the human species that is singular among all of God’s creations for its cruelty to its own kind.
Do you remember the old folk song with they refrain “when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” Apparently, never.