Can Another Holocaust Happen?

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on one of the darkest stains in the history of mankind.

The industrial murder that eventually became known as the Holocaust took place was the end of a long process which began in the 1930s. It began in as stereotypes, misinformation and propaganda. That is why today’s Jews are sensitive to Jewish tropes and stereotypes that are freely circulated. Things like Jews control things like the media and the banking system. But at the time, no could predict what this would lead to.

The next stage included legal exclusions and dehumanizing. Jews were excluded from teaching in universities, being judges, participating in sports, and working in hospital. Jews were stripped of legal rights. The propaganda became more vicious in order to cast Jews as subhuman. This opened the door to escalating violence and forced labour. Even at this stage, most Jews could foresee what was to come because attacks on the Jewish community have taken place throughout our history.

The final stage was genocide with the establishment of killing centres at Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka. Additional killing factories were added to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Chelmno. The murder of millions of people is not a simple task. It involved hundreds of trains, the construction of camps with gas chambers and crematoriums, the assignment of troops to guard the camps, and the cooperation of businesses and civilians. The killing of Jews and other undesirables was given substantial priority, considering it was drawing resources away from the war effort. As the war in Europe was ending, and Germans realized they would soon be defeated, the killings continued at a more rapid pace.

Someone recently asked me when and how did anti-Semitism originate? That’s a difficult question to answer. I can only point to historical events in our past. The Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. and deported the Jewish population to Khorasan. Ten of the twelve Tribes of Israel are considered lost.

In the First Crusade, Jewish communities along the Rhine and the Danube were destroyed. In the Second Crusade, the Jews in France were subject to frequent massacres. King Edward I of England expelled all Jews from England in 1290. Ferdinand II and Isabella I expelled Jews from Spain in 1492.

When the Black Death epidemics devastated Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, Jews became the scapegoats. Rumors spread that Jews caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells. Hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed by violence in the Black Death persecutions.

Catherine the Great of Russia restricted Jews to the western parts of the empire by means of deportation, beginning in 1791. In America, Jews were expelled by Ulysses S. Grant from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky in 1862. Pogroms in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century led to around 2.5 million Jews emigrating from eastern Europe, mostly to the United States. While in Canada, outbreaks of violence against Jews and Jewish property culminated in August 1933 with the Christie Pits riots: six hours of violence between Jewish and Christian youths in Toronto. Attacks and threats against to Jewish community occur globally at an alarming rate.

“Never again” is a slogan which is associated with the Holocaust. The phrase may originate from a 1927 poem by Yitzhak Lamdan which stated, “Never again shall Masada fall!” In fact, genocide has continued to take place since the end of the Holocaust.

The Bangladesh genocide began on March 26, 1971, when the Pakistan government dominated by West Pakistan began a military crackdown on East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to suppress Bengali calls for self-determination. During the nine-month-long Bangladesh Liberation War, members of the Pakistan Armed Forces and supporting pro-Pakistani Islamist militias killed between 300,000 and 3,000,000 people and raped between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengali women, in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape. The Government of Bangladesh states 3,000,000 people were killed during the genocide, making it the largest genocide since the Holocaust.

Cambodian genocide was the systematic persecution and killing of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge. Their objective was to force Cambodia towards an entirely self-sufficient agrarian socialist society. It resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 2 million people from 1975 to 1979, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s 1975 population. The Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and forced Cambodians to relocate to labor camps in the countryside, where mass executions, forced labor, physical abuse, malnutrition, and disease were rampant. They targeted previous political leadership, business leaders, journalists, students, doctors, lawyers, and anyone considered an intellectual. When I visited Cambodia in 2018, our tour guide described how his father was targeted because he was a schoolteacher.

Rising nationalism from the numerous ethnic groups in Yugoslavia led to its breakup in 1990 and inter-ethnic conflicts. The Srebrenica massacre was considered genocide as result of the ethnic cleansing campaign in areas controlled by the Bosnian Serb Army during the Bosnian War of 1992–1995. The events in Srebrenica in 1995 included the killing of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, as well as the mass expulsion of another 25,000 to 30,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians. The ethnic cleansing campaign included extermination, unlawful confinement, mass rape, sexual assault, torture, plunder and destruction of private and public property, and inhumane treatment of civilians.

The Bosnian Serb Army was involved in a second genocide during the siege of Sarajevo. The siege was a prolonged blockade of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the Bosnian War. When Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia after the 1992 Bosnian independence referendum, the Bosnian Serbs – whose strategic goal was to create a new Bosnian Serb state – encircled Sarajevo. The city was besieged from April 5, 1992, to February 29,1996 (1,425 days). It lasted three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the siege of Leningrad. A total of 13,952 people were killed during the siege, including 5,434 civilians.

The Rwandan genocide occurred between April 7, and July 15, 1994, during the Rwandan Civil War. During this period of around 100 days, members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as some moderate Hutu and Twa, were killed by armed militias. The most widely accepted estimates are around 500,000 to 662,000 Tutsi deaths. The scale and brutality of the genocide was shocking, but no country intervened. Most of the victims were killed in their own villages or towns, often by their neighbors and fellow villagers. Victims were attacked with machetes and rifles. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women raped during the genocide.

Genocide has been conducted against the against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities by the Chinese government, the Yazidis in northern Iraq by the Islamic State, the Muslim Rohingya people by the Burmese military, and the ethnic Darfuri people in Western Sudan.

Can it happen again? I ask myself repeatedly this same question: could we have another Holocaust? Maybe the right question is, why can’t the Holocaust happen again? Primo Levy said, “It happened so it can happen again.”

Whether another Holocaust can take place isn’t the issue. What we need to ask ourselves is whether things are much different than they were in Weimar Germany. When democracy erodes, it opens the door to anti-Semitism and other forms of racial hatred. The Holocaust happened because past societies failed to educate its citizens on the importance of democracy, or on how the world stands idle whenever persecution takes place. Just look at the fate of the Rohingya, the Uyghurs, and Afghan women. Elie Wiesel pointed out that although the Holocaust was a uniquely Jewish event, its implications are universal. The Jewish people will always be defined in part by Auschwitz. But that memory should not be used to foment hate, but instead to prompt compassion, civility, and action. It should also not be used as a moral shield.

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