Yom HaShoah and the Meanings in History

“If Herodotus is the father of history,” wrote renowned historian Yosef Yerushalmi (1932-2009), “the father of meaning in history was the Jews.”  The upcoming Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on April 8th, will give, like every year, this quote its proper significance.

Throughout the liturgical year-cycle the Jewish tradition looks back at the events in the history of the people of Israel not with a particular historical curiosity. Rather, it asks what the events of the past mean for us today. How can the past illuminate our present?

Continue reading “Yom HaShoah and the Meanings in History”

Memory Since Day One

66.jpgOn April 19th, 1945, only a few days after American troops had liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, thousands of survivors gathered at its Appellplatz (the roll call square) and took the following oath: “We will not stop fighting until the last perpetrator is brought before the judges of the people! Our watchword is the destruction of Nazism from its roots. Building a new world of peace and freedom is our goal. This is our responsibility to our murdered comrades and their relatives.”

Continue reading “Memory Since Day One”

64 Years of the Genocide Convention

“We are in the presence of a crime without a name,” said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941, in a radio broadcast in which he described the barbarity of the German occupation of the Soviet Union.

Only a few years later, thanks to the determined and tireless efforts of the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, this type of atrocity the destruction of entire human groups would have a name and be declared a crime under international law in a treaty that is binding on all states that ratify it: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. While it was too late to save the Jews of Europe, there was a lesson to be learned from the widespread passivity in the face of the Nazi mass killings. As Raphael Lemkin wrote in the postwar years, “by declaring genocide a crime under international law and by making it a problem of international concern, the right of intervention on behalf of minorities slated for destruction has been established.”

December 9 marked the 64th anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Genocide Convention, which has come to embody a milestone in the history of human rights and the promise of a world free of this odious crime.

We know that this promise, symbolized by the words “Never again,” has not been fulfilled. Still, the Genocide Convention laid vital foundations and has borne significant fruit.

Sixty-four years down the line, mass atrocities cannot be universally ignored. More states have signed the Convention, fewer states believe that sovereignty is a license to kill, many perpetrators have been held accountable for their crimes, and, above all, the international community has shown that it can take collective action to prevent and punish genocide.

Best wishes for a peaceful new year.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology. 

Remembering Kristallnacht: It starts with apathy

The following commentary appeared in a November 9, 2012 op-ed story in the Star Tribune. It can be found here

Yesterday and today mark the 74th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-instigated pogroms known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a turning point in Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy. For most scholars, it marks the beginning of the period we now define as the Holocaust.

imagesNazi militants destroyed thousands of stores and Jewish homes, desecrated cemeteries and burned down hundreds of synagogues. German Jewish citizens were arrested, systematically humiliated and abused in public in every city, town and village of Germany and in the recently annexed Austria. The majority of German citizens were bystanders to the pogrom and did not try to prevent the vandalism and destruction.

The events of Kristallnacht teach a valuable lesson. They show that a modern society can become numbed to the fate of its minorities. Since Hitler’s rise to power in March 1933, Jews had been classified and categorized as “others.” They were demonized, legally discriminated against and spatially segregated. Non-Jewish Germans were increasingly convinced that the treatment of Jews was justified and did not concern them.

Already in April 1935, the Berlin rabbi Joachim Prinz wrote in the German Jewish weekly newspaper Jüdische Rundschau: “It is outside that the ghetto exists for us. In the markets, in the streets, in restaurants. The ghetto exists in every place. It has a sign. That sign is: no neighbors.”

A “successful” Kristallnacht was the precondition for Auschwitz. Subsequent anti-Jewish measures such as physical ghettoization and deportation to the forced labor and extermination camps in the East became possible. Response or resistance from within was no longer to be expected.

 Ethnic cleansing and genocide can happen when a community of mutual acceptance has been destroyed. It requires only a systematic program of detachment and distantiation, a process that sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has defined as the “social production of indifference.” Killing is only the last step.

Kristallnacht stands out as a warning of this lethal historical sequence, which always already lingers in an early seed called indifference.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology.