From the Director

States and organizations around the country and the world have set aside April to be a month of genocide awareness, education and action against genocide.

Why April? Several genocides over the last century began in this month. The events leading to the Armenian genocide started in April 1915. The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh fell to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in April 1975. Hutu extremists launched their plan to exterminate the entire Tutsi civilian population of Rwanda in April 1994.

April 1943 is also the month in which the few remaining Jews in the Warsaw ghetto rose in a desperate but heroic revolt against their oppressors. Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, was later established to commemorate those events, which represent unprecedented destruction but also courage, resilience and hope.

At the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies we see anniversaries as a valuable opportunity to advance scholarship and education. It is a chance to encourage students, educators and the broader community to deepen their understanding of past events and their sequels, as well as awareness of current manifestations of genocide and massive human rights violations.

Our programs in the next weeks reflect this mission. We started the month with an educational trip to the Bdote (Dakota for “where the rivers meet”) at Fort Snelling State Park, guided by scholar and teacher Iyekiyapiwiƞ Darlene St. Clair. Bdote is where the Dakota creation stories locate their origins, and also the site of internment, starvation and forced removal in the aftermath of the US Dakota War. “A place of genesis and genocide,” as one Dakota author eloquently put it. We will close this month of remembrance and awareness on Holocaust Memorial Day with a lecture by Sidi N’Diaye, who examines the role of hateful representations in the murders of Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust in Poland and of Tutsi neighbors during the 1994 genocide.

As we move through April, it is important to remember the quote from Holocaust historian Robert Abzug: “We must recognize that if we feel helpless when facing the record of human depravity, there was always a point at which any particular scene of madness could have been stopped.” In that spirit, this month we remember the victims of genocide and honor those who have worked tirelessly to stop it.

Thank you for supporting the work of the Center.

 

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.

 

unnamedIn 1999 Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister and a member of the Green Party with strong pacifist roots, used the phrase “Never Again Auschwitz” to support German military intervention during the Kosovo crisis. In 2005, at the main ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the Red Army for “liberating Europe” (an assertion that obviously did not resonate positively among Poles). In the summer of 2014 Turkish President Recep Erdoğan slammed Israel for betraying the memory of the Holocaust by “acting like Nazis” during the operation against Hamas in Gaza. At the same time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the Holocaust to warn the world of a nuclear Iran.

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unnamedThe Twitter account @HistOpinion recently reminded us of the prevailing opinion on raising the immigrant quota for refugees who were fleeing Nazi Germany. Two-thirds of the respondents polled by Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion in July 1938 agreed with the proposition that “with conditions as they are we should try to keep them out.”

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We will have the thankless task of proving to a world which will refuse to listen, that we are Abel, the murdered brother.
                      – Ignasy Shiper (historian, killed at Majdanek in 1943)

adff11ac-9845-48f2-b73e-6cda63e8103eIn his acclaimed book Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi recounts a recurring dream he and other inmates had in the Nazi death camp: that he returned home to his family and told them about it, but nobody listened. “The person standing in front of me doesn’t stay to hear, turns around and goes away,” he writes.

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“If there is such a thing as collective memory,” wrote social anthropologist Paul Connerton, “we are likely to find it in commemorations.” Anniversaries and commemorations declare certain events in history to be worth remembering. They enable states to shape a particular self-image and convey a sense of shared identity among the population.

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“The Jews are our misfortune!” (Die Juden sind unser Unglück!). This was always the tag line on the cover page of Der Stürmer, a Nazi weekly tabloid published between 1923 and 1945. The editor of this incendiary paper, Julius Streicher, was tried and sentenced to death on October 1st 1946 at the Nuremberg Tribunal. The judgment against him read, in part:

“… In his speeches and articles, week after week, month after month, he infected the German mind with the virus of anti-Semitism and incited the German people to active persecution…”

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No nos une el amor, sino el espanto.
(We are not united by love, but by horror)

Jorge Luis Borges
(Argentinean poet)

Since Auschwitz it has indeed been possible to speak of a
German-Jewish symbiosis-but of a negative one. For both
Germans and for Jews the result of mass extermination has
become the basis of how they see themselves, a kind of
opposed reciprocity they have in common, willy-nilly.

Dan Diner
(Historian)

The above-cited quotes reveal a tragic irony. The Holocaust has bound forever “Germans” and “Jews” to the past. It has also opened an insurmountable gap that conditions the mutual relationship, as well as the passing on of group identity – of victims and of perpetrators stuck in a permanent position of culpability – to the next generations. Moreover, it perpetuates in time a binary division constructed by the Nazi ideologues: Germans vs. Jews.

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Last week CHGS and several other centers and departments at the University of Minnesota voiced their concern and condemnation regarding a Nazi-themed dinner that took place in the Minneapolis restaurant Gasthof zur Gemütlichkeit. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association (MRA), also responded to this disturbing event and sent a public letter to the restaurant’s owner.

The news and photographs of the gathering – Nazi flags and men clad in SS and Wehrmacht uniforms – were shocking. But even more worrying was to discover how many people, who posted their comments on the Star Tribune website or emailed and voice-mailed the Center, were ready to defend the Nazi re-enactors and the restaurant that hosted the party. Their response reveals an astounding lack of common sense and a failure to understand the gravity of the case.

How “innocent” was this re-enactment? Were the participants and the restaurant owner really unaware of the implications and effects of the symbols they were displaying? One hopes that all of Gasthof’s cards will soon be on the table.

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. 

You are not obliged to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.

Rabbi Tarfon (from the Talmud)

On February 6, as part of the IAS Collaborative Reframing Mass Violence lecture series, CHGS partnered with the Human Rights Program and the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul for a screening of the documentary film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator  A discussion with its director, Pamela Yates, and producer, Paco de Onís followed.  Granito tells a breathtaking story of courage and perseverance in the pursuit of justice that uniquely embodies the quote above from the Talmud.

The film spans thirty years as five protagonists in Guatemala, Spain, and the United States attempt to bring truth, memory, and justice to the violence-plagued Central American country. A US filmmaker, a forensic anthropologist, a Spanish lawyer, a Maya survivor, and a Guatemalan witness activist each become a “granito,” a tiny grain of sand, adding up to an extraordinary accomplishment three decades after the atrocities: the indictment and trial of ex-dictator General Ríos Montt, former de facto president and responsible for a genocidal campaign that killed thousands of indigenous Guatemalans during the bloodiest phase of a war against the leftist guerrillas in 1982-1983. On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. It was the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide by a court in his own country.

The last chapter of this Guatemalan story is yet to be written. Only ten days after the ruling, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction under pressure from an organization representing the country’s deeply reactionary oligarchy.

Still, the judgment marked a turning point in Guatemalan history, and it has also become part of the history of human rights. It sends a clear message to other parts of the world where present or former perpetrators still live in freedom and privilege despite proven involvement in atrocious crimes. It also teaches an important lesson: As a collective effort, step by step or “grain by grain,” even in Guatemala-one of the most profoundly unjust societies in the Americas-justice can be achieved.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

 

Can memory be a bad thing? Readers must have stumbled over a recent headline that said, “Plan to open a new Holocaust Museum in Budapest faces criticism – from Jews.”Isn’t creating such a museum, as any other project that raises awareness and educates on the Holocaust, always something praiseworthy?

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