Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Architecture of Murder

The torrential rain and the wind in Jerusalem on Monday didn’t prevent the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and diplomats representing some 80 countries from attending the opening of a new exhibition at Yad Vashem marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The dignitaries, guests, and Holocaust survivors, undeterred by the inclement weather and security checks, filled the auditorium to capacity to attend the accompanying symposium.

The exhibition, “Architecture of Murder: The Auschwitz-Birkenau Blueprints,” centers around a group of original blueprints that were found in an abandoned apartment in Berlin in 2008. The sketches, mostly prepared in the fall of 1941, were acquired by the newspaper The Bild, part of the German media concern Axel Springer, who in turn gave them to Yad Vashem for safekeeping. Kai Diekmann, Editor of The Bild, described the sketches as "Plans of hell - that remind us, like nothing else, of the responsibility the German people do and must always feel toward the state of Israel. And remembrance is, in fact, their main function: These plans remind us of a crime, that, with the passing of time, seems ever more incomprehensible. Auschwitz stands for the guilt and blindness of an entire nation. Something so huge, it can hardly be grasped by new generations. That is why it is of the utmost importance to continue to be reminded of it. Because only those that know the past can act responsibly in the future."

The display includes an aerial photo of the massive Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, excerpts from the Vrba-Wetzler Report, written by two Jewish escapees from Auschwitz in 1944, an album displaying pictures of the camp’s construction and quotes from SS men and Jewish inmates describing the site and its murderous purposes. Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev remarked, “The original plans detailing the construction of Auschwitz constitute graphic illustration of the Germans’ systematic effort to carry out the Final Solution. We have chosen to display them to the public to illustrate how seemingly conventional activities of ordinary people brought about the construction of the largest murder site of European Jewry."

The exhibition will be on display in the Exhibitions Pavilion at Yad Vashem through February 28, 2010, after which parts of the exhibition will be displayed in the foyer of the Archives and Library Building. A traveling version of the exhibition opened at the UN Headquarters in New York on January 26, 2010 and will be on display there until March 1, 2010.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Holocaust in the Age of Genocide

By Dr Robert Rozett

On January 27th the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was adopted by the United Nations in November 2005. In many venues Holocaust Remembrance Day has become a day not only to commemorate the Holocaust, the systematic murder of some six million innocent Jews by the Nazis and their partners during World War II, but a day to mark the tragedies of others who were victimized during the war, as well as victims of other instances of genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries. Three key concepts often accompany the public discourse that is bound up in these commemorations: racism, genocide and human rights. Somewhat perplexingly, although the other events that are marked are clearly associated in the public mind with these concepts, far too frequently the Holocaust is not. Yet the Holocaust must be tightly bound up in any serious discussion of racism, genocide and human rights.

In common parlance, racism is generally thought of as the discrimination of one group by another owing to their physical characteristics, especially their skin color. Since the Holocaust occurred primarily in Europe, among a populace that at the time predominantly shared the same color of skin, people often gloss over the fact that the ideological underpinnings that wrought the Holocaust were racist. The Nazis, like many of their contemporaries in the West, considered the different people of Europe separate, albeit sometimes closely related, races. It was common in the language of the time to speak of a Germanic race as opposed to a British or French race, expressions which one rarely hears today, if at all. The Jews were also commonly considered a race, (although if race is a matter of physical type, one must do no more than spend a few hours in Israel to see that there are Jews of all types and hues). The Nazis considered the so-called Germanic race to be the master race and others to be inferior to it. As to the Jews, they deemed them not only the antithesis of the Germans, but inherently dangerous to the rest of mankind. This false and hateful perception is not the only reason for the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it lies at the nucleus of any thoughtful explanation as to why it took place. If the Nazis were anything, they were certainly racists, and blameless Jews were their foremost victims.

Genocide is a crime that was first articulated as an idea at the end of World War II by Raphael Lemkin, a jurist and a Jew, who sought to codify the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews. Genocide, as he defined it, has two components. The first is the attempt to completely, physically obliterate a group of people. The second is to engage in acts, including mass murder and the prohibition of culture, that lead to the destruction of a group of people as a group, but not to their total, physical annihilation. Thus, by definition the Holocaust is genocide. But it is a form of genocide that fits the first half of Lemkin' s definition, since the Nazis sought to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. Other genocides after the Holocaust have much in common with it, but there have yet to have been new attempts by one group to annihilate all the members of another group, everywhere. These genocides are weighted more toward the second half of Lemkin's definition. On December 9, 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, based on Lemkin's formulation, was adopted by the United Nations, making the perpetration of genocide an internationally recognized crime.

On the day after the approval of the Genocide Convention, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Like the Convention, this too was born of the experience of World War II. Although the Jews were not the only people to suffer from the infringement of the rights set out in the 30 articles of the Declaration, (among them the right to life, dignity and personal security), they certainly suffered the ruthless violation of all of them under the Nazis and their partners. Thus, the Holocaust at its core is a blatant instance of the violation of human rights.

The Holocaust is a specific historical event that struck at a particular group of people, but has profound universal implications. It is the story of how the Nazis and their partners murdered Jews simply because they were Jews. It is also the story of how a group of people arbitrarily defined another group as dangerous and sought to murder them all. In 2010 the discussion of racism, genocide and human rights, anchored in the history of the Holocaust, remains not only pertinent, but is crucial to the health of human civilization. Taking the Holocaust out of the discussion is not merely a sin of omission. It is a distortion of history that nourishes those who purvey the kind of hatred that can lead to future genocidal assaults.

Dr. Robert Rozett is the director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, and author of "Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts" (Vallentine Mitchell, 2005).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In Tribute to Miep Gies, Righteous Among the Nations

We were saddened to hear of the death of Righteous Among the Nations Miep Gies who, at great risk to herself and her family, helped provide for the needs of Anne Frank and her family while they were in hiding. Miep came to Jerusalem in May 1977 where a tree was planted on the Yad Vashem grounds in her honor. Her husband Jan was also recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Seen here she is signing the official Yad Vashem guestbook. You can read more about the Gies' heroic actions here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Art in the Time of the Holocaust

Here's a touching piece by someone who focuses on the art in the Holocaust History Museum