EDINBURGH, Ind. - In 1933, more than 9 million Jews lived in the 21 countries Germany would eventually occupy during World War II. Statistics now show two out of every three European Jews died between 1933 and 1945. While the Jewish community was the Nazi’s primary target – its campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” included the gypsies, physically disabled, Polish nationals, Jehovah witnesses, homosexuals - really anyone the party deemed undesirable.
It was a time of intense evil, ghastly in its scope of inhuman ambition - a combination of twisted ideas and wicked actions that, for a time threatened to engulf our world. While it was not the first time people were made to suffer precisely because of whom they were religiously, ethnically, or sexually – it was the first time we gave it a name – genocide.
Genocide: It’s a powerful word.
For many of us, as seen here today, it conjures images of burnt bodies and barbed wire.
However, the word “genocide” did not exist before 1944.
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, wanted to describe the Nazi policy of systematic murder. He formed the word by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, from the Latin word for killing.
Lemkin, who also was Jewish, said the new term defined, “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”
Sixty-six years later it has become an unrelenting addition to our lexicon. It has been used to help historians identify and describe the violence committed against groups with the intent of destroying the very existence of those groups – the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian, Rwandan, and Kurdish catastrophes. But even before these – man had committed genocide.
In 149 B.C., Marcus Porcius Cato, the Censor, who ended every speech to the Roman Senate “Delenda est Carthago,” (Carthage must be destroyed) got his wish.
It might have been the first recorded incitement to genocide.
After the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage – between 264 and 146 B.C. – the city was destroyed; 150,000 of its 200,000 citizens were killed, the surviving 55,000 survivors were enslaved – including 25,000 women.
The destruction of Carthage wasn’t simply an act of war, the Roman Senate demanded the Carthagians abandon their city and desert their shrines and religious cults – knowing they would resist. Rome’s policy of "extreme violence," the annihilation of Carthage and most of its inhabitants, ruining "an entire culture," fits the modern and legal definition of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention: the intentional destruction "in whole or in part, (of) a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."
Cato, like the perpetrators of the 20th-century crimes, was preoccupied with militaristic expansionism, the idealization of cultivation, notions of gender and social hierarchy, and racial or cultural prejudices.
On the eve of World War I, there was an estimated two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. From 1915 to 1922, the ruling Muslim Turks, carried out a policy to eliminate its Christian Armenian minority. By 1923 an estimated one and a half million Armenians had perished – deported, tortured, massacred and starved.
Traditionally, Cambodia also suffered from ethnic rivalries, which lead to several exchanges of political power between the Vietnamese minority and the Buddhist Khmer majority. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power and proclaimed the Republic of Democratic Kampuchea.
In asserting its new power, the Party began a campaign of cleansing from 1975 to 1978. Ethnically, the targets of the cleansing were Vietnamese and Chinese nationals, Muslims (particularly ethnic Chams), and Buddhist monks. They all were virtually, if not entirely, eliminated from the population by expulsion, execution, or starvation.
In Rwanda, the 1994 mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Hutu political moderates by the Hutu dominated government under the Hutu Power ideology, lasted approximately 100 days and killed at least 800,000 people, according to an estimate from Human Rights Watch. Other estimates of the death toll have ranged between 500,000 and 1 million - as much as 20 percent of the total population of the country.
In Iraq, Human Rights Watch estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds, including women and children were massacred, often by chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent Sarin, between 1987 and 1989. Assyrian, Shabak, Yazidi and Turkoman people also were targeted, and many villages belonging to these ethnic groups were also destroyed.
Nearly 90 percent, 4,000 villages were destroyed, and 250 towns and villages were exposed to chemicals by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The regime also destroyed 1,754 schools, 270 hospitals, 2,450 mosques, and 27 churches.
Even as we mourn for these victims, we must remember too for every Cato, Hitler, Pol Pot, or Hussain, there are people like German 1st Lt. Armin Wegner, a German soldier who investigated and photographed the Armenian genocide, Dutch rescuer Rut Matthijsen, who was part of a student group that saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust, or Paul Rusesabagina, who saved the lives of his family and more than a thousand other refugees, by granting them shelter in the besieged Hôtel des Mille Collines – people who are willing to risk their own lives to do the right thing.
This year, Holocaust Remember Day is Monday, April 8, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is asking communities across the nation to organize observances during April that speak to theme, “Never Again: Heeding the Warning Signs.”
Today, more than ever before, individual and communal willingness to seek justice after the Holocaust, serves as a powerful example of how, we, as a global community of nation-states can, and must, respond to unprecedented crimes. We must vigorously pursue justice for the victims of such acts of hatred and inhumanity, not only for their sake but also for the sake of present and future generations.
We must ever rededicate ourselves to fighting racism and to embracing the tolerance of difference. We must do so in humble thanksgiving for the goodness that, despite everything, is in the human race: friendship, solidarity, kindness, selflessness, and love.
It is in times of the greatest evil and challenge, that humanity shows most starkly the range of its character. From the worst and most dark of human engagements, which are more often than not, carried out by men of ill-intentions - to the benevolent deeds of compassion demonstrated by courageous souls, who throughout the course of history have manifested the inner fortitude to make a difference; to stand in defiance of injustice, whether from a decision to be brave or just an instinct to do good, and thereby perform noteworthy acts to help uplift the human potential in a world gone a wrought and, in doing so, save the lives of those in distress and in despair.
Just as it was the venom of racial hatred that created the gas chambers in Nazi Germany, so it also was the acts of selfless endeavor that gave birth to the greatest generation who willingly took the torch of liberty and justice to the bowels of Hitler’s Armada and who framed the blueprint for a better world for all of us.
I am convinced that their legacy of justice is the eternal flame of hope we carry today.
As we remember the horror, the agony, the merciless tyranny suffered by so many, let us not forget the ongoing genocide in Darfur where African farmers and others are being systematically displaced and murdered at the hands of the Janjaweed, a government-supported militia recruited from local Arab tribes, and women and girls are being systematically raped and forced into servitude. The Janjaweed’s campaign of violence has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced over 2.5 million people. More than one hundred people continue to die each day; five thousand die every month.
Today is not just about remembering, it is not enough to just remember. Today is about deciding if we have the courage to stand up like so many before us and face evil. If not for our sake for the sake of our children, who deserve to live in a world that is righteous and just.