Common Reading 2005 - 2006

Rescue and Recovery

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out --    
  because I was not a communist;    
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –    
  because I was not a socialist;    
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –    
  because I was not a trade unionist;    
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –    
  because I was not a Jew;    
Then they came for me --    
  and there was no one left to speak out for me.    
Martin Niemoeller in 1946 *    
(Pastor Niemoeller was a Protestant clergyman who opposed the Nazi regime. He was imprisoned in a concentration camp throughout the war.)    

Crimes against Humanity

Genocide has occurred at various times in history and throughout the world. It is probably the darkest stain on our human record. The genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries were so horrific due to the technology that was used in their service. With modern science it is possible to kill thousands, even tens of thousands of people daily for no purpose other than to slake hysterical hatred. Still, the engine behind these actions is not scientific knowledge itself, but irrational rage and fear that feeds killing. The genocide in Rwanda, which eliminated almost 800,000 people in approximately 100 days, less than 4 months, was accomplished with crude radio propaganda and machetes, an antiquated farming tool.

Genocide has devastating effects on survivors, who after struggling so hard to stay alive, can later lose their own will to live. It is crucial that society record, validate and remember these events so that an honest healing can begin. Nations must accept responsibility and take strong actions to prevent genocide or "ethnic cleansing." There can be no “benign neglect” towards genocide, only malign neglect. There are many cases of government officials, including those in the Allied governments during WWII or member of today's U.N., ignoring or not acting swiftly enough on reliable information regarding the wholesale slaughter of Jews, Armenians, Kurds or Tutsi Rwandans.


What any one of us would do if we found ourselves in such a terrible environment is always uncertain. But there seem to be people whose humanity and courageous behavior is unlike that of their neighbors, whether those neighbors be individuals, other towns or other nations. A few of these more celebrated names are: Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman who engineered the rescue of 100,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944, was then captured by the Soviets who believed him a spy, was imprisoned and subsequently “disappeared.” Oskar Schindler a Nazi Party member began as a war profiteer but then used his influence and his money to save his 1,100 Jewish workers from deportation. Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese consul serving in Lithuania in 1940 and against his government’s orders, worked day and night with his wife Yukiko to issue 6,000 hand-written Japanese visas for desperate Polish and Lithuanian Jews escaping occupied Poland. Since Japan was a German ally, he was later dismissed from his consul position, imprisoned, and treated as disgraced when he finally returned home.

More recently, in 1994, Paul Rusesbagina, a Hutu Rwandan hotel manager, used bribery and quick-wittedness to turn his hotel, abandoned by its Belgian owners and Western guests, into a safe haven for 1,200 Tutsis fleeing the murderous onslaught of Rwandan Hutu forces. A successful 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” was based on his story.

There are many other cases of individuals and groups risking their lives to hide Jews from their persecutors. The Danish King Christian X and the Danish people resisted the deportation of Danish Jews with a well-orchestrated boatlift to neutral Sweden. Though many of the facts remain disputed, it is known that the Bulgarian king Boris III and his administration also resisted pressure from their Nazi allies and saved Jewish Bulgarians from liquidation. George Mandel Mantello, a Jewish Roumanian native working as a diplomat for the Salvadoran government saved 15,000 Hungarian Jews at the closing of the war by issuing them Salvadoran citizenship papers and using his position to publicize reports from the camps.

In France, the Protestant village of Le Chambon conspired to save 5000 Jewish children; a number of convents throughout Europe hid Jewish children as well.


Following the surrender of the Axis Powers (Germany, Japan, Italy), the Allies (England,U.S., Free French, U.S.S.R.) realized there would have to be public trials of the Nazi leadership. These were held in Nuremberg, Germany and in Tokyo, and the investigation brought forward major new political concepts and ethical issues; for example, “genocide,” and “totalitarianism.” At Nuremberg, many Nazi officers claimed that they were merely “following orders,” and the citizen’s or soldier’s relation with authority emerged as a central twentieth century moral concern. Also, the world was confronted with tragic stories: situations where one person was sacrificed in order to save another. Often these experiences were so terrible that survivors, witnesses as well as those who committed crimes, wanted to forget what they had suffered, seen, done or not done and try to get on with “normal” life.

Simultaneously, others argued that without exposure, justice and memory there could be no true peace. Subsequent generations of Germans, Italians, and Japanese, the Allied victors as well as citizens of the newly formed state of Israel stimulated the search for information. For one American account of discovering the Holocaust, read Patrick Henry’s “Banishing the Coercion of Despair.”

The majority of the stories from the Holocaust are sad and frightening ones, but the only hope mankind has is to examine human behavior honestly and ask questions. We need to remember how afraid most people were of the Nazi regime and for very good reasons. In a totalitarian state everyone is vulnerable. Despite this, people act differently from one another. Why? What gave Jan Karski the courage to sneak into the ghettos so that he could tell the world about them? How did Irena Sendler decide she should be the one to smuggle children out of the ghettos? Why would Jozef Zwonarz build a shelter under his workshop for people he hardly knew? People who were neither influential nor powerful took extraordinary risks to save a single family or person. To read other stories and testimony of Polish citizens who helped victims go to:

For stories of Catholic clergy who aided Jews across Europe go to:

For other stories:

Though we might reasonably hope that there would have been no more genocides after World War II, this is not the case. In Cambodia in the 1970s, 20% of the population was exterminated by the Khmer Rouge. In an attempt to crush forces seeking independence for Bangladesh (East Pakistan), the West Pakistani military regime unleashed a systematic campaign of mass murder which aimed at killing millions of Bengalis. In the 1980s, Guatemalans of Mayan ancestry suffered state-sponsored violence (funded by the U.S.) during a long civil war. The 1990’s saw the Rwandan catastrophe mentioned earlier; the Clinton Administration sent troops into Bosnia when Slobodan Milosevic would not stop his state-sponsored genocide. Presently, in Darfur, a government-supported terror proceeds. Human rights groups monitor the situation and have brought it to the world’s attention, they attempt to help, yet thousands of people have been killed directly by troops or are dying from disease and malnutrition as refugees or displaced persons. Also, in Chechnya, there are concerns that serious human rights abuses are tolerated under the banner of preventing terrorism. Presently, the United States is holding suspects in Guantanamo Bay without bringing formal charges. thumb
Drawing by a 12 year old Cambodian child in a Thai refugee camp, 1979-1980 (Click image to enlarge)

Today more than ever, with our heightened awareness about killing, there are things we can do, actions we can take. Informing yourself and others is the first step. For organizations involved in helping the victims of genocide, "ethnic cleansing" or other crimes against humanity to which you can contribute time, effort or funds, go to Get Involved.


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