Genocide is not a thing of the past. Jon Danzig’s powerful and intensely personal account is a wake-up call for us all.
After the Second World War, during which many millions were systematically, industrially, gruesomely murdered in the worst genocidal crime against humanity, the earnest, global, unison cry was, ‘Never again’.
Those two words summed up the sincere, solemn feeling and resolve of a world shocked, numbed and reeling from the discovery that so many had been so callously rounded up and brutally murdered.
Not for anything they had done. But simply for who they were.
Mostly Jews, but also gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled…and others, many others.
Millions. Murdered. With the goal to wipe them out. Men, women, children, babies. Mass murdered. Destroyed. Deleted.
Never again. That was the response. Never again. Never again.
The means to achieve this noble intention was set in motion immediately.
THE UNITED NATIONS
The United Nations came into existence just 51 days after the World War came to an end – 24 October 1945.
Its goal? To maintain international peace and security and to promote respect for human rights, aided by the jurisdiction of the newly formed International Court of Justice.
One of the United Nation’s first tasks was to create the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ – described as the “international Magna Carta for all mankind.” It came into existence on 10 December 1948.
The Declaration unequivocally proclaimed the inherent rights of all human beings – all of them, all of us; every human; you, me, everyone; universally, and without exception. The Declaration has been translated into more languages than any other document, and ratified by 130 countries.
THE EUROPEAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
Alongside this international declaration of principle, Britain’s war time leader, Winston Churchill, passionately promoted the ‘European Charter of Human Rights’ – the world’s first international treaty to legally protect human rights on the continent of Europe.
In May 1948 Churchill said in the opening speech to the Congress of Europe in Holland:
“We aim at the eventual participation of all the peoples throughout the continent whose society and way of life are in accord with the Charter of Human Rights.”
British lawyers drafted what was later to become the ‘European Convention on Human Rights’. The UK was the first country to sign up to it on 4 November 1950, and the Convention came into force on 3 September 1953.
Including Britain, 47 countries agreed to the Convention, which provides civil and political rights for all citizens, enshrined in law and overseen by the European Court of Human Rights.
A UNITED EUROPE
Europe, in particular, had to change its ways. That’s where the planet’s two world wars originated. Right here, in Europe.
In direct response, the continent needed to be united. Never again should the countries of Europe go to war to resolve their differences. Never again.
Churchill, in his new role as ‘peace monger’ proposed a union of the countries of Europe as the antidote to war on our continent. He said, in the same 1948 speech in which he had also promoted the new Charter of Human Rights:
“We cannot aim at anything less than the Union of Europe as a whole, and we look forward with confidence to the day when that Union will be achieved.”
The European Coal and Steel Community – later to be become the European Economic Community and then later to be called the European Union – was established in 1951 with the express intent of avoiding wars in Europe again.
Trade was to be the means; peace was to be the ends.
NEVER AGAIN. NEVER AGAIN. NEVER AGAIN.
In direct response to the most horrific war and genocide the planet had ever known, the world rallied to find a way forward so that such wicked crimes against humanity could never happen again.
The United Nations. The International Court of Justice. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights. The European Union. All established in direct reply to the war, and all to achieve the same aim: peace.
This was the resolve of those who endured and survived the terrible atrocities of the fascist regimes that blighted the planet during the long years of war and madness.
Never again. Those were the words of our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents. That was the intent of the planet’s leaders following the eventual crushing of the world’s barbarous enemies. Never again.
Fine words. But utterly meaningless unless enforced.
Since the end of the Second World War, the words ‘never again’ have been cast in stone and stamped on our memories. But the atrocities that the post-war generation so sincerely wanted to prevent happening again, have happened again. And again.
Churchill described the mass murders in the Nazi death camps as ‘a crime without a name’. But it now has a name. It’s genocide.
And it’s a name that’s in frequent use because it’s a crime that’s frequently committed. Too many to list them all..
- The genocide in Brazil of thousands of Brazilian Indians between 1957 and 1968;
- The genocide of half-a-million people in Indonesia massacred between 1965 and 1967;
- The genocide of up to possibly 3 million mostly Hindu people in Bangladesh in 1971;
- The genocide of about 200,000 Mayan people in Guatemala between 1981 and 1983;
- The genocide of 2.2 million in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979;
- The genocide of millions of non-Arabs in Sudan’s on-off civil wars since 1955;
- The genocide in recent years by Islamic State, also known as Daesh, against many thousands of Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East;
- And so many other examples…
The photo accompanying this article shows the memorial stone at the site of the Nazi extermination camp based in Treblinka, Poland – one of over 40,000 death camps and incarceration centres purposely built to mass-murder or enslave millions of people during Hitler’s regime.
I drove to Treblinka in 1991. It was one of the most desolate, moving experiences of my life. It was dusk and I was there all alone.
I wanted to write ‘not another soul’. But all around me I could feel hanging in the air and deep in the ground the souls of the estimated 900,000 innocent people, who had been methodically and efficiently slaughtered in the camp’s six gas chambers.
There was a sinister silence all around. This was a most evil, awful place, and always will be.
The Nazis, in an attempt to avoid responsibility for their crimes, hastily destroyed much of the camp as they retreated from the advance of the ‘liberating’ Russian Red Army.
Today, the site of the camp, in a bare, bleak, clearing in the middle of a huge, menacing wood, is punctuated with hundreds of shards of rock, carefully placed in memory of the victims.
I prayed for them all before driving away. All the souls, but especially my grandparents, who it had been understood from patchy family history, were murdered there.
As darkness began to fall, I got completely lost trying to navigate the road leading from the camp, in the middle of the never-ending dense woods, through which light could barely penetrate, and it seemed didn’t want to either.
There were no other cars on the road, no street lighting, no signs, no satnav. For a long while I thought I’d never find a way out of there, and if I did, I never, ever wanted to go back.
But at least I can live to say that.
The memorial stone at Treblinka pleads in more than one language, ‘Never again’.
Because of my family history, hearing the name ‘Treblinka’ always created a deep spasm in the pit of my stomach.
In recent years, however, I have learnt from new research that I am still checking out, that my grandparents – Bertold and Helena Danzig – were not sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.
As a result of meticulous documentation left behind by the Nazi regime, and carefully pieced together by compassionate researchers, I now understand they were sent by train to the Sobibór camp, in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Sobibór was an extermination camp, not a concentration camp. Its sole purpose was mass murder, almost exclusively of Jewish people.
According to a newly published database of victims, Bertold was despatched to Sobibór on Transport Ax, no. 709 from Terezín in Czechoslovakia on 9 May 1942. Helena despatched on Transport Ax, no. 710 on the same day.
The train journey itself would have been unbearable.
Sobibór had only just been made fully operational as a place of mass extermination in the middle of May 1942.
So, if the train record is correct, my grandparents would have been among the first to perish there.
Soon after they arrived at the camp – separated even before the train journey began – my grandparents would have been told that they were in a transit camp.
Quaint buildings at the front of the camp would have hidden its true, deceitful, notorious purpose.
Assembled with all the other condemned passengers on the railway siding, SS-Oberscharführer Hermann Michel made a speech to them.
He wore a white coat to give the impression he was a doctor.
Michel announced that they would be sent to work. But before this they would have to take baths and undergo disinfection, to prevent the spread of diseases.
We know this from the testimony given in the trials that followed the war.
The men and women were all separated. Everyone, including my grandparents, would be told to completely undress.
All the women had their hair unceremoniously shaven off with brutal and speedy efficiency.
Then, the train passengers of that day would be led through the “Tube” into chambers, where Bertold and Helena would have been gruesomely gassed.
In total, some 170,000 to 250,000 innocent people were murdered at the Sobibór death camp.
But just one year after my 1991 trip, civil war started in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia.
In just one town of Srebrenica during just one month, in July 1995, over 7,000 Muslim men and boys along with 25,000-30,000 refugees were ruthlessly killed. This happened, despite the town being officially declared by the United Nations as a “safe haven” and patrolled by 400 Dutch peacekeepers.
The Srebrenica massacre is considered to be one of the greatest failures of the United Nations. It has been ruled to be genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
And today? Yes, today it’s happening again. Today.
Today, the International Court of Justice has found prima facie evidence that the Myanmar regime committed systematic violence against its Rohingya Muslim minority, tens of thousands of whom have been killed in brutal army crackdowns.
Today, there are genocide mass killings of Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic.
Today, China has locked up in “camps” a million or more Uighur Muslims in what’s been described as the worst human rights crisis in the world, referred to as ‘genocidal’ by the USA.
Today, Boris Johnson’s government plans to “push back” boats on the English Channel carrying refugees wanting to seek asylum in the UK.
Today, the Tory government is launching a review of the Human Rights Act.
Despite a commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights forming part of the Brexit trade agreement, it’s been a long-term goal of successive Tory governments to water down our human rights legislation.
Today, sections of our press describe stateless, desperate refugees as “cockroaches” and “illegals”.
Tomorrow, with all good intentions, politicians will no doubt pontificate on today’s horrendous crimes against humanity and declare, ‘Never Again’.
But isn’t it time we really meant it?
Jon Danzig is a campaigning journalist and film maker who specialises in writing about health, human rights, and Europe. He is also founder of the pro-EU information campaign, Reasons2Rejoin. You can follow Jon Danzig on his Facebook journalism page at www.Facebook.com/JonDanzigWrites