Saturday, April 23, 2011
Two inexpressibly sad anniversaries are coming up next week.
On May 1 Berkeley will join cities all over the world in observing Holocaust Remembrance Day, mourning the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.
This year, the ceremony has been moved from the City Council Chamber to the New Freight & Salvage in downtown Berkeley. It will start at 10:30 a.m., and the public is cordially invited.
The guest of honor will be Murray Gordon, a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp, who fought with the Lithuanian resistance against the German forces who invaded his country.
He was only 15 the day they marched into his hometown. The first thing they did was round up everyone who was too old, too young or too sick to work, including his grandmother and grandfather, and shoot them.
1.5 million children perished during the Holocaust, including 1.2 million Jewish children, tens of thousands of Gypsy children and thousands of handicapped children.
But Gordon escaped through a hole in the barbed wire fence and made his way to the Lithuanian forest, where he joined a group of freedom fighters.
He was wounded five different times and finally captured by the Germans, who sent him to Dachau. On April 29, 1945, the camp was liberated by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese American unit that was awarded more medals than any other unit in American history.
"For a long time, I couldn't talk about the liberation without tears," he says.
But the Holocaust wasn't history's first genocide. And, as more recent mass murders in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and other countries have sadly proved, it wasn't the last, either.
On April 24 Armenians will mourn the genocide of their people during World War I, when Turkish troops forced more than a million Armenian civilians on a death march in the Syrian desert with no food or water. Anyone who lagged behind was shot.
Unlike the Holocaust, which happened so recently that many survivors are still here to bear witness, the Armenian genocide happened so long ago that no eyewitnesses are left.
So the stories have been handed down in each family from generation to generation. I talked with some Cal students of Armenian descent a few months ago, and they still feel the pain as if it had happened yesterday.
"To this day, any time my grandmother tells her father's story, she cries," said Nairi Hartooni.
Like the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide has its deniers, who claim it never happened; or if it did, the numbers are exaggerated; or even if the numbers are correct, it was just collateral damage.
But more objective observers, including contemporary reports in the New York Times, put the deaths at somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million. And, as usual, a disproportionate number were women and children.
Neither Jews nor Armenians are asking for vengeance. We can't even expect justice because there's no punishment severe enough to fit the crime.
But there is one thing we must do: Never forget.
On August 22, 1939, Adolf Hitler met with his top henchmen to plan the Final Solution. Somebody pointed out that murdering millions of Jews might be bad public relations, but Hitler laughed him off.
"After all," he said, "who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"