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Human rights born of Holocaust's horror

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The following are the introductory remarks made by David Matas at the start of the Voices of Survival panel discussions held in March at Winnipeg's Etz Chayim Synagogue. Other speakers were Robbie Waisman, a Holocaust survivor who spoke about his experience, and Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, a commission charged with telling the truth about the aboriginal residential school experience.

 

Introducing the topic is not so easy. Introducing either the Holocaust or the aboriginal residential school experience is a difficult enough task. Introducing them in juxtaposition is daunting indeed.

Why do we have these two topics together on the same panel? There is, to be sure, a parallel of human suffering, the impact the suffering of children has on their adult lives. Yet, there is more than that.

The Holocaust was an experience unique in human annals. We must beware of false analogies, equating other atrocities with the Holocaust. Yet, we must not isolate the Holocaust from the rest of human experience.

The genocide of the Jews was unprecedented in its scope, the attempt to kill every single Jew, no matter how old or young, no matter how able-bodied or disabled, no matter how distant from Judaism and the Jewish community. Conversion to Christianity or even to Nazism, inter-marriage, friends in Nazi high places, adoption of Jewish children by non-Jewish parents did not stop the Nazi killing machines. Nothing could.

Other mass killings both before and after the Second World War were local, territorial, national. The Holocaust was unprecedented not only in its unlimited scope, but also in its unlimited reach.

Never before or since has a group of people attempted to conquer the world so they could kill all and every member of another group. The Holocaust was a crime in which virtually every country in the globe was complicit, either by participating in the killings or by denying refuge to those attempting to escape or by granting safe haven to Nazi mass murderers. The Holocaust was not just a crime against humanity. It was a crime of humanity. The Holocaust was an act of insanity in which the whole world went mad.

The Holocaust was unique in its disconnection from reality. Other genocides grow out of political and ethnic conflicts. While the killing of innocents is always irrational, one can see with other genocides, the politics which led to the genocide. In contrast, with Nazi Germany, there was no such context or explanation. Historian Yehuda Bauer writes:

"For the first time in history, the motivation (of the genocide) had little, if anything, to do with economic or social factors, but was purely ideological, and the ideology was totally removed from any realistic situations."

Despite the unique nature of the Holocaust, I welcome the juxtaposition this panel represents. Isolating the Holocaust from the rest of human experience is a form of Holocaust denial, not denial the Holocaust happened, but denial the Holocaust was inflicted by ordinary human beings acting in ordinary everyday ways.

The Holocaust happened not just because there were racists in power in Germany, but because ordinary people around the world shared the views of Nazis and were eager to co-operate with them in carrying out their plan to extinguish all Jewish life. It is misleading to think of the Holocaust as a tale of devils and angels, of monsters and heroes. It is above all a tale of ordinary people. It was ordinary Germans who were primarily responsible for the Holocaust. However, they were far from solely responsible.

Of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, only 210,000 were Germans and Austrians. In the other places the Nazis went, they did not know the languages, the places or the people. Wherever they went, they relied heavily on local police, administrative personnel and home-grown fascists organized into militias to round up Jews for the death camps. Without the active collaboration of thousands and the passive indifference of millions, the Nazis could not have accomplished their mission of death.

In Canada, the government denied refuge to Jews fleeing Europe in response to popular anti-Semitic sentiment. If governments for decades did nothing to bring Nazi war criminals in Canada to justice, it was a reflection of public indifference to justice for the Holocaust.

The story of the Holocaust is, to be sure, the death of the Jews. But it is also the death of the illusion of the limits of evil. Because of the Holocaust, everything has changed. Our view of humanity can never be the same. Yet, if we put the Holocaust to one side nothing will change.

The Holocaust was the product of an advanced civilization, at the forefront of humanity's culture, technology, medicine, legal and administrative structures. Even during the midst of the Holocaust, many of the most highly educated of the day were among the most enthusiastic supporters of anti-Semitism. The Holocaust tells us that neither education, nor culture, nor intellect can immunize us from evil.

The progress of European civilization made the Holocaust easier, rather than harder, to perpetrate. The elaborate organization and systematic execution of the plan to extinguish the Jews -- the identification, the ghettoization, the trans-shipment, the death camps, the ovens, the gas chambers -- were the product of an advanced technological and industrial society. The Holocaust teaches us that industrial (and) technological development -- while they increase our material well-being-- also increase our capacity for evil. In an advanced civilization, murderers can kill an entire world.

Anti-Semitism wherever the Nazis went was not just an attitude, a policy and a behaviour. It was a legal structure, legislated by local parliaments and enforced by the local courts. Nazi laws stripped Jews of citizenship, forbade marriages and sexual relationships between Jews and non-Jews, stripped Jews of property, denied Jews access to the professions and the civil service. Many mass crimes are spasms of violence outside of any legal framework. The Holocaust was cosseted within an anti-Semitic legal framework. This experience teaches us the difference between the tyranny of law and the rule of law, the difference between law and justice.

While the concept of human rights existed before the Holocaust, its popular penetration and its global sweep, the notion of individuals as subjects with rights as against states are all directly linked to the Holocaust. The starting or tipping point for our current concept of human rights was the Holocaust. Indeed, though human rights is a general term untied in form to any particular violation or time or geographical location, in substance -- when we are referring to human rights -- we are referring to the global reaction to the Holocaust and the consequences of that reaction.

Seeing the problems aboriginals faced as human-rights problems and seeing the solutions as human-rights solutions arrived only after the Holocaust, because of the Holocaust. Before the advent of the human-rights revolution in reaction to the Holocaust, aboriginals were seen as different and treated differently.

The Holocaust was an exogenous event with an endogenous impact. Revulsion to the Holocaust generated a paradigm shift from the stratification of humanity to the equality of humanity. The notion of aboriginals as equals became prevalent. The shift to human rights meant discriminatory and abusive practices inflicted on aboriginals either ended or lessened. Nonetheless, the problems the aboriginal population faced from past discrimination have been far from resolved.

Though aboriginal populations, as such, were completely absent from the drafting conventions which produced the international human-rights instruments, the result was an ethic which resonated with the global aboriginal community. Aboriginals have their own human-rights tradition. The welcome aboriginals gave to the arriving colonial powers, a better welcome in retrospect than they deserved, came from the aboriginal human-rights tradition. Human rights here, as elsewhere, became a common language, a bridge over the divide between culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

For aboriginals, human rights has not been a panacea. The advent of human rights does not mean we have solved all problems, healed all wounds, cured all defects.

This failure is attributable to three different causes. First, the human-rights revolution is incomplete. There is still need for the development of both standards and mechanisms to promote respect for the human rights of aboriginals.

Second, even where we have standards and mechanisms, we do not necessarily have respect for human rights. People still discriminate against aboriginals, not as systematically as they used to do, but still in sufficiently large numbers for it to be a real problem.

As well, the issue of respect for economic, social and cultural rights remains. The right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing and the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health are, for aboriginals, honoured in the breach.

Third, the end to human-rights violations is not to the end of the consequences. The effects of discrimination can be felt for generations.

That is certainly true of aboriginal residential schools. When children are taken away from their parents, it means they cannot draw on the role modelling of their parents in raising the next generation. When children are not taught the language and culture of their parents, they can not transmit that language and culture to their children. So, the next generation suffers.

The value of the juxtaposition in which we are engaged this evening I see is this:

A Holocaust-derived human-rights optic gives us a lens through which non-aboriginals can see the harm they have inflicted on aboriginal communities. When we hear that in some parts of Canada, 90 per cent of children were taken away from their parents, that the ones who escaped were those who hid in the bush, that the children once taken away were barred from contact with their parents for years, that siblings who were taken away together were then split up in the schools, that the children were not allowed to speak their own language or learn their own culture, that they were physically abused for disciplinary reasons, and all this was done by people who thought they were acting in the best interests of these children, we reel back in abhorrence.

Yet, without a human-rights sensibility derived from the Holocaust experience, we would not feel that abhorrence. Indeed without the commitment to human rights generated by the Holocaust experience, non-aboriginals might be continuing those abusive practices to this day.

The atrocities of the Holocaust experience sensitize us to the horrors of the aboriginal experience. Because of the Holocaust, we are no longer naive enough to think that what happened to the aboriginals in Canada could not have happened. As well, the human-rights lessons of the Holocaust give us the standards, the mechanisms and the commitment to remedy the victimization of the aboriginal experience.

 

David Matas is an international human-rights lawyer based in Winnipeg. He is senior honorary counsel to B'nai Brith Canada.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 J12

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