Remembrance Day ceremonies on Nov. 11 also bring out the Kleenex, as do other events that recall the tragedies of the past. But are all tears created equal? Is Jewish suffering, for example, more meaningful than the misery of soldiers who died of starvation and brutality in Japanese prison camps, or of Ukrainians who perished in the Great Famine of 1931-32?
Obviously, on an individual level, one family's pain is equal to another's, regardless of their religion or politics. But the nature of Jewish suffering, I submit, is unique.
Jews have been the victims of persecution for their entire 5,000-year history, a fact that has come to define what it means to be Jewish. American blacks share a 400-year history of slavery and discrimination, the Irish have had a grudge with the British for 1,000 years and aboriginals have a trail of tears going back 500 years, but there is nothing quite the same as the Jewish experience, a story of survival like no other.
When a Jew moans at the mention of the Holocaust, it isn't just because he lost his entire extended family in Hitler's gas chambers, it's also because a sophisticated and ancient European-Jewish culture was obliterated. It is not lost on any Jew that Israel is vulnerable to the same fate.
Some critics have opposed the plan by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to build a permanent exhibit to the Holocaust, saying it gives unfair attention to one tragedy over all the others. More people died in the Ukrainian Famine than in the Holocaust, so doesn't it deserve at least equal square footage? But if body counts are used to determine priorities in the museum, then perhaps the largest spaces should be allotted to the memory of Mao Zedong's 20 million victims, or to the 26 million Soviet citizens who died in the Second World War.
The Holocaust remains the single greatest crime against humanity. It is unique in history and it deserves to be a central focus of the museum. It's not that the other tragedies aren't important, but they're not the same as the Jewish Shoah. Stalin, for example, was trying to crush Ukrainian nationalism when he imposed the famine that may have killed 10 million people. He was not interesting in obliterating Ukrainians as a people elsewhere. When the Hutus started killing the Tutsis in Rwanda's 1994 genocide, it was strictly a local matter, much like most genocides.
The Nazis, however, were not content to merely kill the Jews of Germany, who represented less than one per cent of the total population, they wanted to eliminate them wherever they could get them. At the height of the war, the Germans occupied or controlled most of Europe, giving them access to millions of Jews. They used all the powers, resources and technology of a modern state to accomplish their goals, recruiting scientists, bureaucrats and collaborators in every occupied nation. The goal of extermination, in fact, eventually became an even greater priority than the war itself, as evidenced by the fact rolling stock needed by the army was often redirected to carry Jews to the gas chambers.
The Holocaust was also the catalyst for the modern understanding of the importance of human rights. According to an essay by Winnipeg lawyer and human-rights advocate David Matas, it led to the creation of international criminal courts and to UN conventions on human rights, genocide, refugees, the rights of children, and the establishment of standards against torture. "The whole United Nations human rights superstructure has its foundations in the Holocaust," he wrote.
Nevertheless, despite powerful evidence that the Holocaust is a special event in history, the idea of using it to teach about human rights in the new Winnipeg museum has always been a bit of a sensitive issue, mostly because of the fear of a backlash. Even today, then, Jews have to be a little careful about touting their own history and tragedies. Jewish leaders, for example, bristle at any suggestion the Holocaust is just one among many genocides, but some of them are uncomfortable with loud public protestations of victimhood.
The Holocaust monument at the Manitoba legislature features the names of 3,700 victims of the Holocaust whose families reside in Manitoba. The ceremonies going on this week will mark their personal and individual suffering, but they will also continue a 5,000-year tradition of devotion and remembrance.