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Why we need to talk about genocide

Menachem Rosensaft lives with ghosts. That’s perhaps not so surprising as one of them is his brother Benjamin. The latter was five and a half when the Nazis sent him to the gas chambers in Birkenau, along with his father and other family members. Ghosts have haunted the Renaissance-like writer, poet, human rights activist, and legal scholar, an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, instructor-in-law at Columbia Law School. In January 2017, President Obama reappointed Professor Rosensaft to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, having previously been named to the Council by President Obama in 2010 and President Clinton in 1994 and 1999. He is also the author of a recently published volume of poetry,  Poems Born on Bergen-Belsen .

When I was researching my project on genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries, I was introduced to Professor Rosensaft. He was born in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in 1948. The Holocaust may be more than seven decades in the past. However, in our discordant world, its horrors still resonate, especially as genocides continue, with ongoing politically-charged examples such as the Rohingyas in Myanmar, the Uighurs in China and the struggle to have the massacre at Srebrenica recognised as a genocide by the international community.

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The last hundred years have distinguished themselves as some of the bloodiest in history. The genocide of the Namaqua and Herero people that began in 1904, perpetrated by the Germans in their former southwest African colony, Namibia, is now considered the first genocide of the previous century. American President Joe Biden finally acknowledged the Armenian Genocide in April 2021, precisely one hundred and six years after it began.

Professor Rosensaft has first-hand experience as the child of two remarkable Holocaust survivors. His mother, Ada Bimko, had studied dentistry at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Nancy in France before the war and practised as a dental surgeon in her home town of Sosnowiec, Poland. She and her family were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in early August of 1943, along with five thousand others from the ghetto.   

“We were guarded by SS men and women,” she wrote in her memoirs. “One SS man was standing in front of the people, and he started the selection. With a single movement of his finger, he was sending some people to the right and some to the left. . . . Our five-year-old son went with his father… As we were separated, our son turned to me and asked, ‘Mommy, are we going to live or die?’ I didn’t answer this question.”

After her parents, first husband, and child were murdered, she was assigned to work in the camp’s Jewish infirmary under the infamous SS Dr Josef Mengele, known as the “angel of death” in the Birkenau infirmary. She tried to save as many lives as possible. Inmates who came in with high fevers were automatically destined for death, so she got them dressed and out of the hospital before the SS doctors arrived. 

In her memoirs , she recalled, “women came to the infirmary with abscesses, furuncles, and wounds inflicted by dogs as well as from the whips of the SS guards who watched the women at work. We tried to help these women as much as possible… The infirmary was not very well equipped. There were mirrors for looking into mouths and scissors to cut bandages. We had only some paper bandages, which looked like rolls of toilet paper, and a very few pills.” Because she had to obtain supplies from the SS pharmacy, she got to know some of the Jewish inmates who worked there and who “let me steal things from time to time. I stole such things as ether for anaesthesia and aspirin. We didn’t have to steal the paper bandages.”

In November 1944, she was sent to Bergen-Belsen by Mengele, where she became the chief doctor in the women’s camp. Belsen was different in that there were no gas chambers, no mass killing, just an utter lack of hygiene, overcrowding and typhus  among other epidemics. During the brutal winter of 1945, she and a group of other women kept 149 children alive in what became a kind of a children’s home that they could put together.   

When British troops entered the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, they found unimaginable scenes. More than 60,000 people were sick and starving, while thousands of corpses were piled up and strewn around the camp in various stages of decomposition. Child survivor Mala Tribich remembered how Belsen was “something beyond description. There was a terrible stench of burning flesh. The crematorium could not cope with all the bodies, so they were burning them in pits. People were so emaciated, they looked like skeletons. They would be walking along and just drop dead.” These were the images of Belsen that they circulated around the world as newspapers and newsreels exposed this hell on earth. The scale of human misery was unimaginable. Even the British soldiers were unprepared for the horror that they witnessed. Ten thousand dead bodies were strewn around Bergen-Belsen.

The war was still going on when the British liberated Bergen-Belsen. They could only leave behind a small staff to deal with the tens of thousands of critically ill survivors. Brigadier H. L. Glyn-Hughes, the Deputy Director of Medical Services of the British Army of the Rhine, discovered that the 33-year Ada Bimko was a dentist and spoke French. He appointed her to organise a group of doctors and nurses among the survivors to help tend to the camp’s sick and dying. For several months on end, she and her team, very few of whom had any medical training, worked alongside the British military doctors and nurses to save as many survivors as possible.

Despite their desperate efforts, almost 14,000 more died during the two months following the liberation. Bergen-Belsen truly epitomised the last chapter of the war.

It is also where Dr Bimko met her future husband. A few days after liberation, a group of Jewish survivors of Belsen set up a committee to represent their interests to their liberators. They refused to be housed in the same barracks with Nazi collaborators or other anti-Semites. Still, their concerns were primarily met with indifference. Most of the British officers and soldiers just wanted to go home and restart their lives. As one of their first acts as they elected a political leader, Josef Rosensaft, then 34, Menachem’s father, who headed both the Belsen Jewish Committee and the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany until the DP camp was closed in the summer of 1950, and who, in the words of one of his fellow survivors, Rafael Olewski, “devoted himself to his task with the burning fanaticism of a Messenger”.

Josef Rosensaft was a firebrand who repeatedly clashed with the British military authorities. When the British tried to transfer several thousand survivors from Belsen to another DP camp where conditions were substantially inferior, Menachem’s father defied the military authorities. He brought one group of survivors back and prevented another group from leaving. Brought before a military tribunal, Rosensaft was eventually acquitted, and the point was made. The Jewish DPs insisted on being in charge of their own destinies.  

When the British, sensitive to the negative connotations associated with the Belsen name, tried to rename the DP camp, Rosensaft and his colleagues simply ignored them. Letters addressed to him at the “Höhne” camp were answered on stationery bearing a “Bergen-Belsen” letterhead. 

Like father, like son: Menachem Rosensaft, too, has been outspoken in insisting that genocides other than the Holocaust be recognised as such. In particular, he has publicly opposed repeated attempts to deny that the slaughter of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at and around Srebrenica in July 1995 constituted genocide.

“Together with others of the post-Holocaust generations, we must raise our collective voices on behalf of all, Jews and non-Jews alike, who are subjected to discrimination and persecution, or who are threatened by annihilation, anywhere in the world. We may not be passive, or allow others to be passive, in the face of oppression, for we know only too well that the ultimate consequence of apathy and silence was embodied forever in the flames of Auschwitz and the mass-graves of Bergen-Belsen.”  

In a recent interview with  Al Jazeera , Menachem said: “It is absurd and offensive even to suggest that one genocide or crime against humanity is more heinous than another. All victims of such atrocities deserve the dignity and respect of having their agony and suffering recognised and remembered. Elie Wiesel taught that “the Holocaust was a unique and uniquely Jewish event, albeit with universal implications.” In the same vein, the Srebrenica genocide was a unique and uniquely Bosniak event, albeit with universal implications, just as the Rwandan genocide was a unique and uniquely Tutsi event, albeit again with universal implications. Each genocide and each crime against humanity must be seen as a unique event from the perspective and through the prism of its victims, but always with universal implications.”

Rosensaft credits Ronald S. Lauder, the philanthropist and former U S Ambassador to Austria, with changing his professional trajectory. “One day in the summer of 1995,” Rosensaft says, “we were both returning from Washington and sat together on the shuttle flight to New York City. He listened patiently as I told him about my work as a lawyer. When I finished, he said, ‘That’s all very nice, but if you want to do something meaningful with your life, call me.’ We spoke at length several days later, and I then spent the next five years running one of his foundations that worked on rebuilding Jewish life in eastern and central Europe.” 

In 2000, Menachem returned to practicing law. In 2009, Lauder, then president of the World Jewish Congress, appointed him as the organisation’s general counsel. In 2019, he also became the WJC’s associate executive vice president. “Ronald Lauder has enabled me to merge my legal skills and experience with my passion for and commitment to Jewish causes and Holocaust remembrance. It is something for which I will always be deeply indebted to him.”

Menachem explains that “many, if not most, children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors live with ghosts. We are haunted much in the way a cemetery is haunted. We bear within us the shadows and echoes of an anguished dying we never experienced or witnessed.”

Menachem’s ghost is his half-brother, Benjamin. “Ever since I can remember,” he says, “I have looked at a framed photograph of a little boy with dark hair, sharp, intelligent eyes, and a serious demeanour looking straight ahead into the lens, seemingly through the lens. My mother rarely spoke about my brother, but I am certain that she looked at this picture every day of her life. Since my mother’s death in 1997, Benjamin has existed inside of me. I see his face in my mind, try to imagine his voice, his fear as the gas chamber doors slammed shut, his final tears. If I were to forget him, he would disappear.”

Menachem views his mission in life to be three-fold: to ensure that the memory of his brother, his grandparents, and all the victims of the Holocaust become a permanent part, not just of the Jewish people’s but of humanity’s collective consciousness; to fight against and eradicate as much as possible all forms of anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry, and xenophobia; and to teach the lessons inherent in the Holocaust and other genocides to civil society as a whole, in the uphill effort to prevent future crimes against humanity and genocides.

A significant figure in Holocaust studies, he has written and edited distinguished and profound works on the second-generation movement of children of survivors. The term Second Generation —  short for “ second-generation survivors ” — is commonly used to describe the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, some of whom deal with second-hand trauma.  

Still, in one of my many conversations with Menachem, he told me he didn’t like that term, and I tend to agree with him. “In reality, not a single one of us who was born after the end of the Holocaust is a survivor,” he says. “That is also true for the children of Armenian, Tutsi and Bosniak genocide survivors. We — and they — didn’t suffer, never saw anyone murdered, did not have to go through the horrors of the concentration camps. We were never starved or beaten or experimented on.” 

Most children of survivors were not persecuted. They grew up in family homes, went to school, had food on the table, made friends, travelled, and carved out new lives for themselves. They did have a unique insight, a more intuitive understanding, because the Holocaust was not an abstract historical event but part of family history. Seeing someone else’s pain means you can relate to it. “But,” says Menachem, “this still doesn’t make us survivors or give us any special privileges. Our identity gives us a special responsibility, to be sure, but no privileges.” 

Genocide, he says, is “an abomination” that the civilised world has not been able to stop. “Now, let’s be real,” he told me. “ Genocide did not suddenly appear out of nowhere at some point in the 20th century. This has been a historic presence going back many centuries, even millennia. But the enormity of the Holocaust was such that it was impossible for the international community, for the civilised world, to ignore it.”  

“However you want to define it,” Menachem explains, “crimes against humanity or genocides are the result of one group, usually but not necessarily a government, deciding to murder, to destroy, another group. They don’t do that with sticks and rubber bullets. They do it with lethal violence. The only way to stop such violence is to counter it with violence. The way to prevent genocide or a crime against humanity is to be willing to send in the troops to try and put an end to it. We’ve seen from Srebrenica that UN peacekeeping forces alone aren’t going to do the trick. Unless someone gives you the wherewithal, your choices are limited.”

He continues: “When you talk about prevention, economic sanctions are not going to do it.” They are not working in Myanmar currently. “Diplomatic entreaties are not going to do it. Appealing to someone’s better nature isn’t going to do it, because no one who has an iota worth of decency is going to commit genocide.”

Committing genocide means committing a crime against humanity, but also against individual, flesh-and-blood human beings. It means that you are willing to go out there and start butchering men, women, children, infants, old people, sick people, neighbours — even friends. Menachem is soberly realistic: “There isn’t a person with an ounce of decency within them who does not believe that this is a criminal act. And if they do it anyway, then education is going to be useless. It’s a mistake to think that one can reason with people who are fanatics. If they’re out to kill you, you telling them, ‘No, this is wrong,’ isn’t going to work. On the other hand, the way to keep such killers in check is not to let them get to the point where they are allowed to run loose.”

But are we well-served by considering genocide as separate from crimes against humanity? Menachem believes the two legal concepts, which emerged and were developed during and after World War II, to be equally severe in nature. “What I am saying,” he says, “is that we are playing with legal definitions. To my mind, crimes against humanity are as heinous a category as genocide.” It’s an argument that has raged in the legal world since then. From a legal point of view, he says, it is simply not true that genocide is the greatest of all crimes. “Genocide is a crime that falls into a particular category. It doesn’t mean that if you have the mass killing of people who do not happen to fall into a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as defined by the Genocide Convention, that the crime is any less severe. That’s why we have to keep talking about genocide.