Have we asked the big questions yet?

'Do you think we have asked really big  questions yet?'  Gerda Weissman Klein looks at me intently through bright blue eyes, a shock of silver hair waving around her aged skin.  She did not wait for my answer.  'Well I do not believe we have, and I don't think survivors are the right people to ask those questions.  It is going to require psychologists, and Social scientists and a whole range of disciplines to work it out.  And it wont happen in our life time.' 

Klein was first published on May 25th 1945 in the 5th American Infantry Division magazine. In her liberation statement she extols the virtue of freedom and the liberties which make societies safe.  Over 65 years later she is still at it.  Her eyes light up as she says 'I have an important project... and this is my boss.'  Her grandaighter Alysa laughs at the thought that anyone could actually be Gerda's boss, but Klein was not being insincere.  In practice Alysa does manage her day to day affairs - speaking engagements, trips to the White House, and the many many public high school talks she does.  But the role Klein really refers to is the charity the two of them started called Citizenship Counts, which encourages young people to understand and appreciate the value of being a citizen.  

Klein lost her entire immediate family during the Holocaust, but has dedicated her life to telling the story and conveying a powerful message  about the importance of human freedoms. In May of '45 she found the words to convey what freedom stood for in the literal sense of moving from slavery into physical freedom.  Following that trajectory she has indeed tried to answer at least one of the big questions - 'How do we as citizens understand and preserve the freedoms we have available to us?'

Chemical Threats. Take them Seriously.

On the video screen two innocent rabbits sit looking passively out a glass tank.  Concern flashes through their eyes as the noxious vapor hits their noses.  They do not panic.  Instead they try to find the corner of the tank in search of cleaner air.  But there is no escape.  Sixty seconds later they lie twitching in the throes of death.  The video is intended to shock.  But it is no idle threat.  The video identifies the next victims of the chemicals in the room as the 'Nusairis', a derogatory term for the Alawi Syrian mystic sect.  There were reports that over a hundred Alawis were killed in an purposeful attack on the group during the conflict this week.  It is time to decipher whether the boundaries between war and genocidal murder are being eroded and to act accordingly.

We have been here many times before.  Combatants and civilians are being killed in this conflict.  It is a fact of war.   The right of the rebel groups in Syria to shape their own destiny and overthrow the incumbent regime is not in dispute.  The right of the regime to respond is also respected within international conventions and norms.   We are witnessing a political armed struggle in which both sides are seeking allies including whatever political, tactical and military support they can garner.  There is nothing exceptional about that either. 

But the death of over 30,000 civilians is a heavy toll indeed, and is where our concern should really focus.  Breaches of the Geneva Convention or other human security conventions should not be condoned (on either side) and should be dealt with severely.  Civilian death toll in rebel territory at approximately outweighs deaths of combatants three to one.  A fact that speaks for itself, even if the numbers do contain additional combatant deaths.  History has proved we do not have good track record discerning the difference between war, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, especially while events are unfolding. We need to be alert and responsive to this right now.  

Genocide rarely takes place in broad daylight without a parallel conflict in play - but war and genocide are not the same thing.  They often occur simultaneously, but are completely separate activities with distinct motives.  Even when genocide is used as a tactic of ideologically driven power, its motives and actions are different from the act of war itself.  The Holocaust happened simultaneously to WWII, but it was not the same thing.  The Tutsi Genocide happened simultaneously to the ongoing war between the Habyaramana regime and the Rwanda Patriotic Front, but it was not the same thing.   The point being, if we focus solely on the conflict, we may actually miss what is really happening to the people that live there – and that is where our humanitarian responsibility lies. That is when we need to ask ourselves - what if that was me.

This week the threat of chemical weapons was in the news.  We heard of the suspicion that Assad is preparing to load chemicals into weapons systems to use against the rebels.  The You Tube video of the rabbits being gassed was posted by an individual claiming to be with the rebels.  He was seen in a room filled with chemical bottles of some kind of nerve agent.  His threat to the ‘Nusairis’ has it roots in a long history of hatred toward the Alawi people, who are only deemed to have been safe because of the Assad regime.  Whatever the truth of the claims on either side of chemical warfare, the very intent to use chemical weapons is clearly targeted for use against civilians.  And we know from history that we take threats to kill groups of people seriously.

Assad’s Government is almost certainly totally ignoring the Geneva conventions in his battle with the rebel groups as does not consider himself at war with a legitimate entity.  He is out to quash what he views as an insurrection anyway he chooses - including chemicals. Whatever the position of the US, Assad will never recognize the rebels as the legitimate political opposition, so the point is moot.

While we all busy ourselves working out how to work with the rebel groups – including their Islamist factions, some of whom are condemned by the US as terrorist organizations - we need to be aware of the sinister possibility that crimes against and humanity and genocidal violence could yet emerge. The rebels may yet deem the murder of Alawites appropriate reprisal for disproportionate civilian deaths inflicted by the Assad regime.

It could get a great deal more bloody than it needs to, unless the objectives of the war are disentangled from emerging criminal threats from all sides targeted at sectors of the civilian population. The US needs to make sure it reminds its new allies now that it has its support it will hold the rebels feet to the fire on its treatment of civilians in territory it holds.


It is 75 years since the day the Japanese army entered the capital city of China, Nanking.  What was to unfold over the following six weeks turned out to be the harbinger of a further six years of a global slaughter of civilians.  The Japanese army had held siege to the walled city of Nanking in early December demanding 'surrender or complete annihilation'.   The city did not surrender and after its fall on December 12th 1937 the Japanese army entered the city on a rampage of torture, murder, rape, looting and arson, which was to leave the city decimated and as many as 300,000 Chinese civilians dead.

Today there is a large memorial in the busy town of Nanjing, China, which sprawls well beyond the city of walls.  It is situated at the site of mass graves, which in 1937 were outside of the walls.  At the ceremony VIPs and guests will stand and honor a dwindling huddle of survivors of the massacre.  They are the last and aging eyewitnesses to the horrific events that unfolded in front of their youthful eyes sventy five years ago.  

Last year I visited the Nanjing Memorial site and had opportunity to meet two of those survivors.  I was struck by how real and searing the pain of those six weeks was in their voices four generations on.  That kind of pain does not go away.  I was also struck by their strength.  As with many acts of genocide, the killers themselves denied the atrocities and denial of the events is still highly active in Japan today.  Both the diminutive figures I spoke to, frail physically and in old age, had been to Japan to fight for recognition and educate the next generation.  Tremendous courage in their latter years.

The Nanjing Memorial has over 5m visitors a year, making one of the most visited 'attractions' in China.  The 1937 massacre in Nanking still has powerful historical, social and political meaning in China as a potent symbol of the Sino-Japanese War, but what struck me most from the vast exhibition display and memorial grounds, was the thirty foot stack of box files containing the written testimonies of the survivors. 

As the nation of China and the families of the victims gather to remember the events of 1937 at the Memorial, we will honor that small group of people who know the destructive power of genocidal killing.  They are its last witnesses, whose voices must always be heard.   

Did You Ever Meet Hitler Miss?

 There was something unique about sitting at the small dining table next to the kitchen hatch.  Whenever I sat there listening to her shuffling about in the kitchen, I absorbed everything around me intrigued that Trude and Franz had created a little enclave of Central Europe  right there in Mill Hill. Like stepping back in time and space, their sense of connection to their roots seeped into every nook and cranny - the love of literature, music, art, architecture, and of course good European food.  Trude was in the kitchen and passed strong coffee, pumpernickel, salami and cheese through the hole in the wall, piling it up around me.   Then we sat and talked about the Holocaust.  Well Holocaust education to be more precise.  That was the routine.

Ever since I first met her in 1994 Trude had a computer.   In the middle of our conversation she would get up, sit at the desk in front of the screen looking for a letter she received and the email she was drafting to respond. “Just listen to this Stephen… “  she would read the letter in full and then her response in full too.    She looked at me over her glasses, her white shock of hair steely with determination.  “I am determined I will always answer every letter that is sent to me.

From those conversations, we worked together on her unique book, “Did you ever meet Hitler Miss.”.  What humor, and cutting cynicism.  She is the only Holocaust survivor I know who has the name of Adolf Hitler in the title of both her books.  Page after page.  Questions.  Answers.  More Questions.  More Answers.  She never professed to have to only answer, but she always took the time to give her point of view and to be at the other end of the question.  In her view the most important thing was that young people learn to ask questions.  “Critical thinking!  That’s the lesson of the Holocaust!  Children need to learn critical thinking.”

And then there was Germany - her many trips to Germany where she traveled over and over.  Her principle was simple.  If people want to know the truth, then be there with them to tell them the truth they want to hear.  “It’s not the fault of this generation that their grandfathers were killers.  I don’t blame them.  I want to help them understand it. That’s why I go there.”

I was planning my visit back to England last Tuesday and said to Heather, ‘you know we must call in and see Trude while we are in England - time is precious and who knows how many more occasions there will be to see each other. ‘   I guess I would have loved just one more chance to sit at that table surrounded by her thoughts and questions with my pumpernickel stacked with salami.  But that was not to be.  The following day I learned of her death.  I wish I could say how sorry I was at that moment, but actually I shook my head and smiled with some satisfaction on her behalf, knowing that indomitable woman had soldiered on, often in immense physical pain, and never wavered in her life’s mission.  She would never rest in peace during her lifetime - she would not allow herself that luxury - but now she truly does rest in peace, because she knew, and we know, she could not have done more. 


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April 2014

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  1. Have we asked the big questions yet?
    Sunday, December 30, 2012
  2. Chemical Threats. Take them Seriously.
    Saturday, December 15, 2012
  3. Nanking75
    Wednesday, December 12, 2012
  4. Did You Ever Meet Hitler Miss?
    Tuesday, December 11, 2012
  5. Welcome
    Monday, December 10, 2012

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