13 May, 2018

Dangers of Indifference

I have always been interested in WWI and WWII history. My grandfather was gassed at Vimy Ridge and my dad served in WWII. I have visited D Day’s Juno beach (our rescue Schnauzer is named Juno), Vimy Ridge, Beaumont-Hamel; and toured Churchill’s Command bunker in London. And I have read widely from Tim Cook’s books (“The Necessary War, At the Sharp End”) “The Great War” by Hart, “Juno Beach” by Zuehlke, “The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich” by Shirer, and many more.

Of course, when one learns about WWII they also become very aware of the Holocaust. To learn more about this horrific event I have toured Holocaust museums from Washington to London. But I thought if I was to really understand the Holocaust’s origin and the depth of its depravity I needed to go to Germany - specifically Berlin. The city of Berlin was 90% destroyed by Allied bombing during the war, but the Germans have rebuilt it into a thriving, friendly, world class city. They also have not ignored their dark past. During my stay I visited the “Typography of Terror” exhibit which chronicled the rise of Nazism in the early 30’s to its end in a Berlin bomb shelter. We also visited the very moving “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” It’s centre piece is the ‘Field of Stelae” located on a 4.7-acre site near the Brandenburg Gate. It is like a gray forest constructed of more that’s 2500 geometrically arranged concrete pillars, all slightly different in size. When I walked through it I was overwhelmed with feeling of hopelessness and loneliness, which I image the millions of victims of the Holocaust felt much much more.

Our trip also took us to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp 35 kilometres north of the city. On its front gate is the infamous slogan “arbeit macht frei” (“work sets you free”) that greeted over two hundred thousand prisoners from 1933 to 1945. The camp was allegedly built to “protect” its inmates (Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, communists, political opponents, intellectuals); but it immediately became a house of horror torturing its inmates and killing approximately 60,00O of its them during the camp’s Nazi existence. Interestingly the Russians used it for a similar purpose for 5 years after the war. One of its prisoners was the author of the quote that heads this post - Martin Niemolller, a prominent Protestant pastor who was an out spoken foe of Hitler. What stood out to me during my five hour stay at Sachsenhausen was the disturbing cold efficiency of how the Nazi went about making the place Hell on earth for everyone who passed through its gate.

So, the trip made me more learned about the war, the horrible leaders who enthusiastically encouraged it; and the everyday citizens who originally supported it. However, it also heightened my awareness of all the signs that indicate that many countries and their leaders are still very capable of slipping into this barbaric behaviour once again, as Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor warned “it happened, therefore it can happen again. For instance:

  • since the end of the war major acts of genocide have occurred in Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur, etc. and are ongoing today in Syria’s with the killing of their own citizens, and Burma’s treatment of Rohingya refugees.

  • right wing social media accounts by Fox News personalities, David Duke, Alex Ones ,etc. are readily available to stir up hate. For instance, the Quebec City mosque shooter scoured the numerous social media accounts of right wing and alt-right commentators before he killed six Muslim men and injured 19 others. And Canadians like Faith Goldy and Ezra Levant’s increasingly hateful Rebel Media are no better. Thousands of people fueled by the likes of them jumped to the immediate conclusion that the person responsible for the recent Toronto van attack was a Muslim immigrant.

  • a white nationalist killed nine people in historic black church in South Carolina. Thankfully three white men in Kansas City were apprehended and convicted for plotting to massacre Muslim refugees.

  • the president of the world’s most powerful country is at best circumspect about the rise of white national hate crimes, or at worse emboldens them: “some very fine people”. I worry that voting in the last U.S. election were too much along the lines of one’s skin colour. E.g. Trump supporters were 50% white vs 21% people of colour. So, I fear too many whites may support what he says because they are just hearing themselves.

  • in Germany it is against the law to display Nazi symbols (flags, uniforms, slogans and forms of greetings). However, in Georgia the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest white supremacist groups in the U.S., openly burned a large Nazi swastika, gave the Nazi salute and chanted “Sieg Hell”.

  • much closer to home there has been a noticeable increase in hate crimes in Mississauga and Brampton against the black, Jewish, South Asian and LGBTQ communities. Doug Ford, the head of the Ontario PC party, enthusiastically installed Andrew Lawton, a far-right ex Rebel online host (anti Muslim, anti-Semitic, white supremacist views). And then Ford only dropped Tanya Granic Allen as a PC candidate when she was outed on video for her homophobia and islamophobia beliefs. Oh, and in Toronto a black customer was asked to prepay for his meal.

And I could go on and on and on ......

So, are we doomed to repeat history? Yes, if we are indifferent! The dictionary defines it as:

“lack of interest, sympathy, concern, unimportance, insignificance”.

In his excellent “The Perils of Indifference” speech the late Elie Wiesel (check out the entire 21-minute speech on YouTube) described it far better:

“What is indifference? Etymologically the word means ‘no difference’. A strong and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, guilty and compassion, good and evil”.

Wiesel also went on to say:

“of course indifference can be tempting - more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbours are of no consequence. And therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction”.

So, will it be awkward for us to speak out when young men of colour are harassed by the police? Will it be troublesome to push back against far-right hate speech? Will it be so much easier to let regressive politicians eat away at the city services that are so important for our marginalized citizens? Will we reduce our struggling neighbours to an abstraction?

Silence is indifference’s best comforter. Silence is its fertilizer to grow.

Let’s not let history repeat itself - don’t be indifferent and take action for a more tolerant and compassionate world


Passionate city builder

Note: I took no pictures in Berlin out of respect for the victims. All my picture are stock photos.

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