OPINION | Genocide: It’s never far away if people are not prepared to stand up and oppose it

At first I wondered why there are images depicting examples of South African xenophobic violence at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, but I soon realised why. Although our local attacks are not as orchestrated or on nearly the same scale as that of the Holocaust or the 1994 Rwandan massacre, they occur because of exactly the same hatred of the “other”, justified by whatever “differences” — nationalistic, ethnic, political, racial or religious — and encouraged by those with self-serving interests.

Xenophobia is ongoing in South Africa. Xenowatch, a tool to monitor xenophobic discrimination across South Africa, developed by the African Centre for Migration & Society at Wits, reports that more than 150 000 people have been killed, injured or displaced in xenophobic incidents across the country since 1994. When politicians  encourage discrimination and violence, their words are heard by millions of desperate, poorly educated South Africans. It’s easy to scapegoat foreigners for taking away jobs when employment is not readily available. 

The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre is a sombre, stolid building that incorporates rusty train rails into its facade, to signify the railway lines upon which millions of European Jews travelled in abject conditions and extreme trepidation towards the Nazi ghettos and death camps. It is filled with portraits of those who were gassed and cremated and their belongings, to personalise what happened. 

There are pangas used in Rwanda, videos explaining what happened and drawers containing memorabilia. 

Drawings made by some of the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust are up on the walls. 

There’s a reference to the 1904-07 Herero and Nama genocide in German South West Africa, which wiped out more than half of these populations. 

Such places are built to remind us of what happened, in an effort to keep such horror from recurring. “Never again!” reads a statement above a grim row of skulls from Rwanda. Looking back, one wonders how such events could have occurred in the first place, but we are told in no uncertain terms in the centre that the Holocaust took place “in daylight” and that the United Nations did not intervene in Rwanda, though it knew full well what was going on there. 

The word “genocide” did not exist before the Holocaust, despite numerous massacres before World War II.

At the centre, one learns of the term “upstander”, which is diametrically opposed to that of “bystander”. In times of war and genocide, when fellow citizens are being slaughtered, many people choose to look away, collaborate with the oppressor, or simply follow the orders of those who tell them to kill. 

Upstanders, on the other hand, are those who choose to disobey, who risk their own lives to save the lives of others. Some of these heroes are mentioned in the centre: folk such as Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Budapest Jews by issuing them protective passports and sheltering them in buildings designated as Swedish territory. 

I had wanted to visit the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre since its establishment in 2019, but it took reading Primo Levi’s If This is a Man to finally get me there. How people react under extraordinary circumstances has always fascinated me, and there is perhaps no finer tale to illustrate this phenomenon than Levi’s descent into hell on Earth and his lengthy ascent from it, described in his second book The Truce

The two books are often published together; the second book, which is far less harrowing  reading, details how he and his fellow ex-deathcamp inmates are, for reasons unknown, taken deep into Russia before they are finally expatriated to their European countries of origin. 

Levi was an Italian Jew who joined the resistance there; upon his capture he told the Germans he was Jewish to avoid being shot immediately. His captors had special plans for those they hated most; plans designed to break humans, reduce them to their lowest possible state of being. It was a long shot for Levi to take: of the 650 people who left with him for the death camps in Poland, only three returned to Italy. 

The fact that he made it out alive was because of two quirks of fate. One was that he was a chemist, so he received slightly better treatment in some of his daily slave labour routines. The other was that he happened to be ill when the Red Army approached Auschwitz. Those who were still in some semblance of health were forced to march through ice and snow towards death camps in Germany; along the way, many perished.

It was a brutal world, which few can understand from the outside; even those who survived it could not grasp the whole picture. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel explains: “Ask any survivor and he will tell you, and his children will tell you. He or she who did not live through the event will never know it. And he or she who did live through the event will never reveal it. Not entirely. Not really. Between our memory and its reflection there stands a wall that cannot be pierced.”

After writing his book — which he struggled to publish initially, as Europe wished to forget what had happened in the years following the war — Levi was asked the same questions by his readers, so many times in fact, that in later editions he included these questions and his answers to them, in the afterword. 

Among them is the question of why the inmates did not rise up and fight back. There were some uprisings, but the main reason why there were so few was the utterly demoralised state of most inmates. Even if you did manage to escape, it was also extremely dangerous outside of the camps, as Poland was a foreign country for most, and one had no idea of where to head for succour. In addition, the friends of anyone who tried to escape were routinely hanged in front of everyone and the whole camp was forced to stand for 24 hours.

Asked why the Nazis hated the Jews so much, and were prepared to do what they did to them, Levi replies that even after much deliberation and research, he could still not quite understand it … “there is no rationality in the Nazi hatred; it is a hate that is not in us, it is outside man, it is a poison sprung from the deadly trunk of Fascism” but he warns “we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard … because what happened could happen again. Conscience can be seduced and obscured again — even our consciences.”

We must be wary of charismatic leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, whose “secret power of seduction” did not arise from the credibility of what they said, but the “suggestive way in which they said them”. Are dictators able to tap into our aggressive, fearful nature, which lies just beneath the surface of our civilization and culture? The answer to this question is an essay in itself, if there is indeed one.

Even more dangerous, says Levi, are the “common men, the functionaries who are ready to believe and act without asking questions”. There are examples of such men in the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre; one Rwandan murderer, who was imprisoned for a decade, to this day blames the people who told him to kill; he believes they should have been punished, not him. 

Why did the Nazi soldiers obey their commanders? Speaking directly from personal experience, I was conscripted into the South African Defence Force for two years, and at age 18 I went to fight in a war in what is now Namibia because I believed my only choices were that or or become a conscientious objector and go to jail (I could have also emigrated). During the border war, I knew that if I was in combat, to run meant my own officers could shoot me. There was hence a great deal of pressure to obey their orders.

 Thankfully, I was never forced to commit atrocities, but until I went to university after my “national service”, I didn’t know any better; due to apartheid’s suppression of the news, I didn’t know what kind of regime I was supporting. 

Genocides may seem outrageous and unbelievable in retrospect, but when power is in the wrong hands, it seems they can be created fairly easily: in the last century alone there were more than 20 genocides, “ethnic cleanses”, pogroms and purges, in which over 100-million people died, mostly in Russia and China.

Auschwitz still stands (Levi visited it before his death in 1987) as a grim reminder of what happened there, and can happen again. There are concerns that there are few who wear the tatttoes of the Holocaust still alive today, who are able to bear witness, and that their story will be forgotten. 

A 2020 survey found that 63% of American young adults didn’t know that the Holocaust claimed the lives of six million Jews and half couldn’t name a single concentration camp. 

Can the “common man” be expected to question when he or she is being duped by the propaganda of an oppressive regime and/or the carefully crafted lies of a charismatic dictator? Politicians know how to manipulate our emotions; emotions smudge the eyepiece of life, often without our awareness, making us react not to what is, but to what we think we are perceiving. The confusion about what is the truth and what isn’t is in addition massively conflated these days by fake news and social media, to the extent that many folk choose not to read the news, even if it comes from “credible sources”.

We must be wary. Genocide is never far away.

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Derek Davey
Derek Davey

Derek Davey is a sub-editor in the Mail & Guardian’s supplements department who occasionally puts pen to paper. He has irons in many metaphysical fires – music, mantras, mortality and mustaches.

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