Thailand’s premier university has apologized for displaying a billboard that showed Adolf Hitler alongside Superman and other superheroes, saying Monday it was painted by ignorant students who didn’t realize Hitler’s image would offend anyone.
The billboard was up for two days before being removed Saturday in response to criticism. Online photographs showed graduating students in their robes, mimicking Hitler’s raised arm salute.
The study of history in the Thai school system revolves primarily around the history of Thailand and its long line of kings. World history is glossed over, with little or no mention of the Holocaust.
Well, the phrase “ignorant students who didn’t realize Hitler’s image would offend anyone” certainly suggests that the educational system isn’t quite doing its job …
HT: Stefan Dolgert.
Nearly 60 years after his death, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a diplomat who rescued tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, is finally beginning to get his due in his home country of Portugal:
Mr. Sousa Mendes, Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux when Germany invaded France, provided about 30,000 people with Portuguese visas to escape Nazi persecution, according to the Sousa Mendes Foundation, which is run by descendants of the visa recipients. His status as one of the most important protectors of the Jewish people, if not the precise number of visas, has been confirmed by Yehuda Bauer, a Holocaust historian at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
He issued many of the visas personally and also persuaded some others on the Portuguese diplomatic staff stationed in France to do the same, against the orders of his own government, which was neutral but Fascist. When the government realized the scale of his disobedience, Mr. Sousa Mendes was recalled to Lisbon, tried and dismissed from the diplomatic service. Stripped of his pension rights, he died in poverty in 1954.
In the 1980s, Portugal rehabilitated Mr. Sousa Mendes’s name and apologized to his family, while the Portuguese Parliament posthumously promoted him to the rank of ambassador.
Still, Harry Oesterreicher, the treasurer of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, said that it was disappointing to see the limited recognition Mr. Sousa Mendes had received in Portugal and how his family mansion here had been allowed to fall into ruin. It was repossessed by creditors after his death.
The foundation is now hoping to turn the house into a museum of tolerance, with the Portuguese authorities pledging last month to make an initial contribution of about $400,000.
Spend some time with Jack Patterson this afternoon … if you’re looking to debate whether Nazis are actually bad guys who deserve punishment.
He begins by doubting the veracity of everyone reporting on the Nazi war criminal living in Minnesota. After three or four tweets about how the guy probably isn’t even a war criminal, he decides the guy was probably just a “small fry” and therefore not worth dealing with today. Much better to let him live out his life in peace, since being a war criminal isn’t a big deal — as long as you’re just a minor war criminal. This is especially true, he claims, because justice is just something the powerful say once they’ve won a war … rather than an actual thing we can talk about (like, for example, when we say that genocide is an injustice and punishing genocide is just).
From there, it’s a hop, skip, and jump to claiming that, really, everyone was committing atrocities back then and that we ought to concentrate our real efforts on dealing out justice not to Nazi war criminals of the past but — of course — to Jews who are committing atrocities against Palestinians today.
Well played, Jack. Well played.
Guatemala’s constitutional court has overturned a genocide conviction against former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, throwing out all proceedings against him since a dispute broke out in April over who should hear it.
Ríos Montt was found guilty on 10 May of overseeing the deliberate killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
But the constitutional court said it had thrown out all proceedings in the case that took place after 19 April. It was then that the trial against Ríos Montt was suspended after a spat between judges over who should take the case.
Sebastian Elgueta, Amnesty International’s researcher on Guatemala outlines the serious and far-reaching problems raised by the constitutional court’s ruling:
"The legal basis for the ruling is unclear, and it is uncertain how the trial court can hit the reset button to get back to a point in mid-April. What is clear is that the Constitutional Court has just thrown up formidable obstacles to justice and accountability for a harrowing period in Guatemala’s recent history.
"With the sentence on 10 May, the trial court had sent a strong signal that crimes against thousands of Mayan victims would not be tolerated. The Constitutional Court has now questioned that message, putting the right to truth, justice and reparation at risk in Guatemala."
So … this happened over the weekend. And the backlash, not surprisingly, was intense.
Now I’m no fan of Justin Bieber, and I suspect that all the people who were horrified by what he wrote also are not, but I don’t see the need to be so outraged.
Anne Frank was a normal girl and she might very well have liked Justin Bieber if she was living now rather than in the 1930s. Lots of normal girls do. And Justin Bieber is a normal celebrity; he wants lots of people to like him. I’m not a celebrity in the least and I want lots of people to like me. I’d go so far as to say that I hope Anne Frank would have wanted to take some of my classes. We could even spin this around and say that Bieber was so impressed by what he learned about Anne Frank that he hoped she would like his music because he certainly liked what he now knew about her.
To go one step farther, I think it’s a great good that Bieber went to the Anne Frank House. He didn’t need to spend time there while he was on his tour and, I’d venture to guess, lots of celebrities don’t visit. If you’re young, rich, famous, and touring the world, there’s really nothing driving you to spend part of your day at the Anne Frank House. Having been there myself, I think it’s a place that as many people as possible should visit; it’s far more accessible than a concentration camp and I think it likely does a good deal more to bring home the extremity of the Holocaust by focusing on an individual than would, say, spending an afternoon at Buchenwald. And now a whole lot more people — all those “beliebers” out there — are learning about Anne Frank as well.
So, I’ll write something I never, ever thought I’d write:
Good job, Justin Bieber.
I’ve been encouraged to say a bit more about yesterday’s blog post concerning the Albany teacher whose students were required to write a persuasive argumentative essay from the perspective of someone living in the Third Reich about why Jews are evil and are responsible for the problems faced by Germany in the 1930s.
On the face of it, the assignment seemed so obviously problematic to me that I didn’t spend a great deal of time outlining the problem. This led a few people to comment that there’s something very valuable about being forced to think about an abhorrent position. Some claimed the value was that it made us more tolerant of unpopular opinions; some claimed it encouraged free thinking rather than repetition.
All of this would be true, I think, when we’re talking about making an argument that defends an unpopular or controversial position. I ask my students to write papers about Marx’s critique of Locke on property or Burke’s critique of the concept of universal natural rights. I think there’s real value in thinking critically about radical challenges to liberalism, especially insofar as finding ways to respond to or even integrate some of those challenging ideas can strengthen or improve the way that we think about our society and its goals.
I think there’s no value, however, in thinking critically about or defending a lie. And that’s the crux of this high school English assignment, which is — again — to write a persuasive argument about why Jews are evil and are responsible for a country’s problems. Those aren’t unpopular opinions; they’re just lies. And to teach young people that there are ways to persuasively defend lies is simple sophistry. It’s not an exercise in toleration or liberal education or anything else; it’s just a bad assignment that tried to be edgy or interesting and failed because it wasn’t thought out very carefully. The example was bad, certainly, but so was the pedagogy behind it, namely the whole notion that using propaganda tactics is a good way to teach persuasive writing.
To go one step farther, let me also add that these particular lies are incredibly pernicious ones; they are lies that led to genocide. And they are the sorts of lies that persist. In other words, you don’t have to travel very far to encounter people who hold this position (about Jews) or others like it (about other minority groups). It’s one thing to say we ought to allow people to believe and to even say all manner of things that we find unpleasant or wrong-headed; it’s quite another to say we ought to allow intolerance, hatred, and lies to be taught to our children in our schools. There’s no reason for us to tolerate that; it doesn’t make us better liberals to laud these sorts of mistaken exercises in the name of open-mindedness or free thinking.
Students in some Albany High School
English classes were asked this week as part of a persuasive writing assignment to make an abhorrent argument: “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
Students were asked to watch and read Nazi propaganda, then pretend their teacher was a Nazi government official who needed to be convinced of their loyalty. In five paragraphs, they were required to prove that Jews were the source of Germany’s problems.
The exercise was intended to challenge students to formulate a persuasive argument and was given to three classes, Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said. She said the assignment should have been worded differently.
"I would apologize to our families," she said. "I don’t believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith."
One-third of the students refused to complete the assignment, she said.
There’s so much to say about this:
First, there’s the assignment. Isn’t it possible to teach students how to make a persuasive argument without using such a ridiculously awful example? And if you can’t think of a way to do this, aren’t you just a terrible teacher or an anti-Semite?
Second, there’s the apology. “The assigment shoud have been worded differently.” You think so? Like, it shouldn’t have used any of the words it used.
Third, there’s the heroism. 1/3 of the students who received the assignment refused to complete it. I wish the number was 2/3, but given the riskiness of simply refusing to do an assignment in high school, I’m surprised the number was even this high. They should hold an assembly that celebrates the choice made by these students.
HT: Michael Tofias, via April Murphy.
Remembering the Six Million
Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
As we remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, let us also recommit ourselves to fighting intolerance, injustice, and human rights abuses around the world.
If you’re looking for something else to read to mark the day, here is my piece on visiting the Buchenwald concentration camp. And here are two short pieces about my grandfather, who survived.
Forty two percent of Austrians think “not everything was bad under Hitler,” while 57% think “there was nothing positive about the Hitler era,” according to a poll conducted by newspaper Der Standard that was published on Friday.
The poll was conducted among 502 eligible voters in Austria and published ahead of the 75th anniversary of the country’s annexation by Nazi Germany.
54% answered that neo-Nazi groups would be successful in the Austrian elections, if there was no law banning them.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the vast majority of the 42% of Austrian respondents who think “not everything was bad under Hitler” weren’t alive when the Nazis annexed Austria.
I’m also going to take a guess that they haven’t spent much time speaking with Holocaust survivors since a) there aren’t many of them in Austria and b) there just aren’t many of them still alive today.
In fact, I’d say this is one of the most serious consequences that we will have to face in the coming years: As the “survivor generation” disappears, with it goes the irreplaceable first-hand personal narratives that speak directly to the depths of Nazi depravity. After that, all we have is history. And, as polls like this really highlight, history simply doesn’t adequately convey the horror of the Second World War and the Holocaust. If it did, 100% of Austrians would run screaming from questions like these.
In the meantime, however, any Austrians who want to hear more about how bad things were under Hitler can still contact me to arrange a chat with my grandparents.
Yesterday, with the help of Ken Walzer (a former college professor of mine), my family got ahold of several historical documents we’d never seen before.
They provide a record, albeit incomplete, of my grandfather’s internment in several Nazi concentration camps in the mid-1940s.
While we’ve always known about this part of our history, we didn’t really have much in the way of documentation. When I first mentioned that my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor on this blog, in a post about a visit I took to Buchenwald, people asked for more information. But all I knew were the few things my grandfather recalled about his brief time at Buchenwald. As I wrote to Walzer:
He said that he was only at Buchenwald for about a week, shortly after his 20th birthday, in late February 1945. He was born on February 3, 1925.
He was marched to Buchenwald by the SS and he was marched from Buchenwald about a week later. The prisoners there were building barracks into the hillside, he remembers, and when they would go out to work they would be in danger of being shot by Allied troops.
So, what have we learned?
First, we learned why it was difficult to find documentation on my grandfather. He was born in Vişeu de Sus, in Transylvania (now Romania). But he’s listed here as coming from Felsővisó, which is the Hungarian place name. We never checked under the Hungarian name, even though the territory was disputed for quite a long time and changed hands during my grandfather’s early life.
What’s more, his name is Zalman Kohen but he’s listed here as Zoltan Kahan. When we first started looking for documentation, we learned that there were no Z. Kohens or Z. Cohens on transport lists for Buchenwald in February 1945. But when I was visiting my grandparents two weeks ago, my grandmother mentioned that his family weren’t Kohens back in Europe; they were Kahans or Cahans. I mentioned this to Walzer, who wrote to a friend at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and we had these documents in 24 hours. Zalman or Zelman would be my grandfather’s Yiddish name; Zoltan would have been his Hungarian name. Sure enough, he is listed here as Hungarian Jewish Prisoner #137429 at Buchenwald in February 1945.
In addition, though we still don’t have transport information into Buchenwald, we now have transport information out. From Buchenwald, he was sent to SIII (Sonderbauvorhaben III or Ohrdruf) on March 14. It is likely to have been there that he saw prisoners building barracks, which might have been the never-completed Jonastal project. From there, he was sent to Flossenbürg on March 26.
Finally, with this information, it might be possible to more fully trace my grandfather’s journey through the Nazi camp system and to assign dates to his memories of that time. It opens up a whole new source of information for us and, for a family with so little information about so many relatives who were murdered, every scrap and every minute detail means a great deal.
I’ve written about the theory of restorative justice quite a lot, but I’m now able to more fully experience some of what I wrote and knew, intellectually, to be right: In the aftermath of a terrible tragedy, victims’ families are often left without any information about what happened and so creating an agreed upon historical record is an important part of achieving some measure of healing.
I haven’t been able to stop looking at these documents that showed up unannounced in my Inbox yesterday because they represent a key part of the history of my family, missing pieces of a puzzle I never really knew I needed to complete.
The UN General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, every member state of the UN has an obligation to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides. This year’s theme is Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care.
Coincidentally, my friend Scott Allison has an excellent profile of Chiune Sugihara up on his blog this week; it’s well worth reading in its entirety, but here’s the section that’s particularly relevant today:
In 1939 Chiune was then sent to the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. On September 1st of that year Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the persecution of Jews began almost immediately.
By 1940 Jewish refugees from Poland and from within Lithuania itself began to seek ways to flee the country. This required visas and many countries were refusing to issue them. Japan itself had stringent requirements that the refugees did not meet. Chiune inquired to his superiors three times requesting instructions, but in all cases requests to issue the visas were declined.
It might have been easier to simply walk away and do nothing but instead, in July of 1940, against orders, Sugihara started issuing visas and even directly negotiated with officials of the Soviet Union to allow the refugees to pass through Russia on their way to Japan. He continued to write visas, reportedly spending 18-20 hours a day until September 4th when the Consulate was closed. During the night prior to the closing, Chiune and his wife Yukiko spent the entire night writing visas, and Chiune was reportedly even preparing them en route to the train station where he threw them out the window of the train to waiting refugees as it left the station. In a final act of desperation he resorted to throwing blank pages with the Consulate seal and his signature, which could be filled out later.
The exact number of Jews saved by Chiune Sugihara is not known but estimates put the number around 6,000.
It’s important to spend time thinking about people like Sugihara, who defied specific orders in order to assist those in need, and so it’s a very good thing that this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day is dedicated to them. Reflecting on the actions of those who acted on behalf of others, unlike most people around them, should encourage us to do the same in our daily lives, even if only in some small way.