Thursday, May 11, 2006

In Poland, I was Thinking of Darfur

On the map, Poland and the Sudan are a continent apart. Yet, when I visited Poland three weeks ago, my mind continually wandered off to the Sudan. What I saw in Poland reminded me how today, in the Sudan, history once again repeats itself.

I did not go to Poland for a holiday. I was traveling with the March of the Living, an educational program that brings teens to visit the concentration camps. We toured the sites of awful atrocities: Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau. We stepped inside a gas chamber; the thought of what had occurred there was overwhelming. We viewed a display of children’s clothes, taken from toddlers before their death. A survivor spoke to us about the time when a few Nazi thugs went to his barrack, took a two by four, walked over to a bunk, and pressed it down on the necks of four sleeping inmates until they choked.

And then we arrived at the greatest monument to man’s inhumanity to man. In the concentration camp of Majdanek, there is a dome of ashes. Inside the dome is a mound of human ashes over fifteen feet tall, the horrific proceeds of burned victims. The sight is simply too hard to bear. Our students were immediately overwhelmed with grief, and began to weep. They had come face to face with evil.

It was here that I remembered Darfur. Intellectually, I understand the human capacity for evil, yet it is difficult for my heart to accept it. Living in an open and tolerant country like Canada, it is difficult to imagine the hatred necessary to perpetrate these crimes. Our shining record on human rights leaves us blind to the reality: human beings can be exceptionally evil. They can slaughter other humans by the million, and burn their bodies into a pile of ash. And this sort of evil didn’t just happen 60 years ago. It continues on today, in the Darfur region of Western Sudan.

For the past three years, the Government of Sudan, along with allied militias, have been massacring black tribes in the region. Tens of thousands have been murdered, countless women have been raped, and up to 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes. Various estimates peg the death toll at somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000. Today, thousands of miles from Poland, a genocide marches on.

It is critical to remember that without indifference, the Holocaust could not have occured. During the Holocaust, the world ignored the plight of the Jews. At a conference in Evian in 1938, and at a later conference in Bermuda in 1943, the entire world community refused to help Jewish refugees fleeing from the Holocaust. The United States refused numerous requests to bomb Auschwitz, and Canada refused Jews entry during the Holocaust, sticking to a policy of “none is too many”. The Holocaust amply demonstrated, as the famous quote goes, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

The same pattern of indifference has repeated itself with Darfur. Until recently, there has been a virtual media blackout about Darfur. Media studies show that in June, 2005, TV news spent 50 times more coverage on the Michael Jackson molestation trial than it did on the Darfur tragedy, and it devoted 12 times the coverage to the tomfoolery of Tom Cruise than it did to Sudanese oppression. Obviously, celebrities matter more than mass murder. In addition, most members of parliament have kept a wary distance from this issue, afraid that a proper resolution to this humanitarian crisis will require Canadians to make costly commitments. So, as diplomats debate and discuss this issue, a genocide ensues. Only recently has the government of Canada, as well as a multiparty group of parliamentarians, started to pay attention to Darfur.

After visiting the concentration camps, many of the teenage students I was with began to search for a way to respond. They wondered if the slogan “never again” really had any meaning, if after the Holocaust, the world stood by during subsequent atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. They wondered if they could make a difference for the people in Darfur.

As their Rabbi, I felt responsible to do something. Before leaving to Poland, I had explored the possibility of a lobby mission to Parliament about Darfur. But I was afraid that no one would pay attention, and it would be a waste of time.

After coming home from Poland, I realized I had to go to Ottawa, no matter what. How could I do otherwise, after seeing the dome of ashes? There were now 6 million voices in my head, shouting “never again”. And prodding me was the passion of these students, wondering if they could make the world into a better place.

At the end of June, I will visit Ottawa with a group of students from the March of the Living, and talk to anyone who will listen. I have to. I cannot ignore what I saw in Majdanek, and I will not disappoint the students.

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