A Living Remembrance
William A. Friedman
Well over sixty years ago, years before September 1, 1939, the United States government and the world turned a blind eye to undeniable reports coming out of Nazi Germany of human rights violations on an unimaginable scale. This international inaction actively aided Germany in perpetuating the Holocaust. Today, a coalition of many of the same nations, led by the United States, is attempting to halt a similar mass persecution in Eastern Europe. And last week, Zhu Rongji, premier of China, a nation well-known for human rights violations, completed a six-city tour of the United States with a speech given at MIT. And so I paused on the twenty-seventh day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (April 13 on the Gregorian calendar) to contemplate where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. The twenty-seventh of Nisan is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
At MIT this most solemn day was marked by a photo exhibition in Lobby 7, the lighting of six memorial candles, the chilling reading of names and ages of the murdered victims of Nazi Germany, and the distribution of fliers describing the purpose and intent of Yom Hashoah. Included in the flier was an exhortation calling for justice in Kosovo. As I helped distribute these materials to the harried MIT community, I was approached by a man who thanked me. He explained that he was an ethnic Albanian, and how grateful he was that we were using the powerful memories this day evokes to help gain support for his fellows. I was moved, and even more, gaining a deeper understanding of the day of tears. Why the six million martyrs died is impossible to understand or explain -- it is, in the words of Elie Wiesel, “a mystery which exceeds and overwhelms us.” The best we can do is “Never Again!”, the battle cry that wherever a people suffer hatred and persecution and injustice we will not stand by and let them be destroyed.
The culpability of Franklin Roosevelt and the anti-Semites and misguided jingoists in the State Department who deliberately and consistently refused entry to thousands upon thousands of fleeing Jews, thereby ensuring their torture and murder, cannot be understated or forgotten. And it is precisely for that reason that the American people must fully support efforts in Kosovo, Rwanda, and in all places where people are persecuted. It is also for that reason I did not throw my name into the lottery to hear Zhu Rongji’s speech -- rather, I took my place on the steps of 77 Massachusetts Avenue to protest the very notion that a representative of an evil regime should be invited to speak anywhere in the free world. America has obviously not learned its lesson -- in fact, it once again turns that ubiquitous blind eye towards gross injustice when it suits its needs. In 1936, Hitler at least lifted the restrictions on Jews for the duration of the Munich Olympics, showing some false good faith when under the hot spotlights of international scrutiny. When President Clinton visited China several months back, the Chinese government did the opposite, arresting and jailing protestors who would mar the image China wished to project. And yet Clinton walked across the red carpet, despite it being awash in the blood of Chinese students murdered in 1989’s horrific Tiananmen Square massacre and the tears of those still imprisoned for expressing their right to protest.
Those who bicker ceaselessly over trade concessions, global economies, and international treaties miss the point entirely. Once a certain line is crossed, matters of degree do not matter. Genocide of a foreign ethnicity or the denial of basic freedoms of expression to one’s own people crosses the line of human decency. The world appeased Hitler -- the road to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II was paved with their “good intentions.”
It is understandable, in a cursory sort of way, for many Americans to look inward, to oppose getting involved in the atrocities committed abroad. Realize, however, that that was tried -- it led to the deaths of the six million. It is difficult for us to concern ourselves with abstract events occurring in a foreign land. I need only the image of friends and relatives of my grandfather, of my people, emaciated, beaten, and empty of life, memories of the haunting halls of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, the echoing of those names and ages, “thirty-seven, seven, one year old” to convince me. I pray that no other group needs those images, needs a Yom Hashoah, to spur them to action, in Kosovo, in Africa, in China, or wherever oppression needs to be eliminated, and freedom liberated.
William A. Friedman is a member of the Class of 2002.