This week, Europe marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, a grim reminder of one of one of the continents darkest pages in history. It is a landmark that demands of us to remember, not out of shame as many see it, but as our duty to our future generations. A honest appraisal of the lessons learned by Christos Mouzeviris.
Naturally, the extermination of millions of people, not just from the Nazi’s but their collaborators across Europe for simply who they were, should make us feel ashamed. However, the purpose of such commemoration, should not focus on making us feel guilty or hate, rather it could be an opportunity to educate and learn to tolerate. Because even after being exposed to numerous commemorations, documentaries, films and inspiring political speeches about the Holocaust, its causes and aftermath, Europe-although it has made huge progress, hasn’t managed to rid itself of old prejudices and nationalism entirely.
Transposition of hatred
Even nowadays, there is a reported sharp rise in Anti-Semitism across our continent, with Jewish cemeteries being vandalized in France, Germany and elsewhere. We even the UK’s Labour Party, being investigated of its alleged anti-Semitic views. It is peculiar to think such a catastrophe which cost the lives of millions of people – not just the Jews of Europe – people would still see an ethnic group as responsible for all their troubles and problems. So much in fact that they would prefer to align themselves with outright criminal ideologies.
And it is even more worrying, that this hatred spreads to many other ethnic or religious minority groups of Europe. Our continent has become multinational, multi religious and multiracial and that is a direct outcome of the Holocaust’s legacy. People for many years have chosen to abandon hate, prejudice and preferred to include and tolerate individuals of different background, as result of the horrors of fascism, nationalism and populism they have experienced. The EU itself was created from the ashes and remains of the old Europe, with a promise that never again would Europeans die in such wars, fuelled by hate.
However, our continent is still struggling with its identity and future. And it is not just the Jewish people that are being targeted this time. Islamophobia is also a worrying trend, in addition to the rising xenophobia and Euroscepticism. Seventy-five years ago, it may have been the Jews of Europe that faced the brunt of our hate, however if we are not careful in the future it could be others. In addition to commemorating the loss of nearly six million Jewish lives in the most horrid manner, we could also start telling the stories of others that perished in the same way. And even though the numbers were fewer, their deaths should not be forgotten in history.
Other groups persecuted
With the European Jews, the Nazis exterminated a large part of Europe’s Romani people, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities and their political opponents. According to some estimations, about 1.5 million Romani people have died alongside those of Jewish descent. Other historians bring that number down to anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000, however the numbers should not be the only thing that we should be concerned, rather the reason and the manner.
Many of them died in concentration camps, while wearing a brown inverted triangle. Others were shot while fighting against the Nazis and alongside their compatriots. Many found a gruesome death, while Nazi scientists were conducting experiments on them, like pouring chemicals into their eyes to attempt a colour change.
Yet while the Jewish Holocaust is greatly discussed and commemorated, the “Porajmos” or Romani Holocaust is still not being spoken about, or as extensively studied. There seems to be no films or documentaries made about the suffering of the Roma people from those days and even if the German government has officially recognised it since 1982, it has never paid any reparations to the Roma victims, like it did with the Jewish ones.
Perhaps that is one reason why the Romani victims are not portrayed in any Hollywood blockbuster movie, together with the fact that they do not have a strong lobby in America to promote their rights and even worse, not even in Europe-their birthplace. Romani people are part of our continent for centuries. But even today, they are among the poorest of people, facing discrimination and lack of opportunities in all countries they reside on the European continent. About 80% of the 12 million Roma in Europe today are living below the poverty line, while in average they live 10 years less than the average European with high infant mortality. Only one out of four Roma people are employed, while fewer than that have finished their education: 20% cannot read or write.
Perhaps if we started viewing them in a different manner, we could end this outrageous discrimination and maybe we could start by telling their stories during the Holocaust, to sensitise people about their rights and cause.
Another group that usually is left out of the commemorations are homosexuals. They do not get as much sympathy, as they are not an ethnic group and nowadays, they enjoy their rights and equality in most European nations. However, their stories should also be told, as a reminder that hate and intolerance is not always targeting foreigners, ethnic or religious groups. In addition, viewing the unjustifiable suffering that these men and women had to endure, could once and for all silence critics of LGBT rights.
An estimated 100,000 gay men in Germany were arrested as homosexuals between 1933 and 1945, with 50,000 being sentenced. Of that number, around 15,000 of them ended up in concentration camps with a high mortality rate, of about 60%. Homosexuals in concentration camps faced an unusual degree of cruelty, with experiments being conducted on them, in order to find a cure for their homosexuality or other medical diseases. Others were forced in having sex with Jewish women, prostitutes or lesbian women, in order to force “normal” sexual desires onto them. Castration, boiling of their testicles and violence driven by the homophobia of the Nazi guards, were often reported. Many were beaten by other inmates, while Nazi soldiers used to practice their shooting skills, by targeting the pink downward triangles sewing on their uniforms to distinguish them, ultimately killing them on sight. Homosexuals in concentration camps were considered the lowest of the low, classified as “asocials” and the true number of the victims remains unknown.
Again, many would not consider the stories of these men worthy of being told and brought into the greater public knowledge, since the gay community enjoys a great number of freedoms and degree of equality. However, we must never forget how easy it is for a society to slide backwards and what can happen to people of such communities if we allow it. Germany prior the rise of the Nazis, had a vibrant gay community and in Berlin, gay and lesbian bars and clubs were abundant. Just because at one given time, a community enjoys a certain set of freedoms, it does not mean that it can be taken for granted; sadly, that is why the commemoration of the Holocaust is necessary even today.
It is becoming evident that it should not be focused only on one ethnic group’s tragedy and the injustice inflicted upon them, rather view it as a lesson of what we can lose if we make the same mistakes again. It will not only be millions of lives, of many ethnic or religious minorities, but above all it will be our humanity and some of our most cherished values, that contribute to Europe’s uniqueness and success: our diversity, equality, tolerance and freedom.