by Rick Davis
November 24, 2013
Sam Fried will never forget.
He will never forget the day, some 70 years ago, when the local pharmacist asked him to ride his bike to a nearby Czechoslovakian town to “see what they were doing to the Jews there.”
He will never forget, once there, seeing Nazi troops round up people in the town square. He will never forget asking a policeman at the scene, a friend of the family, what was going on, only to be warned, “Get out of here quick, before somebody else recognizes you. Or they will take you, too!”
He will never forget “pedaling like hell” the five or six miles back home to tell the pharmacist, Jewish neighbors and his parents what he saw – and the officer’s warning that their town was coming. And he will never forget their reactions. “Don’t worry, that won’t happen to us.”
He will never forget his friend, a non-Jewish boy, giving him his identification papers, so that the 15-year-old Jewish boy might run away. He will never forget consulting with his parents and then packing a small suitcase and heading out on his own.
He will never forget, three days later, while hiding behind a barn, watching SS troops march his parents and other Jews out of their homes.
But mostly, he will never forget the reaction of his non-Jewish neighbors – people his family had known for years – standing outside, watching … silent.
“That’s when I threw my papers away, and I turned myself in,” Fried says.
Fried and his parents were eventually loaded onto a railroad cattle car with other Jews and taken to Auschwitz, where, upon the train’s arrival, the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele directed Fried’s parents left toward the gas chambers. They were among the 6 million Jews killed in the camps. Fried was sent to the right to the hellish life at the work camp.
“Based on my experience, there are four components of the Holocaust,” Fried says. “Perpetrators, collaborators, victims and bystanders.”
Fried believes it’s the bystanders – in his case, the neighbors who stood silently by as the Jews in his town were forced from their homes – who have the most responsibility in preventing atrocities like the Holocaust. “They are the only ones who can do something,” he says.
That’s why Fried believes educating the next generation of leaders about the Holocaust and genocide is so important – so they don’t become silent bystanders to such atrocities.
To that end, Fried and Louis Blumkin of the Nebraska Furniture Mart family combined with their wives to establish in 2011 the Blumkin Professorship of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Blumkin, who died in January 2013, helped liberate Dachau and other camps as a U.S. soldier – which he described as a defining experience in his life.
Fried is excited about the first person to hold the Blumkin Professorship – a 36-year-old Episcopalian, West Point graduate and military veteran who served as a platoon leader in Iraq, Waitman Beorn.
“He really connects with the students,” Fried says, “Holocaust education is not just a subject he teaches; he’s got his heart and soul into it. I think he’s the tops.”
Beorn, who joined UNO in 2012 and is also an assistant professor of history, is equally excited about the professorship.
“It’s a great opportunity to have a platform to continue a lot of the work that has been going on in the community already, in terms of remembering the Holocaust,” Beorn says. “Also, I want to build at UNO an institutional center for Holocaust and genocide studies – to put UNO on the map as a place where we study this in detail, where this is something that we value.”
Factors Leading to Genocide
Beorn teaches a class on comparative genocide, examining the commonalties of genocidal events throughout history.
“There’s a great book by Ben Kiernan (director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University) called Blood and Soil, where he lays out some of these structures,” Beorn says.
“There’s always some kind of fear, be it racial or political or ethnic, that leads to ‘othering.’ … There’s always some form of expansion or land issue – who owns it or who controls it.
“Some kind of military conflict. If you look at most modern genocides, they occur in the context of a war or civil war.” But not all of the factors are structural. Some are more frighteningly human – inviting us to take a long, hard look in the mirror. “We are all capable of doing this,” Beorn says. “We are all capable of fulfilling every role, if you want to look at it that way, in genocide. Genocide, in a very twisted way, is a very human event. It’s not a bunch of psychopaths.”
So what would lead seemingly regular, everyday people to participate in acts of genocide?
That question has nagged at Beorn – during his time at West Point (when he wrote a paper on Nazi doctors) through graduate school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to the writing of his book Marching into Darkness: the Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus, which examines the complicity of the German army in the Nazi genocidal project in the occupied Soviet Union.
“This is a question I work with in my research, and that a lot of us who study the Holocaust are still trying to figure out,” Beorn says. While ideology is certainly a factor, the UNO professor says there is a “myriad of potential reasons” that someone might participate in genocide – from simple greed to social pressures.
There is also a complexity of involvement.
“There are vast arrays on the spectrum in which someone can become complicit. The guy who drives the train (to the death camps) has a certain sense of complicity, but in a different way than someone who is shooting people.”
The rallying cry after the Holocaust was “never again.” While there have been advances in terms of international justice, there are stark reminders that mass atrocities continue around the globe.
· Cambodia in the late 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge murdered an estimated 1.7 to 2.2 million Cambodians.
· The “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia Herzegovina, which included the killing of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims within a week after Serb forces took the town of Srebrenica in 1995.
· The 100 Days of Slaughter in Rwanda, during which Hutu extremists murdered an estimated 800,000 rival Tutsis and sympathizers in state-sponsored violence.
· The “Darfur Genocide,” with the killing some 480,000 Darfuri men, women and children (and the displacement of more than 2.8 million) by government-armed militias since 2003.
And the list goes on. As then U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated in 1998: “Many thought, no doubt, that the horrors of the Second World War – the camps, the cruelty, the exterminations, the Holocaust – could not happen again. And yet they have.”
“We haven’t been able to say, ‘Never again,’” Beorn says. “On the other hand, there have been some very important successes since 1947.”
The United Nations adopted a definition of genocide. The International Criminal Court was established in 2002 in The Hague. “And the world is aware of genocide and genocidal potentialities in way that we certainly weren’t before the Holocaust.”
What is Genocide?
A major challenge is determining just what is genocide?
Tusty (Zohra) ten-Bensel, who earned her Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice at UNO and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says it can be difficult to identify instances of genocide.
“The issue … is sovereignty. It’s really hard to tell while it’s happening if it’s a state civil conflict or if it’s ethnic cleansing or if it’s genocide,” explains ten-Bensel, who taught a course on genocide while at UNO. She says ethnic cleansing differs from genocide in that the perpetrators are “trying to eradicate a population from an area and not trying to eradicate a population as a whole.”
She adds: “We find that international bodies are very hesitant in interfering, because if it is a civil war, that is a state-specific concern. And so the international body typically would prefer not to intervene.”
Beorn agrees. “What is, if you will, ‘normal’ political or war violence and when does that shift to become genocide? It very difficult to nail down.”
In addition, under the U.N. Genocide Convention, Beorn says the U.N. is legally obligated to act when it believes genocide is occurring. While he believes this is a commendable stance, “it can also be problematic, because then it becomes very political of what is called genocide and what isn’t. There’s a great reluctance to call anything genocide because it now obligates us to do something.”
What Can Nations Do?
“The U.S. military, at the strategic level, has developed something that they call MAPRO, Mass Atrocity Prevention and Response Operations,” Beorn says. “They
are at least beginning to think about, what are some of the ways in which we would intervene? And they range from a completely nonviolent intervention to an armed military intervention.”
Genocide Watch, an international monitoring organization, has declared a “genocide emergency” for five countries where it believes genocide is currently happening: Syria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Burma/Myanmar. It has another six countries on its genocide “warning” list, where it considers genocide is imminent, and another 10 on its “watch” list.
“Publication of knowledge, letting the world know, as well as the perpetrators or potential perpetrators, that we are watching, that we know what’s going on, that you’re not hiding this from anybody is important,” Beorn says.
“There is where the International Criminal Court is useful, because it shows that people will be held accountable for this. And that can be important in the context of prevention.”
The difficulty, in the case of the ICC, is enforcement. It doesn’t have a police force to bring accused perpetrators to court. It must rely on its member states, which can be a tricky bit of diplomacy.
Consider the case against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who, despite arrest warrants issued by the ICC in 2009 and 2010 for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, has not only continued to remain in power, but has traveled to at least a dozen other countries, all of which have refused to arrest him.
Beorn see his professorship as a way to bridge what happened during the Holocaust to the mass atrocities happening today, and to get us to think about how we respond to acts of intolerance and hatred – around the world and in our own backyards.
“The Holocaust was not something like a natural disaster,” Beorn says. “There are reasons behind it, and those reasons and structures still exist today. It continues to be relevant, unfortunately, for all of us.
“Secondly, the Holocaust, and genocide in general, doesn’t just start with people killing each other. It starts with intolerance, bias, prejudice, a basic lack of respect for other people. I think that’s important for all of us to consider.”
Genocide: A Definition
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, coined the term “genocide,” when he introduced the word in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. He combined
the Greek word genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin word cide, killing. He wrote: “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.”
On Dec. 9, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in which it described genocide as various acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Ethnic Cleansing in Azerbaijan
A young Konstantin Gazaryan was taking a nap in the apartment shared by his grandparents and other family members in Azerbaijan, when a loud pounding on the door shook the 5-year-old from his sleep.
“I remember looking down the hall and seeing my grandpa, grandma and mom scurrying around,” Gazaryan recalls today. “I really didn’t know what was happening. The crowd outside hacked through the front door with a machete. Then I saw an arm reach in and unlatch the door.”
The mob raided the apartment. The family was marched outside, where buses where lined up to take them and others away. “In a sense, we were kind of lucky, because during the ethnic cleansing, they were killing other Armenians.”
Indeed, a U.N. report found that “for five days in January 1990,” Armenians in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, where the Gazaryans were living, “were killed, tortured, robbed and humiliated.”
The Gazaryans fled to Rostov, Russia, and eventually made their way to Lincoln, Neb., where they had extended family. Konstantin graduated from UNO in May 2009, and that same month was commissioned in U.S. Air Force. Today, he is a 2nd lieutenant with the 64th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron.
“It’s personal for me,” Gazaryan says about his decision to join the military. “I felt like this country gave me a home and a chance to succeed.”
Tracking Extremist Movements
Pete Simi, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, has done extensive research on right-wing extremist groups across the United States, including neo-Nazis. He is the author of American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate.
He has found that those who join these types of hate group “tend to see things in black and white. They’re often very concrete thinkers, who don’t do well with gray areas. In a way, that’s what the movement is all about, trying to convert people to seeing the world in very straight-forward terms and reducing complexity.”
Globally, Simi has seen a troubling increase in the neo-Nazi movement in Russia. “Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the neo-Nazi presence in Russia is just off the charts. It’s very troubling there. And we’re really not paying much attention to that. There is some survey data that suggests up to 25 to 30 percent of Russian natives support the idea of creating settlements or re-ghettoizing Jewish people.”
Genocide in the Balkans
While the causes of the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans are complex, Rory J. Conces, an associate professor of philosophy and a member of the international studies faculty at UNO, says ethno-nationalism played a major role.
“The United States is very nationalistic, but our nationalism tends to be civic, so the nation is identified with a territory, whereas in Bosnia, the nation is identified in terms of ethnicity,” explains Conces, who has studied that region extensively. “I think ethno-nationalism is extremely malevolent and divisive; it fragments society.”
The principal ethno-nationalisms in the Bosnian conflict reflected the three constituent groups: ethnic Serbs, who are primarily Orthodox Christian; ethnic Croats, who are mostly Catholic; and Bosniaks, who are Muslim. Bosnians of all ethnic groups were victims during the war, leaving over 200,000 dead and more than 2 million people displaced or made refugees. While some high-ranking officials have been prosecuted before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands, the trials of some leaders continue to this day – such as those of Radovan Karadžić, the former president of Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladić, commander of the Bosnian Serb army. Unfortunately, Conces says most of those who were complicit in the atrocities will never be brought to justice.
“In 2008, I stayed with a Muslim family in Srebrenica, and I put the question to them: Are there people walking the streets here, Serbs, who engaged in atrocities?” Conces says. “The daughter, who spoke English, said, ‘We know the people who sit in the café when we walk by, and they were part of the problem.’”