The end of January 2010 marked the 65th annversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. How do I, a South African living in East Africa, connect to this? My earliest memory is of secretly paging through the images in a paperback book on Adolf Eichmann that I found in my parents'cupboard. I remember hearing the news of Eichmann's execution on the school bus home and being horrified that a person could be killed for his crimes. Countless films and photos echoed these early memories over the years, but it is one castaway story from recent times that made me feel this history. A friend married a Jewish Italian man. I gave a keynote speech about her childhood at their wedding. When I visited Paris soon after, I and my partner were wined, dined and shown a personal Paris by this same couple. My first Eiffel Tower sighting and Pigeon and Peas in a crowded bistro. Only later did I hear, almost offhandedly, that Nick's entire family and extended family had been wiped out in the Holocaust. Seeing the gentle, intelligent and successful man that he was made me understand exactly the crime of lost lives and the horror of intellectually justified mass murder.
How do I, so many years later, define exactly what the Holocaust is? If I am of Jewish blood, or lost family or volunteered to fight against the defineable Nazi evil, then maybe I can feel what is means, no words necessary. But I am a child of another age, another side of the world. Is it the same as the genocide in Rwanda? Not so, the nazi hierarchy sytematically killed millions with a sophisticated intelligence and technology. Is it the same as the millions of unnecessary deaths of HIV positive people in South Africa under Manto's watch? Not so....Manto and Thabo really seemed to believe that they could save lives another way. There was no ignorance in the early 1940s, only mindful, deliberate evil. Yet, sometimes, when I look at the many stark burnt images from those days, I no longer see prime evil, just ordinary people, caught up in their own human fagility and the strange power of charismatic leaders.
It is surely not what others do to others that we must fear. It is what lies within each of us that we fail to fear enough.
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