27 January 2008

Ha-Sho'ah, Holocaust, Genocide, Porrajmos, and other questions

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) in the UK.

The purpose of this day, like the aims of the trust which shares its name, is a good one: "so that we learn the lessons of the past to build a better future now". But nothing this loaded is ever free of politics.

This year, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has dropped its previous objections and will take part in the day's ceremony in Liverpool. This gesture of oneness, "for the sake of the common good", can only be applauded. But their stated objections carried an important truth.

Ask people about the Holocaust and, assuming that they know about it at all (a distressingly large number no longer do, which points up the reasoning for a memorial day), they will tell you that six million Jews died in the camps. That is, in the old legal form of words, the truth and nothing but the truth; but a long way short of the whole truth. Somewhere around the same number of other human beings also died in those camps: Jehovah's Witnesses, gypsies and travellers, homosexuals, social democrats, communists, trade unionists... the list, as they say, is endless. We should never forget that the largest group were Jews, condemned to death by their perceived ethnicity; but equally we should never forget there were other victims too.

Hebrew words are increasingly associated with the Holocaust. "Ha-Sho'ah", of course, as a name for the event itself, secured in public prominence by the (entirely laudable) efforts of Steven Spielberg and others. Then there is "zah'khor", a richer and subtler word than its English biblical rendition as "remember" allows. The reasons are clear, and understandable; but a side effect is reinforcement of the idea that this was an exclusively Jewish tragedy.

Words are powerful, wonderful, vital, but shifty things; like any powerful tool, they have their dangers and difficulties as well as well as their uses. If I hesitate at the risks associated with my use, in English, of the Hebrew word, is "holocaust", really, any better? It is a Latin word, it evokes burning, and in both ways the images upon which it calls are subconsciously biblical. The Muslim Council of Britain would prefer "Genocide" and that has its clear attractions. Unlike holocaust, genocide is not tied irrevocably to a particular event or time or culture: it leaves us free, as the MCB points out, to remember and abhor all genocides, including those less comfortably distant in .history or localised in one easily demonised space.

Even "genocide", however, limits itself to ethnicity. The event which we call "The Holocaust" or "Ha-Sho'ah" was not limited to genocide. There was, to be sure, a genocide ... or, more accurately, genocides (plural). An attempt was made to eradicate several groups from this planet - amongst them the Jews, the Slavs, the Roma (it is estimated that 95% of the Roma population in Slovakia died). But the mass murder didn't stop at ethnic boundaries; social democrats, communists and trade unionists died not for their ethnicity but for their beliefs; Jehovah's Witnesses primarily for their commitment to pacifism; travellers for their lifestyle or misfortune; homosexuals for their private inclinations.

The Roma have their own word for that time "Porrajmos", which means "Devouring".

Holocaust Memorial Day is well meant, and should be welcomed; but it will only have any lasting value if its intentions are translated into a never ending questioning of the "us and them" mentality which led not only to Auschwitz but to the colonisations by imperial Europe, to the Little Big Horn, to Rwanda and Gaza and...

Questions are the thing. Memory and questions. You thought I was going to end with answers? I'm afraid not - I haven't any. Questions are the best we've got. So, even as I sincerely and warmly welcome the MBC's decision to take part in Holocaust Memorial Day 2008, I have to go on asking: what about the legitimate concerns expressed by their former refusal?

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