Discussion on genocide in Bergen-Belsen | opinion

My visit earlier this month to the grounds of the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany was nothing short of surreal.

It was here that over 50,000 prisoners, most of them Jews, died of typhus, extreme malnutrition and other malignant diseases in the final months of World War II.

And now, on the occasion of the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, those present remembered both the past and the victims of modern-day war crimes and crimes against humanity. As we remembered the physical and mental resilience of the Jewish survivors of Bergen-Belsen and the other Nazi death and concentration camps, we were aware of the millions of Ukrainian refugees who face a daunting, uncertain future today.

Certainly the Holocaust still casts a long shadow over the modern world. Its importance was made even clearer during my trip by the ongoing war in Ukraine and the ensuing debate over whether what is happening in Ukraine is in fact genocide.

All over the world, people consider genocide to be the worst crime imaginable.

“The demons of history have returned,” Poland’s Prime Minister recently wrote in a guest post in The economist. “We are witnessing another genocide. In this environment, the West has behaved like a frog in water that is gently brought to a boil. He didn’t react even when Russia added heat.”

President Joe Biden has also accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of committing genocide in Ukraine: the Russian President is “trying to erase the very idea of ​​being Ukrainian at all.”

And the International Criminal Court in The Hague has already opened a case, saying there is “reasonable reason to believe that both alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Ukraine.”

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, one of the speakers at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial, was born at Belsen Displaced Persons Camp in 1948 and now teaches genocide law at the law schools of Columbia University and Cornell University. Rosensaft, who is uniquely qualified to speak on these matters, shared some of his thoughts with me as we walked past the mass graves.

“The concept has developed that if it’s not genocide, it’s not that serious, which is ridiculous,” said Rosensaft, who serves as deputy executive vice president and general counsel of the World Jewish Congress. “Does it matter whether it is a crime against humanity and not genocide? … We are doing the cause of justice a disservice by minimizing the seriousness of crimes that do not fit the narrow legal definition of genocide .”

In 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the killings by Nazi Germany a “crime without a name”. It was not until 1944 that Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer, coined the term “genocide,” although a crime against humanity, as first defined in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, is equally heinous.

Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
Pebbles lie on a memorial stone on the grounds of the former Bergen-Belsen prisoner of war and concentration camp on March 18th, 2020.

As a legal term, genocide is by definition narrow. It requires an “intent” to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, religious, or racial group. It can’t be a by-product. But Rosensaft asked, “Does it matter? Nobody has ever said that I feel better knowing I’m going to be killed because it’s ‘only’ a crime against humanity and not genocide.”


I asked Rosensaft, the newly elected chairman of the advisory board of the foundation that oversees World War II memorial sites throughout Lower Saxony, why he returns to Bergen-Belsen year after year.

He referred to two people, including his father, who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen together with his mother and who headed the Jewish Committee of the Belsen DP camp and the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany from 1945 to 1950.

“My father promised the dead buried here in the mass graves that he would never abandon them,” said Rosensaft. “That responsibility is mine now.”

Bergen-Belsen therefore symbolizes the unimaginable horrors of the Nazis and reminds us that genocide and crimes against humanity have not entirely disappeared, as is the case in Ukraine.

In our conversation, Rosensaft also referred to Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who taught that memory is the secret of salvation.

“That is also the secret of prevention,” adds Rosensaft. “The Belsen mass graves remind us that a crucial part of our responsibility to the past is to do everything in our power to prevent that past from becoming a horrific reality again.”

Heidi Kingstone is a journalist and foreign correspondent who has reported from global trouble spots such as Sierra Leone, Darfur, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. She is the author of Cables from the Kabul Cafe (Enhanced Edition, 2014).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

https://www.newsweek.com/discussing-genocide-bergen-belsen-opinion-1710224 Discussion on genocide in Bergen-Belsen | opinion

Rick Schindler

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