Travesties won’t end until people act

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist

We were in Poland talking about Africa. It seemed fitting.

Last month, I joined an interfaith pilgrimage to the killing places of the Holocaust years, a handful of the sites where homosexuals were slaughtered for being homosexuals, communists for being communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses for being Jehovah’s Witnesses and, most infamously and most prodigiously, Jews for being Jews.

Six million Jews, 5 million others. And the world, 60 springs ago, struggled with the sheer magnitude of the slaughter and said never again, never, never again would it stand quietly by as people were butchered for being what they were. Not for what they did, not for what they said, but simply and cruelly, for what they were.

So how could you go to Holocaust sites and not end up talking about Africa, the place — the latest place — where the world’s solemn vow has been unmasked for a lie? This was the evening of the day we walked through Krakow’s old Jewish Quarter where there is anti-Semitic graffiti on some of the walls. It was the day after we walked through Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau where more than a million Jews were sent to die.

We were dining, members of the tour group and I, at a restaurant in the Quarter when some of us fell to talking about Sudan, where black Africans have been killed for being black Africans.

Some of us thought the ultimate solution to such genocide was in making Holocaust education more prevalent internationally in hopes that yesterday’s horror might dissuade tomorrow’s mass murderers. Others — I was in this group — thought that was fine, but not immediate enough. We advocated formation of a standing multinational U.N. force that would, upon a finding of genocide, enter the offending nation, not to conquer, but for the sole purpose of making the killing stop.

But one thing was obvious as we debated the efficacy of our ideas. Namely, we were having a discussion that people at home, the vast majority at least, were not having — a discussion we ourselves might not have had if not for where we were and what we had seen. Back at home, the Michael Jackson trial would have seemed more important, the runaway bride more pressing. And “never again” would have seemed too long ago and too far away.

Sixty years ago, the Holocaust came as a surprise to most Americans, the malevolent coda to a nightmare in which the world had been trapped for years. Though some in authority were apparently aware the Germans were committing wholesale murder, the average Jane on the street, the average Joe at the water cooler, was shocked to learn the enormity of the crime. We did not know, they said, the inference being that if they had known they would have done … something. At the very least, they would not have witnessed in silence.

Sixty years later, wandering the killing places, you wonder if you can believe that. Sixty years later, we have no excuse.

We can read the paper, turn to CNN, go online, to learn that tens of thousands of people have been murdered in Sudan and 2 million have been left homeless. We can read the courageous eyewitness dispatches of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, an outraged outcry against the murder of men and the rape of women. Sixty years later, we can know.

Or we can do what we did with Rwanda. We can look away, refuse to own what we know. After all, Brad and Angelina have a movie out and Paris is getting married. Our culture provides ready distractions that exact no emotional toll. So why not look away? Few things are more daunting, more likely to make you feel impotent, than grappling with the inhumanity of human beings.

Frankly, if there is a failsafe way to stop us from slaughtering us because of tribe, color or faith, it eludes me. But I do know the first step.

You start by refusing to stand silent witness.

You start by giving a damn.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com