Pen Ultimate / Naming the Unnameable

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Seventy years ago, on June 22, 1941, the German army embarked on Operation Barbarossa, the largest military operation in human history, in terms of both manpower and casualties. Germany thus opened the eastern front of World War II, to the surprise of the Soviet Union, hitherto its ally.

What ensued in the following weeks was described by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Parliament, on August 24, 1941: "Whole districts are being exterminated. Scores of thousands - literally scores of thousands - of executions in cold blood are being perpetrated by the German Police-troops upon the Russian patriots ... there has never been methodical, merciless butchery on such a scale, or approaching such a scale ... We are in the presence of a crime without a name."

Operation Barbossa

On July 3, the German army entered Novogrudok, which had been under Soviet rule since September 17, 1939. In the coming days, some 70 local Jewish intellectuals were rounded up and taken to an unknown destination, where they were murdered. Among them was most probably my grandfather, the Hebrew teacher and writer Israel Elyahu Handelzalc, who had fled to the town from Warsaw in 1939. Shortly thereafter, probably in the town of Szereszow, my aunt Tamara perished, with her husband, and their 3-year-old son, Michael. I'm named after him.

In the 70 years since then, the Nazis' (and their allies' ) madness, which had a terrible method to it - and far exceeded the wildest fears or imagination - has come to be known all over the world by two names: one Hebrew, the "Shoah," and the other English, the "Holocaust."

On April 18, 1941, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, arrived in the United States. He was carrying an extensive compilation of the Germans' legal decrees related to the treatment of the populations in territories occupied by them, specifically including minorities like the Jews. These documents were to serve as a basis for his book "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe" (1944 ). In the preface, Lemkin wrote: "By 'genocide' we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe ) and the Latin cide (killing ) ... a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups."

Lemkin (who would have been 111 last Friday; he died, alone and forgotten, in 1959 ) had been preoccupied with devising a conceptual and legal international framework that would address the "destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group" since he'd heard reports of the mass murder of more than a million Armenians in 1915 by the Turks. In 1933, representing Poland, he proposed to the League of Nations in Madrid the creation of a multilateral convention that would make extermination of human groups - which he referred to as "terror," "acts of barbarity" and "acts of vandalism" - an international crime. On November 23, 1947, he succeeded, single-handedly, in persuading the nascent United Nations to adopt the draft of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as UN Assembly Resolution 180, which was followed six days later by Resolution 181, concerning the partition of Palestine. Both decisions were adopted - no doubt with more than ample justification - under the influence of the still-fresh memory of the unprecedented atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, mainly but not exclusively against the Jews.

Lemkin's unique achievement was only one of many topics discussed by participants of a symposium organized by the Open University last Monday. The event - entitled "And You Must Destroy the Evil Inside of You: We Are the Human Beings Who Commit Holocaust and Genocide" - marked the forthcoming publication of a book by the same name, by Prof. Israel Charny.

Charny, a psychologist, and the executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide, in Jerusalem, has been researching the subject of genocide for 50 years. Among the many publications with which he has been involved is the two-volume "Encyclopedia of Genocide," which he edited. The new book, his first in Hebrew, is the 12th in the "genocide" series published by the Open University as part of the curriculum of its "genocide studies"; more than 1,000 students took these courses last year.

The title of Charny's newest work and the symposium reflect the complexity of the subject, which is by nature very contentious: Are "genocide" and "holocaust" synonymous? Does one subsume the other, and if so, which is which? Are we, by virtue of being human beings, prone to perpetrating holocausts and genocide? Is evil (as is reiterated seven times in the Book of Deuteronomy ) indeed within us all? Does the fact that we are descendants of victims make us immune to becoming potential perpetrators?

It is beyond my ability to address these questions here, but it's important to point out that the indirect "dialogue" conducted in 1941-1944 between Churchill and Lemkin about the correct name for the unnameable may help us in addressing extremely sensitive issues today.

One basic, human way of coming to terms with reality is literally that: finding the terminology, the right words that describe it. Naming a phenomenon allows us to grasp it. Indeed, this is the first task that God, having just created a reality merely by uttering words, asks the first human to perform. He created animals, and "brought them unto the man to see what he would call them; and whatsoever the man would call every living creature, that was to be the name thereof" (Genesis 2:19 ). Similarly, by giving names to the reality around him, the human "domesticates" it.

But we know very well that often one word is not enough to properly describe a phenomenon, especially an elusive one. For example, people have a first (sometimes also a second and third ) given name, and are often also identified by their father's (and sometime mother's ) names. In our times most also carry a family name. The given and family names together embody and manifest an individual's exclusivity and inclusivity.

In a similar way - and we can thank the ingenuity of Raphael Lemkin for this - the "destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group" belongs to the genocide "family" of crimes. The genocide perpetrated by the Nazis and their ilk on the Jews during World War II goes by the first name of Holocaust, or Shoah. Unlike "genocide," coined by Lemkin, both of these words, used to describe terrible occurrences, were in use before. Indeed, Churchill referred to the Armenian genocide as a "holocaust" (in 1929 ). Today, when people talk about a catastrophic event that befell a group of people before 1939 or after 1945, they often refer to it as a "Shoah" or a "Holocaust" - thus named "after" what the Nazis and their associates perpetrated on the Jews in the war.

Charny proposes what he calls a "multiple classification" of genocide, which allows for characterization of human atrocities past and present. Such categorization does not detract in any way from the uniqueness of the calamity that befell the Jews: Precisely because of its historically unprecedented magnitude, scope and scale, the Holocaust has since 1945 constituted a measuring stick for assessing atrocities that human beings plan and sometimes perpetrate, alas, upon others. Luckily, in the interim, no other horrors have even remotely approached the enormity of "the" Holocaust - and it is incumbent on us to keep it that way (although we sometimes seem to forget that duty ).

The odd thing about human nature, though, is that in current global political discourse, it seems to be an advantage for a nation or ethnic group to be perceived by others as having been - or as being bound to be - the victim or target of attempted genocide. We should always bear in mind that other communities may have suffered terribly, and deserve defense and appropriate redress, despite the fact that they experienced nothing like the Shoah, Holocaust or even "mere" genocide.

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