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'A Template for Genocide'

November 6, 2008 By:
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Nov. 9 and 10 mark 70 years since Kristallnacht, the mad rampage unleashed by the Nazis against the Jews of Germany and Austria, a long, dark night and nearly a full day that saw synagogues burned to the ground, Jewish businesses looted, and many Jewish males rounded up, beaten or tortured, then sent to concentration camps. As this somber anniversary of what many call the prelude to the Holocaust fast approaches, no book could be more fitting (though experiencing it is quite disturbing) than Never Again, Again, Again ... by Lane H. Montgomery, a photographer who has traveled throughout the world to catalogue instances of genocide. The 40 photographs she has taken are supplemented by contemporary images from each particular period and abundant archival material. A variety of texts have also been included: Montgomery's reflections on her work and travels, eyewitness reports from both the criminals and the survivors, and writings by scholars and journalists, all of it drawn together to demonstrate that human beings have been motivated in frightening ways by their hatred, and that, at certain moments over the last 100 years, their cruelty has known horrific depths.

The work's scope is broad, indeed, taking in all of the 20th century, and then moving on into the 21st; which means that the photographer begins with the slaughter of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks and, eventually, leaves us to contemplate Darfur and the nearly deafening international silence that has accompanied the tragedy.

There has been a tendency in the Jewish community to overlook books like Montgomery's. Though the Nazi slaughter of Europe's Jews gets more play than any of the other events here -- whether it's in Cambodia, Bosnia or Rwanda -- people worry that Jewish suffering will be diminished because the very context of the book seems to stimulate comparisons.

That is the farthest thing from Montgomery's mind. As her title suggests, she wishes to know why, after the world said "Never again!" to mass slaughter (echoing the Jews in this), it happens again and again and again. Where does such blood thirst come from? What motivates neighbor to turn on neighbor? And she wonders, as well, why we have not been able to control it after a century of dreadful evidence and testimony.

There are echoes here in both words and photos that will deeply disturb you -- may even horrify you -- but may also painfully increase your understanding, not just of Jewish experience, but of the human condition. All you need to do is turn to page 16 and look at the photo there. It is an aged black-and-white image, showing children in tatters and obvious anguish, hungry, begging for compassion. You might think immediately "Warsaw ghetto," but you would be wrong; these are the orphans of the Armenian genocide.

The title of Richard G. Hovannisian's essay on the Armenian slaughter sums it up: "The first genocide of the 20th century is the template for genocides to come."

'Who Today Remembers the Armenians?'

You may recall that, eight days before he was to invade Poland, Hitler exhorted his officers to "send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women and children" who might stand in the way of the Nazi dream of power and domination."

He then added, "Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?"

Tragically, as it turned out, he was not wrong. It was a mere 20-plus years beyond the slaughter by the Turks, and the world had, indeed, forgotten.

In the teens of the last century, the Armenian cause had been a widely recognized human-rights issue. Newspaper headlines screamed about the tragedy and the need for action. Citizens mobilized to force governments to right the wrong, and there was no ambiguity about it, especially in the United States. But, in the '20s, an isolationist tenor gripped America, and the political climate turned, caring little about human-rights crusades.

Hitler knew of what he spoke.

Forgetting is easy, looking away is easier still, especially on one's nerves. But these photos and documents deliver an insistent message -- we can't, we mustn't. Or it will continue ... then it will happen again ... and again ... and again.

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