Can there be anything more reprehensible than the recent spectacle of haredi Orthodox Jewish boys wearing yellow stars of David and striped black-and-white concentration camp uniforms at a demonstration in Jerusalem? Offended by Israeli authorities' efforts to curtail abuse of women and girls in haredi neighborhoods, the demonstrators desecrated the memory of the more than 1.5 million Jewish children whose suffering and death will be remembered on Jan. 27 at the United Nations' annual Holocaust commemoration. "This protest," said one of the rally's organizers, "reflects the Zionists' persecution of the haredi public, which we see as worse than what the Nazis did."
The image of one particular boy at the demonstration raising his hands in mock surrender to re-enact the famous photograph of a Jewish child being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto struck a personal chord in me. Sixty-nine years ago, another Jewish boy named Benjamin was living with his parents in the Polish city of Sosnowiec. The month before, this boy, my brother, had turned 5. He was a smart, good-hearted, innocent child who had never done any harm to anyone. But he had already been sentenced to death.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew that Benjamin and virtually every other Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Europe were about to be brutally murdered. On Dec. 17, 1942, the United States, Great Britain and the USSR had condemned the German government's "bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination" of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Yet Benjamin's fate was not a priority for any government.
Even in the midst of World War II, if the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Australia had announced a willingness to give refuge to Jewish children, Benjamin might still have had a chance.
Instead, after Gerhard Riegner, the director of the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, sent a telegram through U.S. diplomatic channels in Switzerland in January 1943 reporting that 6,000 Jews "are killed daily" in Poland, and Romanian Jews are being murdered under dire circumstances, Secretary of State Cordell Hull instructed the American legation in Bern to no longer accept such "private messages."
On an August night in 1943, Benjamin arrived at Auschwitz with his parents and grandparents. In her memoirs, our mother recalled her final moments with her child: "One SS man was standing in front of the people and he started the selection. With a single movement of his finger, he was sending some people to the right and some to the left."
Benjamin went with his father. "Something that will haunt me to the end of my days occurred during those first moments. As we were separated, our son turned to me and asked, 'Mommy, are we going to live or die?' I didn't answer his question."
Benjamin, his father and my grandparents were murdered that night in the gas chambers. Since my mother's death in 1997, he has existed in me. I see his face in my mind, try to imagine his voice, his fear as the gas chamber doors slammed shut. If I were to forget him, he would disappear.
The hundreds of thousands of children killed in subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Darfur and the former Yugoslavia fared no better. The 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was supposed to protect them. So was the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Rwanda, Serbia and the Sudan are all parties, which affirmed that "every child has the inherent right to life." Their mutilated corpses, hacked by machetes in Rwanda or buried in mass graves in Bosnia, epitomize the international community's failure to live up to this fundamental aspiration.
My brother and every other child murdered in any genocide deserve to be remembered as fragile flames extinguished in tsunamis of hatred, intolerance and bigotry. Exploiting their memory to score cheap political points is obscene.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, the son of two survivors, is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.