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27 Jan

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World leaders and Holocaust survivors have gathered at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

Two hundred survivors of the holocaust were expected to attend, with visitors drawn from Israel, the US, Australia, Peru, Russia, Slovenia and elsewhere. As well as survivors of the camps, many bereaved relatives of those killed during the genocide were also attending.

Among politicians attending Monday’s observances at Auschwitz, which is located in southern Poland, a region under German occupation during the war, were Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin. The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, was also in attendance alongside German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, was among attendees at the memorial, visiting the camp with the museum’s director, Piotr Cywi?ski. He viewed a plaque that includes the name of London after it recently pledged a contribution of £300,000 ($391,000) for the site’s preservation.

The camp was liberated by Soviet soldiers on 27 January 1945. They found 7,000 starving prisoners alive at the camp, where the German SS systematically killed at least 960,000 Jews. Other victims included approximately 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10,000 from other nationalities.

Opinion

The Nazi death camp was liberated 75 years ago, but across the world its malign influence lives on

Auschwitz

‘Auschwitz was a creation of humans convinced of a political ideology, Nazism, which was the product of humans – not just any humans, but Germans, who have given the world so much spiritually and intellectually.’ Photograph: Omar Marques/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

My uncle Max survived several years in Auschwitz. I was not close to my uncle. When we visited my first cousins in their house on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, he was often in the basement – as a tailor, a trade he learned in a camp for displaced persons, he liked to work long hours. Once, catching me for some unfathomable reason singing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles at age nine or so, he told me about a day in Auschwitz. From that point on, I was frightened that he would tell me more, and avoided him.

Max died of a heart attack in his late 50s. Except for his relationship with my cousins, with whom I was then so close, he did not play much of a role in my life. But Auschwitz did.

My mother was raised in a Siberian labour camp – she met her father for the first time on the Trans-Siberian railroad when she was five, being repatriated back to her native Poland along with her sister and mother. They were the only survivors of my great-grandmother Necha Epelbaum’s eight children and their progeny. She said she had witnessed the murder of my great-uncle David. All but one of her children were murdered by German soldiers. Necha herself was murdered in Sobibor. But Sobibor is not Auschwitz.

My grandmother, Ilse Stanley, was an actor in Berlin, daughter of the head cantor of Germany’s largest congregation. My father Manfred was born in 1932. During the 1930s, dressed as a Nazi social worker, Ilse rescued hundreds of her fellow Germans from Sachsenhausen. The purpose of Sachsenhausen was to treat communists, Jews and other enemies of the state with brutality so they would self-deport. It was not to murder them. Sachsenhausen was not Auschwitz. And my grandmother was not an inmate; she was a rescuer.

My father stayed in Berlin until July 1939, when he left with his mother for New York – his father having left for London the year before. My father was beaten on the street and experienced the madness of Kristallnacht. But Kristallnacht was not Auschwitz.

As the son of German Jews, I felt impelled to return to Germany, first for high school and then in college. In high school in Germany, we learned about Auschwitz. We learned it was in Poland, that its existence and nature were concealed from ordinary Germans, and that the guards were largely eastern European. It made it hard to think of my mother’s family as equal victims – shot by ordinary German soldiers. Nothing, it must be truly said, is Auschwitz.

This was the first, but by no means the last time that I saw Auschwitz used to conceal the scale and nature of injustice.

It is hard even to raise the question, “What is the meaning of Auschwitz?” To assume it has a meaning is already deeply presumptuous, in every sense. It is easy to use its unfathomable meaning for fathomable political ends, to vilify an enemy (in a speech in October 2015, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, completely unjustifiably, shifted the blame for the gas chambers of the Holocaust from Hitler and the Nazis to the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem). In spite of these misuses, we must use the Holocaust politically.

Auschwitz was a creation of humans convinced of a political ideology, Nazism, which was the product of humans – not just any humans, but Germans, who have given the world so much spiritually and intellectually. Germany is the land of Goethe. And Kant. And Auschwitz.

Nazism – the ideology that led to Auschwitz – had roots in other lands. Hitler was much taken by the example of the United States, which in Mein Kampf he describes as the young nation closest to realising a “national state” in his favoured sense. The Nazis admired America’s racial ideology, and our “race science”. Our Jim Crow laws were used as a model for the Nazi Nuremberg laws. Our immigration laws, which banned non-whites and Jews, and the sick and the weak, were vocally admired by Hitler.

Again, we see the ideology so admired by Hitler dominate US politics. What does this mean? When one raises this question, one is told, “but there is no Auschwitz on the immediate horizon in America”. This draws attention away from America’s prison gulag, which results in black Americans making up almost 10% of the world’s prison population, despite being only 13% of the US’s population. Of course it goes without saying that US prisons are not Auschwitz.

My parents’ scars are not the cruellest scars imaginable, of the sort that descend from Auschwitz. My parents’ scars come from an early fear of having to hide, of having the wrong papers. They remember how they were described in the press and by the leaders – as criminals, as fundamental threats, as non-humans. They remember the rough treatment from official bureaucracies. They remember the family separations.

I have lived my life in the shadow of Auschwitz. Rather than address its unfathomable meaning, I have chosen to look at the surrounding structure, what accompanied and enabled it, which its incomprehensible shadow, quite understandably, occludes.

Jason Stanley is Jacob Urowsky professor of philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of How Fascism Works

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