January 27 is Holocaust Memorial Day.
In December the Polish village of Kutno—of about 50,000 people, not one Jewish—hosteda Jewish festival. In their words, “in a world where bitter sectarian conflicts grab most of the headlines, a Jewish festival in a town with no Jews is surely something worth celebrating.” In a single day in World War II, its entire Jewish community – 8,000 people – was marched out of town by gunpoint. They never returned.
A festival in 2014 won’t make that right. But it will make us remember. And it will make us remember that we can stop the need for genocidal memorials, if good people act.
Think back to November 9-10, 1938. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 267 synagogues were burned or destroyed, 7,500 Jewish businesses were vandalized or looted, and at least 91 Jewish men and women were killed. No one stood up against the Nazi regime on Kristallnacht, a turning point which enabled the Nazis to carry out the Holocaust, the systematic state-sponsored murder of European Jews and others.
While commonly known that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, not so widely known is the number of non-Jews, the number of Poles, resistance fighters, Greeks, Gypsies, Czechs, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, mentally and physically handicapped, Russians, Serbs, Socialists, Spanish Republicans, trade unionists, Ukrainians, Yugoslavians, prisoners of war, and more were folded into this genocide.
Even less commonly known is the story of the Polish town Jedwabne. On July 10, 1941 a crowd of Christian polesmassacred hundreds of their Jewish neighbors by closing them in a barn and setting it ablaze, burning them alive. This wasn’t the Nazis, but their very own people who lived among them.
This is what Martin Niemöller meant when he wrote his famous poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Polish attitudes about the country's Jewish past are complex. Picture a blender with the following ingredients: a cup of lingering anti-Semitism, a cup of pride for those like Oskar Schindler and Irena Sendler who saved Jews during the war, and a cup of guilt for those that collaborated and/or did nothing.
Things haven’t changed that much. The details are different, but when we break it down, like the Nazis, the Islamic State is an equal opportunity genocide implementer. ISIS is rapidly eliminating Christianity, Yazidi, Mandean, Jewish and other communities.
To lose the presence of Christians in the birthplace/Cradle of Christianity is to accelerate instability in the Middle East. With the region on the brink, those who have fled persecution—including Christians, other religious minorities, and the majority Muslims—need a strategy that works to rescue, restore, and return them to a home where they can practice their faith free from fear. This approach is not only the right thing to do, it is in everyone’s interest to do so for the sake of a peaceful Middle East.
Before we get to the point where an entire culture and religion is wiped out and years later we celebrate their traditions in their absence, let’s act now.
For information on a practical way to act now, see www.cradlefund.org
-Lindsay Kuntz is the Director of the Office of the President at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE). Prior to joining IGE she interned at the Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning (CAOCL). She is a 2011 graduate from Texas A&M University with a focus on international politics & diplomacy, history, and spanish. Lindsay tweets on behalf of IGE via @engageyourworld.