Some weeks ago, I sat with my 12-year-old son, helping him prepare for his bar mitzvah. He is doing a video of our family's history, including the life of his grandfather — my father — who grew up in the Polish town of Wloclawek. We looked through the memorial book for the town's Jews and lingered over pictures from the Holocaust. Gathered in the town square (right in front of my father's house) awaiting deportation by the Nazis, the frightened Jews sat on a motley collection of chairs, overdressed and surrounded by bundles of the possessions they had hurriedly thrown together.
The next pictures showed these people, destined for death, struggling under their loads as they were driven out of town. In the final picture, only the chairs were left.
The next morning's paper brought the news of the fall of Srebrenica, the Bosnian "safe-haven" enclave overrun by the Serbs. And there were pictures eerily similar to the faded photos from Wloclawek a half century earlier: terrified old women and young children marching away from their homes under the eyes of armed men. Later on, we learned that most of the men and boys of Srebrenica were systematically massacred and buried in mass graves. Today we call this "ethnic cleansing," a term itself cleansed of its true horror, but it was not invented by the Bosnian Serbs.
As a teacher of Jewish history, I am regularly called on to offer courses on the Holocaust of the European Jews. It is always an emotionally exhausting experience. I frequently ask my students why we choose to subject ourselves to this shocking material. Why do we study the Holocaust? Why do we erect museums such as the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.? The answer I most often receive is the well-known adage that those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it.
But when I see pictures such as those coming out of Bosnia, I begin to wonder. Perhaps it is the ethnic cleansers who have learned the lesson better than we. Sometimes it seems as if the memory of the Holocaust has been most assimilated precisely by those who wish to repeat it.
A half century ago, information about the Holocaust was hard to come by, and we might partially excuse those who did not intervene as a result of ignorance and disbelief. Today, no such excuse is possible. Genocide was carried out in Bosnia for 3-1/2 years and, until the recent NATO bombing campaign, the world did nothing. Under both Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, the United States retreated into shameful isolationism while European governments showed as little fortitude as they did at Munich 57 years ago.
I know, of course, that these situations are not fully analogous. The Serbs have not built gas chambers for their victims. The other parties have also committed atrocities in what is clearly a war between parochial nationalisms. Yet, it is the Serbs — themselves victims of genocide during World War II — who have most ruthlessly and effectively made the whole population of the other side into their enemies. It is their snipers who target small children crossing the street in Sarajevo. It is they who have made mass rape an instrument of war, who cut off civilian populations' water supplies and then shell those standing in line to fill plastic bottles.
A debate has been raging for several years now about the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Lengthy, learned tomes have been written showing that no genocide like that perpetrated against the Jews has ever taken place before or after.
Bosnia undoubtedly does not match the Holocaust as a genocide. And yet, why can I not help but think of my father's town when I open the morning papers?
Those who argue for the Holocaust's uniqueness sometimes seem to have lost moral sensitivity to "lesser" genocides.
Serbs, Croats and Muslims have been cutting each other's throats for centuries, so why need the world intervene now? they argue.
In any case, they say, some of the Croats and Muslims were on the Nazis' side during World War II. Put this way, history becomes a paralytic burden that prevents us from making moral judgments about what is in front of our faces today.
It seems to me that the very point of studying and remembering the Holocaust is not only to preserve a Jewish memory, but to sensitize us to our moral obligations toward the suffering of others. We rightly condemn the allies during World War II for failing to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz. It is precisely this memory that made NATO's refusal (only recently reversed) to bomb the Serbian war criminals — given all of the differences between them and the Nazis — so disturbing.
If the Holocaust cannot move us to act in the face of contemporary genocides, then we who have forgotten nothing are condemned to have learned nothing.