Articles

Monday July 27, 2020, The Globe and Mail

Last week, a Hamburg state court found Bruno Dey, 93, a former SS tower guard at the Stutthof concentration camp, guilty of complicity in 5,232 counts of murder: the exact number of human beings destroyed during his tenure there in 1944-45.

Because Mr. Dey was a boy of 17 when he took up his duties, he was tried in a juvenile court (where the sight of an elderly man in a wheelchair must have startled the staff). The prosecution sought a three-year prison sentence; the defence called for an acquittal on grounds that such a young person would have been incapable of standing up to his elders in the name of conscientious refusal. The judge, for her part, decided on a suspended sentence of two years. A symbolic punishment.

In the aftermath, the usual questions were raised. Why bother trying someone for a crime committed so long ago, even if the law allows it? Why prosecute a man of 93 whose life was drawing to a natural close? What choice did he have? He had made a public apology at the close of his trial. Shouldn’t that be enough? Finally, might a merely symbolic verdict actually diminish the appalling nature of his offence? [more]

Sunday, May 17, 2020, The Star

Today’s coronavirus has echoes not just of more recent pandemics but of the medieval plague, a disease of unkown origin that unleashed terrible fear and hatred. In the following excerpt from her 2015 book, From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth-Century Spain, Erna Paris narrates the European experience of the plague, known as the Black Death, in the fourteenth century.

Behold a Pale Horse

There was famine, flooding and the painful erosion of deeply held conviction, but the fourteenth century had not finished delivering up misfortune. In mid-century all of Europe was devastated by unprecedented calamity. Bubonic plague.

“In a.d. 1348, the people of France and of almost the whole world were struck by a blow other than war,” wrote Jean de Venette, the prior of a Carmelite monastery in Paris.

Looking back at that terrible year the goodly prior suspected he had been permitted to see a celestial portent of the plague:

In the month of August 1348, after Vespers, when the sun was beginning to set, a big and very bright star appeared above Paris, toward the west … Whether it was composed of airy exhalations and was finally resolved into vapour, I leave to the decisions of astronomers. It is, however, possible that it was a presage of the amazing pestilence to come. [more]

Saturday January 25, 2020, The Globe and Mail

This month, we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest and most infamous of the Nazi’s death camps. It will no doubt be a time of sombre reflection and analysis – and a pointer to whatever trends may be emerging with regard to Holocaust memory.

Historical traumas seem to have their own timelines – and they are long. Think for a moment about slavery in the United States, an era that formally ended in 1865, but continues to wreak havoc in American civic and political life under many guises. Think about our slowly emerging knowledge of the Armenian genocide. It took place a century ago, yet the scale and the enduring import of the assault remains unacknowledged by the perpetrators, the Turkish state.

Persecution, with its attendant human suffering, is always a messy business: It burrows deep into consciousness and encompasses a range of extreme human emotions: from despair to rage, from guilt to denial. Sometimes, although more rarely, it even includes remorse.

And so it is with the Holocaust – an historically unprecedented assault against an entire ethnic group: the Jews of Europe. The Holocaust, a name that came into popular usage only in the 1970s, was unprecedented precisely because nothing on this scale had happened before. And because of the means employed: the deadly technology exploited by the Nazis to effect their murderous plan. [more]

Friday November 15, 2019, The Globe and Mail

Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country, took an unprecedented step this week. To everyone’s surprise, it opened a lawsuit against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague – the tribunal that adjudicates disputes among states – accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. [more]

Monday September 30, 2019 The Globe and Mail

“The criminal madness of the [Nazi] occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state. Those black hours soiled our history forever. … France … committed the irreparable.”

These words were spoken by French president Jacques Chirac on July 16, 1995, and in the days since his death, he deserves credit for moral courage. The occasion was the anniversary of the infamous Vélodrome d’Hiver roundups of Parisian Jews on July 16 and 17, 1942, when French police incarcerated more than 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in a sports stadium on orders of the occupying Nazis. Before the war ended, 76,000 Jews had been deported to Nazi concentration camps with French collaboration. Only about 3,000 returned. [more]