Privilege and Positionality

I was as young as six when I understood that six million of my people perished in a Holocaust during the Second World War. But I was as old as twelve before I learned that the Nazis also persecuted many others–people with disabilities, homosexuals, religious and ethnic minorities. This was around the time that I learned that my people’s Holocaust seemed to attract much more attention than the suffering that many other people around the world experienced.

In my sixth grade Civilizations class, the story of the Japanese internment during world War II was a slim textbook supplement to the bulky Holocaust narrative. My teacher added, as she read about Japanese internment camps in California, that our school librarian, Mrs. H– had been interned not far from our Philadelphia neighborhood. Two years later, my United States History teacher walked my class through a discussion of slavery in the American Antebellum south and asked, “why isn’t there a movie as popular as Schindler’s List about the American Civil War?” She answered her own question, pointing out that in such a movie, white Americans would need to look at ourselves as people for responsible for enslaving more than 600,000 Africans.

Stories of  unacknowledged suffering surrounded me.  Browsing a book catalog, I discovered the Armenian Holocaust, and was horrified to learn that the Turkish government massacred more than one million Christian Armenians during World War I, in what many regarded as inspiration for the Final Solution.  Adolf Hitler even quipped eight days before invading Poland, “Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Soon, I learned Hitler’s rhetorical question reached far beyond the Armenian Holocaust. From stumbling upon The Rape of Nanjing in my beloved Reader’s Digest, I learned the Japanese military massacred  over 200,000 people in Nanjing, China during the years 1937-1938.  The author Iris Chang, was the daughter of  Nanjing massacre survivors. She grew up hearing about the atrocities her family experienced, yet when she tried to find books about her parents’ experiences, none existed.  She wrote The Rape of Nanjing to ensure that the stories of her family and people of Nanjing would not be “reduced to a footnote of history.”

Although the massacres in Armenia and Nanjing predated my birth, I was coming of age with Rwanda and Kosovo on the evening news, and Cambodia’s genocide not to far in the distant past.   I was itching to shine the spotlight on these stories, to give all these Holocausts the textbook chapters and classroom space they deserved,  that my own Holocaust had.  I confided these feelings to my best friend. She encouraged me to find a way to talk to my school, and even offered to help me find a way to teach nearby middle schools about these genocides. But I balked before the idea taking a project so close to my heart into the public, speaking to others would open myself up to ridicule and rejection, which to my thirteen year old self felt almost as excruciating as the stories I yearned to share. Ultimately, my adolescent shyness spoke louder than my passion for giving voice to the suffering of so many all over the globe.

I silenced myself, and I shelved my project in the recesses of my mind, where it has not emerged until now. Learning about Guatemala’s own genocide–more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the 1960-1996 Civil War, awoke my memories of this project, and re-ignited my passion to uncover and share hidden histories of suffering around the world. To explain why I want to excavate and these share these histories, I will defer to the words of another.  Regarding Rawanda’s genocide,  Mahmood Mamdani’s stated, “Atrocity cannot be its own explanation. Violence cannot be allowed to speak for itself, for violence is not its own meaning. To be made thinkable it needs to be historicized.”

I believe  all violent atrocities must be historicized to ensure that history does not repeat itself. Judaism observes Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the six million lives lost in the Jewish Holocaust. We also have an expression, “never again.”  But never again tends to be an exclusive phrase, referring only to the suffering of the Jewish people. Insight into this exclusivity comes from a surprising source, the television show “Weeds.” In a fourth season episode, an adult son of a Holocaust survivor tells his thirteen year old nephew about his mother’s experiences, and concludes, “never again.”  His nephew says, “but it has happened again,” and lists genocides in many countries including Rwanda and Kosovo. But his uncle cuts him off with the words “may never again such a thing happen to Jews.”

As a Jew, I deeply believe that my positionality, which stems from losing six million of my people in a Holocaust, as well as my privilege of having this loss acknowledged and memorialized in history books, blockbuster films, and a National Remembrance Day, that gives me the perspective and drive to advocate for  people experiencing oppression everywhere. It is my privilege and positionality that also connect me to German Choc, and give me the determination to use my clay and colored pencils, my beads and blog to help give him and his family the smallest measure of what I take for granted each day.

Source Notes

1. Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. 1997

2. Sanford, Victoria. Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. 2003

3. 60 Minutes. Turkey and Armenia’s Battle over History. February 28, 2010 http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/02/26/60minutes/main6246574.shtml?tag=currentVideoInfo;segmentUtilities This 60 Minutes episode

4. United Human Rights Council. Genocide in Rwanda. http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/genocide_in_rwanda.htm

5. Holocaust Museum Houston. Genocide in Cambodia (1975-1979) http://www.hmh.org/ed_Genocide_Cambodia.shtml

6. Kosovo Genocide: Massacres. 1999. http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/kosovo/kosovo-massacres.htm

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2 comments

  1. wow, what a wonderfully written piece. Thank you for sharing. I agree wholeheartedly with you. It makes me think of one of my favorite quotes:

    “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.”
    -Arundhati Roy

  2. thank you for writing this..I am coming to terms with this whole story form the ‘German’ side.
    .I was thinking about these issues yesterday and the day before after having a friend of mine post about her visit to Dachau and a link came up to your post..
    I offer my own blog post as a response to yours.
    This is the second part of my response to my friend’s visit, which seems to apply to your post…the first
    may be read here too…
    http://frombrokenstones.wordpress.com/2012/07/25/from-dachau-too/

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