I’ve visited Auschwitz-Birkenau a number of times, but there are many sights at which still haunt me.
The ruins of the gas chambers. A room filled with prosthetic limbs. The clothes of small children. And a long cabinet, stretching the full length of a bunker, filled with human hair.
The Nazis used every resource at their disposal to support the war effort. Nothing went to waste. When camps in Nazi-occupied Poland were closed down, buildings were dismantled, the timber sent back to Germany to be used again.
Everything was plundered from their victims: from the obvious – belongings, valuables, gold teeth – to the less obvious: hair. Heads were shaved on arrival – partly to prevent the spread of lice among the minority of prisoners kept alive to work and also as an identifier in case of escape. The hair was sold to German companies to turn into haircloth and textiles.
Fewer than 80 years after the horrors of the Holocaust, there are eerie echoes of that terrifying time coming from China. Earlier this month, it was reported that US federal authorities had seized a shipment of products made from human hair believed to have been taken from Uyghur Muslims in labour camps in China’s western Xinjiang province. The Chinese government says they are fighting terror and providing “re-education”.
Let me be clear. Holocaust comparisons are invidious. They are also often flawed. What makes the Holocaust unique – the systematic attempt to wipe all Jews off the face of the earth, wherever they resided – is not being repeated in China. But although today’s events are not the same as the Holocaust, that shouldn’t provide us with any comfort nor mean we have no reason to speak out. As we remember every year on Holocaust Memorial Day, the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur show that man is still capable of unspeakable barbarity.
Genocide is not only defined by a large death count. Reports smuggled from the region accuse the authorities of torture and the forced sterilisation of women. Those carrying out these acts in Xinjiang may already be complicit in genocide according to the UN Genocide Convention.
In the face of a global superpower, what can we realistically do about it?
As Rabbi Liss, Chair of the Rabbinic Council of the United Synagogue, has said:
“In an often-quoted Mishna from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers 2:16), Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that while it may not be our responsibility to complete the work, we are not free to desist from it either –.לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה
“Feeling helpless cannot be an excuse for inaction. Learn more about the plight of the Uyghurs. Tell your friends and family. Speak out.”
As the American anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”