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Archive for Monday, March 14, 1994

AROUND TOWN

March 14, 1994

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In Lawrence you can see a three-hour and twenty-three minute reminder of the world's indifference to horror.

I had asked four of the 50 or so people seated in the Dickinson Theater Sunday afternoon to meet me when the film was over, to talk for two or three minutes.

We saw "Schindler's List," director Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-nominated film depiction of a true story that emerged from the unbelievable, from the Holocaust, from the incomprehensible machinery of a nation that half a century ago attempted to exterminate all of Europe's Jews.

It was, of course, just one of millions of Holocaust stories.

Spielberg did not tell the story of the United States' knowledge, by 1942, of the Third Reich's Final Solution.

He did not tell the story described by historian Deborah Lipstadt in her 1986 book, "Beyond Belief" that the Holocaust, fully under way by 1941, remained for many Americans an unbelievable rumor until after the death camps were liberated in 1945 -- despite our government's full understanding of the killing by 1942 and its refusal to take action to stop the killing.

Indeed, today the brutality of the Nazis remains almost as unbelievable as the burning truth of six million dead Jews. Some of them were relatives of mine, Polish and German aunts and uncles and cousins I never knew.

"That pattern of a tardy response began before the U.S. entry into the war," said Theodore A. Wilson, a professor of history at Kansas University. "We had been called upon by the European powers before the war began to play a role in seeking to limit Nazi aggression and had not done so. President Roosevelt adopted a policy of neutrality.

"We also had played a role in discussions about efforts to rescue or arrange for the rescue of substantial numbers of Jews before the war began, and those efforts collapsed as well."

In early 1943 the allies issued a joint statement condemning "this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination." But President Roosevelt waited a year before he created the War Refugee Board that helped save some European Jews.

"In my view we should have taken steps to act in 1943, 1944, that we didn't take," Wilson said. "The evidence did become overwhelming by 1943. In my view we should have taken whatever steps were possible to have limited or restricted the operations of the killing machine."

On Sunday I waited for four people outside the Dickinson Theatres not to talk about the past but to talk about the present, about 200,000 people who are dead or missing since April 1992, when a civil war began in what used to be Yugoslavia.

I wanted to talk about ethnic cleansing, about prison camps for civilians -- concentration camps. On Aug. 2, 1992, more than 19 months ago, New York Newsday reported that more than 1,000 Croat and Slovak Muslim civilians were executed in two Serbian "detention camps" in northern Bosnia.

The U.S. State Department acknowledged the next day that civilians were being tortured and killed in Serbian camps.

Last week the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staffs, Gen. John Shalikashvili, told National Public Radio that there are some situations so morally reprehensible that the United States must take action, despite the lack of any clear national interest.

For the past 14 months the Clinton administration has followed a hands-off policy in Yugoslavia, now telling its European allies that American troops will only be sent to Bosnia when all three warring parties there -- Bosnians, Serbs and Croats -- have signed a peace accord. The Bosnians and Croats have signed such an accord. The Serbs have not. The killing continues.

Near the end of "Schindler's List," Oscar Schindler, a Czech businessman who saved 1,100 Polish Jews, remarked, "I should have done more."

If "Schindler's List" were only a reminder and retelling of some of the European horrors that occurred in the first half of this century, it might serve to assure the pledge that I and millions of other Jews made after the Holocaust: Never Again.

Sadly, though, the film's appearance in theaters this year only reminds us of how much we have forgotten, of how world leaders can stand back and allow a nation to brutally consume its own citizens.

"Despite all of our technological advances, medical advances and other kinds of advances, the 20th century has been the bloodiest century, so far as historians go, in human existence," Wilson said. "A greater percentage of the population has been killed and maimed in organized conflict in the 20th century than ever before, as far as we know. That's not a very happy piece of information to contemplate."

Nor are the seven years remaining in this century.

The four people who said they would meet me never showed up. They had forgotten, or changed their minds, and it was just as well. By then I myself was in no mood to talk.

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