"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

4.16.2007

some through great sorrow

Walking across campus Thursday, a student handed me white rose. The flier attached to the rose noted that today, April 16, is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The group passing out the roses handed out 10,000 roses on campus to symbolize the 10,000 individuals who were killed each day in Auschwitz/Birkenau. On this day, we remember 6 million innocent people who were killed because of who they were. We regret that those in a position to help Europe's Jews by and large failed to do so. We remember the sacrifice of those who tried to stop the madness.

The purpose of handing out those white roses is not just to make us remember, however. It is also a call to action. After the Holocaust, many, many intelligent people in the global community said that we would never allow something similar to happen again. And despite having agreed to legal obligations to stop genocides when they begin, we have failed on that count. We failed 1.7 million Cambodians. We failed in East Timor, where up to 1/3 of the population was killed. We failed in Bosnia. We failed in Rwanda. We are failing in Darfur, a place in which, since international attention has focused on the crimes being committed there, has seen the death toll rise from 300,000 to nearly 400,000 people.

In places that don't meet the criteria for being called a "genocide," we still fail some of the world's most vulnerable people. 1200 Congolese die every day from war-related causes, with a death toll that is rapidly passing 4 million. Women and girls are sold as sex slaves in Thailand, in France, and even here in the United States. I fear it's as likely as not that my cute new dress from Target was made by a teenager working in unsafe conditions who wasn't paid a living wage. We're failing millions and millions of the world's people who must live in oppressive conditions.

The world is messed up. Holocaust Remembrance Day is a formal way to remember that. It's also a reminder that genocides and massive human suffering don't have to happen. The reason white roses are associated with today is that five students and a professor at the University of Munich decided to resist the Nazis. Calling themselves the White Rose Society, they wrote leaflets calling for resistence to the regime. They were executed for their activism.

So maybe it didn't do that much good to resist, to take a stand, to say with their whole lives, "Not on our watch." Maybe it didn't. But maybe, just maybe, their decision to take a stand, to not let this happen did, in some small way, matter. We don't remember most of the nameless, faceless people the world over who've stood by while genocide happened in their hometowns. But we remember them, and their actions seem to inspire others to fight atrocity in our time. It certainly has been the case at the University of Texas, where a group of students decided to combine their talents to address modern-day genocides through a new White Rose Society. These students saw a problem in the world, wondered what they could do to fight it, and they could no longer be the same. For the first white roses, it meant losing their lives to save them.

What does it mean for us? What do you do when you know a genocide is happening on the other side of the world? Are you content to live your same, comfortable life? Do you drown out the voices of dying children that haunt your dreams with music, television, movies, and meaningless conversation? The question the white roses ask us - the question that Yom Hashoah demands that we answer - is whether it matters to us at all. Do we change the way we live, or do we sit silently by?

What's it going to be?

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