Blog by Rachel Gordon, The Together Plan’s Book Translations Coordinator
On 24th October 1945, the United Nations was created to bring all people and countries together. One of their earliest acts was to write the Declaration of Human Rights which are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Everyone is entitled to these rights and more, without discrimination. In the Minsk Ghetto during WW2 these rights and the United Nations did not exist and those in the ghetto befel a horrific existence until slowly and methodically they were all exterminated.
The fact these atrocities did not happen to you or those around you does not mean that it does not emotionally affect you. You are finding out about the horrific experiences of people and how their lives were cruelly extinguished. Worse still, it is not the work of fiction and is not created as a source of entertainment, it is a reality of our past, a reality people are choosing not to be informed of. This subject shows the deepest level of human brutality and is not an easy conversation to have so you can understand why people choose for it not to be a subject for today. People often shy away from difficult conversations because they do not want to go through the emotional upheaval that will undoubtedly prevail. Others openly ignore and refuse to look at information, yet alone choose to seek it out. Who wants to read about life in a ghetto where a Nazi crushes a child’s skull by walking on them for no reason other than their religion? Or to learn that death was the prize for being caught sneaking out of the ghetto to find food so that you and your family do not starve?
When you read a first-hand account or hear the person saying I saw this… I watched this happen, I lost all my family, it becomes all the more painful and real. A story of an individual is always more powerful than an overview of the masses. You go through their highs and their lows, you are taken through their journey hoping they will succeed and are affected when they do not. Out of the 100,000 Jews who went through the Minsk Ghetto barely 1000 survived, and those who lived did so because they escaped. Those numbers, while huge, are just numbers. They do not tell you of families, of children, what those people looked like or what they achieved within their life.
Anna Machiz was one of those who escaped the ghetto and lived in the Belarusian forest with other escapees. They were the only survivors and they are the reason we can tell this story and their words can be read today. Anna wrote a memoir of her time in the ghetto, sometimes in painful detail. They include people’s last words before being shot or children running up to their bullet-ridden father in the middle of the road, crying over their limp body. It is tough to read and even more difficult to continue. It is her story of a community that was almost entirely wiped out. This story has been translated and is currently being edited by The Together Plan before it can be published in English.
Is the answer to stop reading, stop watching and close ourselves off from the atrocities surrounding us because it is just too difficult? Or is the answer to carry on, to read others’ stories and share with those around us what we have learnt so the impact can be even greater? For every person the answer is different and at different points in our lives, we can feel able to do more or less. There is no right or wrong answer, only what you feel comfortable with. What we all need to do, is acknowledge how we can learn from our shared past, so that the next generations do not befall the same mistakes time and time again.
These conversations are difficult. We respected the importance of having this conversation at the end of WW2 when the nations of the world chose to come together. We created a unified organisation and legislation after seeing the brutality and injustice humans did to one other, making those responsible internationally accountable for their actions. We looked into our past and we actively chose a better, more peaceful, more loving future for all. We created the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights and every year we commemorate this decision on December 10th, International Human Rights Day. On that day we can choose, if only for a day, to have those difficult conversations and read those difficult stories, for those who did not have an organisation and legislation standing behind them, making sure there were rights in their lives. We can tell the story of those that lost their lives in the ghetto but also of those who were held responsible for their horrific actions during the war and were convicted and sentenced for their war crimes.
Looking at the rampant divisiveness in societies across the globe today. It seems right now and more than ever, we need to face this history head on. Scapegoats and bullies still exist today; you do not need to look far to see this happening whether it be in the political climate or in your own home. We all need to take responsibility for our actions and hold others accountable for theirs. Where do you stand in life are you the upstander, the bystander or the perpetrator?
To read about the Minsk Ghetto click here.