Hundreds of public and private school students listened intently Tuesday as Sam Weinreb, a Holocaust survivor, retold his shocking story of survival.
Then, they listened with equal intent as Jerry Fowler, president of the National Save Darfur Coalition, described how hundreds of thousands people struggle to stay alive today in refugee camps on the edge of the Sahara Desert, displaced from their homes in Darfur, a region of Sudan.
The details weren’t always the same, but the cruelty that gave rise to them was.
In Weinreb’s case he was a 13-year-old boy in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis took his family away. He fled to Hungary, living on the streets for months and foraging for food in garbage cans before he gave himself up to police and went to a Hungarian prison for two years. After his release, the Nazis occupied the country, rounded him up with thousands of other Jews and sent him to Auschwitz.
Beaten down, his identity reduced to a tattoo on his arm, he decided to make a run for freedom while on a final death march. Miraculously, he got away.
In Darfur, Fowler said innocent victims are awakened before dawn by the drone of airplane engines. Fifty-five-gallon drums filled with gunpowder, chains and nails are dropped like bombs on their villages, creating chaos.
That’s when ruthless militia known as Janjaweed (Devils on Horseback) enter the villages, killing and rousting people, then looting everything they can find before burning the huts to the ground. Dead bodies are dumped down wells, poisoning the water.
The students, some 600 in all, gathered Tuesday in the Lawrence Hall auditorium at the University of Pittsburgh, for the 2009 Holocaust Arts & Writing Seminar/Competition. It is put on every year by the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation, and encourages students to write or create art based on a specific Holocaust theme.
This year, the center is partnering with the Save Darfur Coalition to spread a message about all genocides.
“Some schools came that did not
register,” said Edie Naveh, director of the Holocaust Center. One group came that did not come with a teacher. They came on a public bus, which was wonderful.”
The center also partners year round with the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition on other programming.
“We as a Holocaust center are always interested in what the Holocaust means today to society and to students,” Naveh said. “What are the lessons one learns from the Holocaust? We study those
issues to learn the lesson of what the Holocaust teaches us.”
The most critical lesson, perhaps, is to stop genocide elsewhere, hence the partnership with Darfur groups.
Since World War II, genocides have occurred in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, to name a few. National organizations, such as Genocide Watch, exist to monitor acts of mass murder around the globe.
“My feeling is as long as these injustices and mass slaughters occur around the world we have to work even harder as a society and as a nation,” Naveh said.
Fowler, who was in town this week to help open the “Destroyed Villages” photo exhibit at Duquesne University, called on the students to join a campaign to send 1 million postcards to President Barack Obama urging him to keep his promise to end the genocide in Darfur. During his campaign last year, Obama pledged to work with “unstinting resolve” to end the crisis.
One aspect both the Holocaust and Darfur have in common, Fowler said, is that neither could have happened without much of the world standing by and doing nothing.
He cited the case of the St. Louis, a steamship carrying more than 900 Jews from Nazi Germany in 1939 that was denied entry into Cuba and the United States. Forced to return to Europe, many of its passengers eventually died in the Holocaust.
It’s not too late for the victims of Darfur, though the situation is grim. Last week, after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, charging him with war crimes, Bashir responded by expelling 13 Western relief organizations working in the country, making the fate of Dafuris more precarious than ever.
Which is why he asked Pittsburghers and others to make their voices heard by President Obama.
“What’s going to happen in Darfur is not inevitable,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)