It was to have been the very last time that a world gone mad would permit the attempted genocide of a people. For Jews it became known as the Holocaust, or in Hebrew, the Shoah. For the Roma, another group persecuted by the Nazis, it was called the Porajmos, or the Devouring.
To be sure, it wasn’t the first time in human history when such evil walked the earth. Only a generation before the Nazis, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin attempted to rid the U.S.S.R. of a portion of the Ukrainian population by instigating a man-made famine known as the Holodomor.
Earlier in the 20th century, the Turks, trying to find ways to deal with their rebellious Armenian population, slaughtered more than one million men, women and children. Known as the Meds Yahearn, it was to this genocide that Adolf Hitler, in preparing his own plans to murder the Jews of Europe, famously referred when he asked his leadership, “Who remembers the Armenians?”
So out of the ashes of the Holocaust, after Hitler’s barbarians managed to murder almost two-thirds of European Jewry and just as many Roma, the cry “Never again” was repeated and almost believed.
And yes, immediately following the war, with war crimes trials in full swing, with the United Nations developing international law against genocide, humanity took a break from such evil.
Sadly, evil never leaves us. It may remain dormant for a while, but like a virus, it needs only to find a willing host to spread its poison yet again.
It didn’t take long. Barely 20 years later, as we entered the 1960s, mass murder was once again in vogue. As the Vietnam War dragged on, it provided a shield for Cambodia’s brutal dictator, Pol Pot, to slaughter almost two million of his people. Buried in mass burial sites known as the “Killing Fields,” Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seemed to have forgotten “Never again.”
And let’s not forget the wanton slaughter of up to 1.5 million Bangladeshis by the Pakistani army. And of course Mao Zedong was responsible for countless millions of Chinese deaths during his rule.
More recently, Rwandan Hutus hacked to death close to 1.5 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. And in the last decade, Sudan’s brutal Janjaweed have been responsible for the mass murder of countless Darfurians.
In Canada, many historians are taking a closer look at whether or not we committed genocide against our First Nations.
Indeed, “Never again” seems to have become “Again and again.”
To teach necessary and valuable lessons, the late Izzy Asper, Jewish philanthropist and former leader of the Liberal party of Manitoba, came up with a way to truly understand and memorialize human rights and wrongs.
Situated in Winnipeg and set to open this fall, Asper’s dream, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, will be a place where the next generation can learn and visualize a future that will speak forthrightly of genocide, discrimination and even Canada’s own human rights record, good and bad, while heralding human rights heroes.
With $20 million from his own foundation, this was to be a private-public partnership. And while Asper didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled, his daughter, Gail, has unwaveringly taken over the reins.
It hasn’t been without its difficulties, including victimized groups vying for limited space and arguments about the extent of one genocide over another. Yet despite these issues, Gail Asper moves boldly forward. As she told me, “We can’t be complacent, we can’t rest while anyone’s rights are under attack, and we all need to take personal responsibility for the preservation and enhancement of human rights in Canada and around the world”.
Sadly, today, human rights are under attack from those who believe protecting them stifles freedom. Can anything be further from the truth? Thankfully, with visionaries such as Gail Asper, Canada can become a focal point for understanding humanity through a museum whose time has come.