Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Other Holocaust

A few years ago I told the chairperson of a  women’s club that I would be speaking on “The Other Holocaust”  at their upcoming meeting. Later, she told me she had  hurried to the university library to research the term so that she could make a few meaningful comments before I began speaking. She never found any entries referring to another  holocaust.  I had coined the phrase.

Few people do not know about the Holocaust that annihilated about six million Jews during World War II in the infamous gas chambers of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Too few people know of another Holocaust in which possibly more than sixty million Russian citizens were killed, directly or indirectly, as a result of Communism between 1920 and 1990.  I had always used the figure of thirty million.  Then  researchers kept  adding to that figure.  On March 24, 2001 The Wichita Eagle reported  the number as sixty million.  I call that The Other Holocaust.

Why no general  outcry?  Because the crimes were committed by the Soviet government against its own citizens.  It was an insider job.

My own interest in this holocaust  stems from the fact that among those millions of  citizens who perished because of the war, executions, starvation, imprisonment in gulags,  forced labor,  confinement prisons, were close relatives of my mother.  They had  remained in Russia after the large migration in the 1920s, which brought my parents to Canada.

During the 1930s any religious and intellectual leaders such as ministers,  poets and writers,  kulaks (landowners) and children of kulaks – anyone who threatened  the Bolshevist regime in any way-- was shipped off to the gulags or into forced labor, to prisons, or simply disappeared.

One aunt and her preacher husband and family were exiled to the Perm area in Siberia in the early 1930s where he died shortly thereafter. There were hundreds like them. Writer Solzhnitsyn describes these gulags as “man-made hells.” 

In the 1940s the USSR needed  energy to develop its rich natural resources in Siberia.  Thousands of  German-speaking Russian-born citizens were forcibly  exiled to sites in Kazakhstan  following the division of Berlin by  the Yalta agreement.  They were condemned as traitors to their country.

They were crammed into cattle cars and transported  across the vast Soviet northern expanse to work at hard labor in forestry, construction, mining and industry at near-starvation rations in the bitter cold. Lives were expendable. There were always more available.  The supply was inexhaustible.

Among these expendable  bodies in forced labor camps  in Siberia were my mother’s  six sisters and their families.  Husbands and brothers had been mostly  conscripted into the military or labor army and died  there.   Being a conscientious objector to war was not an option.   Over a period of years one aunt  who survived wrote me the story of her experiences in forced labor after I visited her in Moscow, where she was living with her daughter and family. 

Reading her experiences and as many accounts as I could get my hands on  when I became aware of these relatives in the 1950s  brought me to the conclusion that sixty million was a big enough number of think of this as The Other Holocaust.

The other evening I went to hear Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, a fictional account of his experiences as a reluctant soldier in Vietnam.  It too was a holocaust of massive proportions.  It claimed the lives of more than  58,000  Americans and wounded another 300,000.  Estimates place the number of killed or wounded North and South Vietnamese at roughly four million soldiers and civilians – roughly 10% of the population. I recommend the book highly.

 His point was that instead of being “healed” of  experiences such as the Vietnam war, we should remember them.  Remember the horror.  Remember the uselessness.   Remember the waste of human lives on both sides. 

He writes: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” 

 A holocaust only makes you dead.

And so I continue to write and speak about this other Holocaust that cost countless human lives.  I don’t think the exact number will ever be determined.  Is it sixty of seventy million? I don’t know.  Even one person who dies at the whim of another is too many.  We must never forget.

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