Jews, come back to Germany. Please! We miss you.

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Jews, come back to Germany. Please! We miss you.

“On the basis of a decision by the German Bundestag” the “Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology” had given the green light to market Germany to the Jews.

How about that. An overt plea, offer, request, inveigle, snuggle, smooch to get Jews to return to Germany; to walk thru the ups and downs of a German Jewish heritage. Is that chutzpah or what?

It is chutzpah. And it is “or what” the what being “sechel.”

“Chutzpah” is Yiddish for gall, brazen nerve, effrontery.
“Sechel” is Yiddish for smarts, intelligence.

Witness the chutzpah: “You gotta be kidding; the perpetrator is asking the victims back for seconds.”  The title “Germany for the Jewish Traveler” feels like it could have been penned for a film by Mel Brooks; recall his “Springtime For Hitler?”  I experienced a modicum of resistance, irony, black humor when I first read the title “Germany for the Jewish Traveler.” Goebbels, the nazi’s Reich Minister of Propaganda would have been impressed with its smart look.

Witness the sechel; disregarding my initial knee-jerk take on “Germany for the Jewish Traveler” this e-brochure is an important piece, not only for its tasteful marketing and design, its handsome photographs of cities, towns and countryside, its informative text and focus on the Jewish German heritage; it is the appropriate, refulgent publication to be included in a history of nazi newspapers and posters debasing Jews with abrogation, edict, propaganda. It goes on top of that dark pile, it’s the capper, it’s redemption; it is an achievement in Germany’s “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” — its struggle/effort to come to terms with the past; and it is a testimonial to the terrible truth. Kudos to the German Bundestag.

 In essence the title implies the unspoken.
“Germany for the Jewish Traveler and Holocaust Denier.

This e-brochure should be included along with all of the other materials, books and images used in Holocaust studies. Get it off to high schools and colleges.

 “Germany for the Jewish Traveler” gives a concise informative history of the Jew in Germany, beginning from the Roman Empire on to the Mid-ages on to Kristallnacht and to the present. Today, nearly seven decades after the end of World War II, Germany is home to the third-largest Jewish community in Western Europe. It’s also the only European Jewish community that is growing rather than shrinking.

The camps in Germany still standing
where you, the world can meander;

Buchenwald.
Dachau.
Majdanek.
Neuengamme.
Sachsenhausen.
More than enough to get the idea; can’t get any closer to the agony
than the living evidence of the agony;
 the wood of the barrack and
the brick of the oven lives on in silence.

Let us walk through the silence together. All of us, hand in hand,
you, the world.
Would someone, you, the world, please take the hand of Hassan Rouhani
during a saunter 
through the crematorium?

SAMPLE PAGES FROM “GERMANY FOR THE JEWISH TRAVLER”

text below excerpted from e-brochure Germany for the Jewish Traveler …

“And it is in this spirit that we in Germany are honored to convey a special invitation to the Jews of the world to visit our country. As we do so, it would be naïve for us not to recognize that for many, contemplating a visit to Germany may never be without a mixture of emotions. Perhaps scholar, Joseph Greenblum, put it best when writing in the May 1995 issue of JUDAISM, the academic quarterly published by the American Jewish Congress when he wrote that visits by Jews to Germany: “symbolize the failure of the Nazis to erase Jewish memory, for it was the Jewish civilization of that nation which was first targeted for extinction. That failure would be powerfully demonstrated by a visit to sites of Jewish significance in the very heartland of what was once the Nazi empire…. Such pilgrimages by Jews would recognize and support the ‘other Germany,’ its accomplishments in reclaiming Jewish history, and its seriousness in coming to terms with the past and with itself.”

click for e-brochure: Germany for the Jewish Traveler 

How many good poems does it take to make a poet?

evapicola_1-03 SYLVIA PLATH in an interview was asked how she first began writing poetry, what sort of thing did she write about when she first began?  Sylvia Plath’s reply:

“Nature, I think: birds, bees, spring, fall, all those subjects which are absolute gifts to the person who doesn’t have any interior experience to write about. I think the coming of spring, the stars overhead, the first snowfall and so on are gifts for a child, a young poet.

Twelve year old Eva Picová had the “interior experience” Sllvia Plath speaks of — it’s called the Terrezin concentration camp, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans. It’s called premature adulthood at gun point.

Theresienstadt concentration camp, a transit camp for children and the elderly who were eventually packed into cattle cars pointed towards Auschwitz and their death. Also a camp for men and women selected for forced labor. Beatings, torture, starvation and disease were commonplace. Eva Picová lived through a typhus epidemic, seeing her friends and others succumb to the disease.  She saw adults saw her parents suffer, saw them agonize, languish, struggle under the brutal and terrorizing treatment wielded by the Nazis.

The adults at Theresienstadt manage to provide art and writing classes for the children. Despite severe congestion, food shortages and compulsory labor, the extensive educational and cultural activities in the ghetto reflected the prisoners’ will to survive the unsurvivable; provided a distraction from their eventual selection to the gas chamber, a distraction from the harsh bare-bone living conditions; gave them, especially the children, a voice to resurrect hope from despair.

A Dr. R. Feder gave Eva Picová’s poem to the State Jewish Museum in Prague. She most likely wrote more. She was allotted one more year to do so.

You can find a collection of children’s art and poetry from Terezin in the book titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” Included is Picová’s poem.

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IF EVA PICOVÁ DID SURVIVE THERESIENSTADT CONCENTRATION CAMP I IMAGINE THAT SHE WOULD CONTINUE TO WRITE POETRY, JOINING THE FEW SURVIVOR POETS AND WRITERS WHO GAVE US A PERSONAL HISTORY OF THE UNIMAGINABLE, THE ABSURD, THE MERCILESS. WHO GAVE US THE TELLING OF —  FINDING THEIR OWN VOCABULARY/VOICE TO EXPRESS WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO BE THE CHOSEN PEOPLE — THE PRIMARY PARTICIPANT IN THE FINAL SOLUTION — WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO WITNESS AND ENDURE THE NAZI’S SYSTEMATIC DEDICATED SLAUGHTER OF 6 MILLION JEWS. THEN & NOW —

Poet and writers born from the Holocaust.

  klugerboth-10Ruth Klüger  (born 30 October 1931)  is Professor Emerita of German Studies at the University of California and a Holocaust survivor. In Auschwitz, Kluger composed poetry in her head and, somehow, knew there would be a future for her after the war. Ruth and her mother along with a girl they adopted in Auschwitz were lucky and resourceful: they survived, and when her mother died in 2000, Kluger “felt a sense of triumph, because this had been a human death, because she had survived and outlived the evil times and had died in her own good time, almost 100 years after she was born.”

Her book “Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered” was named one of the year’s 10 best books by the Washington Post, 2001. Winner of the Thomas Mann Prize and the Prix Memoire De La Shoah

Ruth Kluger, an amazing women; her chutzpah, insight, honesty, creativity, survival instincts comes through In her book and everything else she takes on. Ruth Kluger didn’t call it quits after escaping Auschwitz. Risking her own life she help save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust by smuggling them on ships into Palestine.

The following:
SPIEGEL, a German publication interviews Ruth Kluger. Nov 7, 2006

SPIEGEL: Ms. Klüger, at the moment you have a research post at the University of California in Irvine, and before that you were a guest lecturer at the University of Göttingen. Do you sometimes go back to your home town Vienna?

 Klüger: Yes.

 SPIEGEL: But the emotions you experience in Vienna must be very different to how you feel in Göttinge

Klüger: Yes, what is strange is … how should I put it? Our personalities are such that we instinctively rely on our own experiences rather than using our brains. For me Göttingen is not a Nazi town, even though I know that Braunschweig is very nearby…

 SPIEGEL: Braunschweig is of course where Hitler was made a German citizen in 1932.

Klüger: Exactly. But Vienna reeks of anti-Semitism. For me every cobblestone in Vienna is anti-Semitic. If I hadn’t fled with my mother and her friend in time, by the end of the war I could have ended up in Bergen-Belsen. But I have never been there, and I don’t go to these concentration camp memorial sites.

SPIEGEL: These memorial grounds are certainly not built with you in mind.

Klüger: It is just not my camp.

SPIEGEL: But you do you travel occasionally to Vienna?

Klüger: I did a guest professorship there. It was very unpleasant. The people I had to work with were awful.

SPIEGEL: So you believe that anti-Semitism is still deeply ingrained in the city? That it will always be there?

Klüger: Vienna will never be rid of anti-Semitism. I have the feeling the city doesn’t even want to be. When I got the invitation to go there, I couldn’t help thinking: “This is the university where your father studied.” And the first few weeks I was there, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that my father was standing behind me. I kept asking myself what he would have said if he had been there. And after a few weeks I knew what he would have said: “You are pretty stupid to have come here.”

select for the complete interview

Nelly Sachs  (10 December 1891 – 12 May 1970)

nellysachs-06 a Jewish German poet and playwright whose experiences resulting from the rise of the Nazis in World War II Europe transformed her into a poignant spokeswoman for the grief and yearnings of her fellow Jews. She fled to Sweden in 1940 with her mother just before being deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, and lived in Sweden for the rest of her life, emotionally unable to face the idea of returning to Germany.

In 1966 she was awarded the Nobel prize for literature (for her “German Jewish” poetry).

Her following poem questions the unfathomable  — all of the German, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Romanian people who had a ‘hand’ in the Holocaust.

HANDS  by Nelly Sachs

Hands death’s gardener,
you who from the cradle-camomile of death
growing on the hard paddocks or hillside,
have bred the hothouse monster of your trade.
Hands, what did you do,
when you were the hands of little children?
Did you hold a mouth organ, the mane of a rocking horse,
did you cling to your mother’s skirt in the dark ….
You strangling hands, was your mother dead, your wife, your child?
So that only death was left for you to hold in your hands,
in your strangling hands?

Abraham Sutzkever sutzkever1_2-07was one of the great Yiddish poets of his generation who evoked the nightmare of the Holocaust with images of a wagonload of worn shoes and the haunting silence of a sky of white stars.

He was forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint; his newborn son was poisoned by the Germans in the ghetto hospital. Less than a year later, Sutzkever wrote a poem from a child’s viewpoint begging its mother to:

Strangle me with your Mama fingers

That played On my willow cradle.
It will mean:
Your love is stronger than death.
It will mean:
You trusted me with your love.

In 1941, he and his wife were sent to the Vilna Ghetto. Ordered by the Nazis to hand over important Jewish manuscripts and artworks Sutzkever and his friends hid a diary by Theodor Herzl, drawings by Marc Chagall and other treasured works behind plaster and brick walls in the ghetto. On September 12, 1943, he and his wife escaped to the forests, and together with fellow Yiddish poet Shmerke Kaczerginsky he fought the Germans as a partisan.

Paul Celan “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German”

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Paul Celan was born in Czernovitz, Romania, to a German-speaking Jewish family. The death of his parents and the experience of the the Holocaust are defining forces in Celan’s poetry and his use of language.

Celan was imprisoned in a work-camp for 2 years, until February 1944, when the Red Army’s advance forced the Romanians to abandon the camps, whereupon he returned to Czernovitz shortly before the Soviets returned. At that time friends recall Celan expressing immense guilt over his separation from his parents, whom he had tried to convince to go into hiding prior to the deportations, shortly before their death.

After escaping the labor camp, Celan lived in Bucharest and Vienna before settling in Paris. In Paris, he translated poetry and taught German language and literature at L’École Normale Supérieure. Though he lived in France and was influenced by the French surrealists, he wrote his own poetry in German.

Celan’s poems often contain brief, fractured lines and stanzas, with compressed and unpredictable imagery, with the forms of the poems echoing the difficulty of finding language for the experiences he witnessed. Celan received the Bremen Prize for German Literature in 1958 and the Georg Buchner Prize in 1960

Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine river in Paris, April 1970.

His most famous poem, the “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue)

Death Fugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling
he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he orders us strike up and play for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margeurite
your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
He shouts jab this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margeurite
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers
He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland
he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise then in smoke to the sky
you’ll have a grave then in the clouds there you won’t lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams
der Tod is ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

Primo Michele Levi always wore a short-sleeved shirt with a suit, even in winter, so that his prison tattoo was exposed whenever he removed his jacket.

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Primo Michele Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist and writer, the author of several books, novels, collections of short stories, essays, and poems. His best-known works include “Survival in Auschwitz”, his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. For the last forty years of his life Levi devoted himself to attempting to deal with the fact that he was not killed in Auschwitz. “The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died,” he said.

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Campo di Fossoli was a deportation camp in Italy during the Holocaust taken over by the Germans. On 21 February 1944, Levi and other inmates were transported in twelve cramped cattle trucks to Monowitz, one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Levi spent eleven months there before the camp was liberated by the Red Army on 18 January 1945.

Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, Levi was one of twenty who left the camps alive. The average life expectancy of a new entrant at the camp was three months.

Levi died on 11 April 1987, when he fell from the interior landing of his third-story apartment in Turin to the ground floor below.

The coroner ruled that Levi’s death was a suicide. Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta, “If Levi wanted to kill himself he, a chemical engineer by profession, would have known better ways than jumping into a narrow stairwell with the risk of remaining paralyzed.

CENTRO PRIMO LEVI NEW YORK (CPL) is a New York based organization inspired by the humanistic legacy of writer and chemist Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz and contributed significantly to the post-World War II debate on the role of memory in modern societies. CPL fosters and supports those interested in Primo Levi’s work, the Italian Jewish past as well as those interested in current perspectives and conversations about the Italian Jewish community today. It offers programs, publishing and networking activities and provides links to libraries and museums, academic and scholarly updates and a monthly newsletter. CPL is a dynamic and informative English language portal offering information and resources on Italian Jewish culture and history to audiences around the world.

A poem at the beginning of his book “Survival In Auschwitz”

 If This Is a Man

You who live safe In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.

Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts At home,
in the street, Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

Poets, would you, could you get your poetry up for them. An agony unknown to you, born years before your first laugh, first tear. Would you, could you touch, feel them, wrap your poetry around them. Not asking much, asking burning craters, marathons, deep sea dives.

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The only way the child pictured above survived the Warsaw ghetto was to be given to an Aryan household outside of the Warsaw ghetto for care. Otherwise her father and/or her were taken for deportation to be gassed. The father might have avoided the gas chamber spared for slave labor but his daughter will go her death.

A situation sometimes arises where parents have the option of going with their child to the gas chamber or to choose to live another day by working in or outside the ghetto leaving their child to be herded off in a freight car with other children, the elderly, ultimately to be gassed to death.

Starving children sitting on the pavement in the Warsaw ghetto: Yad Vashem Photo archives.

Starving children: Warsaw ghetto: Yad Vashem Photo archives.

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A starving child lying on the sidewalk: Warsaw Ghetto: Yad Vashem Photo archives.

A starving child: Warsaw Ghetto: Yad Vashem Photo archives.

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dead baby, Warsaw ghetto

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Childcare in the Ghetto

Childcare in the ghetto requires a unique set of skills and is a risky business. All infants and children are doomed to death by the nazi dictate: kill every Jewish child not old enough to be put to labor. Parents had to be aggressive negotiators, have contacts outside the ghetto and have a hidden cache of jewelry, diamonds, bracelets or cash; not an easy task, their captives picked then dry. Parents had to locate an Aryan household outside of the ghetto, first to trust them, then to bribe and convince them to care for and raise their child; a monumental endeavor, dangerous, not always successful. Sometimes the Aryan would take the money, the jewelry, whatever; then refuse to take the child or turn the child and parents over to the police.

Most Jews within the Warsaw ghetto did not have the wherewithal, the goods to negotiate. The majority of parents, children, humans, people, souls, Jews shared their starvation to the cruel end. The death toll among the Jewish inhabitants of the Ghetto, between deportations to extermination camps, Großaktion Warschau, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the subsequent razing of the ghetto, is estimated to be at least 300,000.

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There were a few Polish citizens who risked their life to save the children, no compensation needed. Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who served in the Polish underground saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto, providing them false documents, and sheltering them in individual and group children’s home outside the ghetto. The Nazis eventually discovered her activities, tortured her, and sentenced her to death, but she managed to evade execution and survive the war.

Irena Sandler

Irena Sandler

In your watercolor, Nely Sílvinová your heart on fire on the grey cover of a sketchbook is a dying sun or a flower youngest of the summer

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Sixteen more of her paintings are in the collection, most dating between April and June 1944. At Terezin she lived in the house number 14 and belonged to Group V. She was a student of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. You’ll find this painting in the book “I never saw another butterfly”, a collection of children’s drawings and poems from the Terezin concentration camp, 1942 – 1944.

Robert Mezey (born 1935) an American poet, upon seeing Nely Sílvinová painting wrote the poem “Terezin.”

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and much else that is not
visible it says also
a burning wound at the horizon
it says Poland and winter
SILVIN VI 25 VI 1944
and somehow
above the body on its bed of coals
it says spring
from the crest of the street it says
you can see fields
brown and green
and beyond them the dark blue line of woods
and beyond that smoke
is that the smoke of Prague
and it says blood
every kind of blood

blood of Jews
German blood
blood of Bohemia and Moravia
running in the gutters
blood of children
it says free at last
the mouth of the womb it says
SILVIN VI 25 VI 1944
the penis of the commandant
the enraged color
the whip stock the gun butt
it says it says it says

Petrified god
god that gave up the ghost at Terezín
what does it say but itself
thirteen years of life
and your heart on fire
Nely Sílvinová

For more on children’s art of Terezin see:
• I will always come back to life.
• 100 out of 15,000 children saved. 14,900 obliterated. The earth’s  sun runs out of gas in 7 billion years, kaput.
• Resurrect a 9 year old girl from the ashes.

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I will always come back to life.

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Dec 2 1941: most every Jew from Brno Czechoslovakia including Franta Bass and family were deported to the Terrizen ghetto; called by the Germans Theresienstad. The Jews shouldered as much of their material life as they could carry, packed it in sacks, luggage, pockets; most of their life left behind for the blue-eyed vultures to pick over.

The Franta Bass family had no idea what was in store for them; they were forced to live in a German Nazi sponsored ghetto. The concept of a ghetto is historically understood by Jews: “What could be that bad, it’s only a ghetto.”

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That same day, December 2, 1941, on the transport arrival to Theresienstadt along with the Bass family and other Jews was Jacob Edelstein, appointed by Otto Adolf Eichmann, SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel), to chairperson the Council of Jewish Elders, responsible for the “self-administration” of the Theresienstadt ghetto-camp. Edelstein along with fellow appointees dealt with municipal services, housing, water, sanitation and policing.  They also saw to educational activities, cultural events and religious celebrations. This all feels and looks like a Ghetto. “What could be so awful?”

This: Council of Elders had to ration a meager food supply to those who could work, leaving the elderly and disabled more vulnerable to disease and starvation. (The Nazis had to build an unplanned for crematorium on the grounds of Theresienstadt to dispose of those who died from starvation and disease, 200 a day.)

“What could be so awful?” This: the Council Members had to choose who would be deported to the gas chambers or labor camps and who would remain — who might live and who might die. Not a great job, not easy to live with, a no win situation.  None of the council survived. If they did, in the days to come, living with oneself could be a chore.

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The Council of Elders allotted several large houses to accommodate children. Attention was given to the welfare and education of the children. The idea was to keep the children separate from the adults to reduce their vulnerability to depression and despair. Overall the children were housed and fed better than the adults.

The children learn from some of the most sophisticated teachers in German-speaking Central Europe, who were among the prominent Jews to arrive in Theresienstadt. That was one of the defining features of the Theresienstad ghetto-camp; the best artist, musicians, composers, authors, thinkers were in the mix.

All that special attention given the children. And look what Theresienstad ends up with. Out of 15,000 children who spent time at Theresienstad 100 survived. Still, in no way in vain; see and hear what the children gave to themselves and what they left to us: “Children’s Exhibit” at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Collection of the children’s art and poetry from Terezin in the book titled “I never saw another butterfly.”

Franta Bass under the guidance of teacher found an outlet for coping with the awful, frightful, depressing conditions he lived with day-to-day by writing poetry. His poetry gave him the courage to face his imminent death. It gives me, us, us Jews the will, strength, determination, focus to string-up evil by its throat, strangle it, look it in the eye and say, “Never, never again, in the name of Franta Bass and his poetry, never again.”

As Franta wrote in his poem, “I am a Jew.” … “I will always come back to life.”

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Sacrificial Children

CHILDREN’S DEATH TOLLS:
NOT AN EASY NUMBER TO FIND.
ASSUME THAT IF A POPULATION IS TORN ASUNDER BY WAR AND ITS INDIVIDUALS ARE COUNTED AMONG THE DEAD, CHILDREN EITHER ORPHANED, STARVED OR MURDERED ARE A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF THAT COUNT, POSSIBLY 20 to 30%

Darfur Death Toll: from 100,000 – to 400,000.
The Death Toll in Darfur, by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

Palestinian Death Toll: 6,473. (Dec 2000 to April 2010) http://old.btselem.org/statistics/english/Casualties.asp

Iraq War Death Toll: 1.1 million. Doesn’t include the Gulf War.  http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3321

Holocaust Death Toll: Six million Jews murdered; out of that number 1.5 million Jewish children murdered, 100,000 or more Gypsy children murdered, thousands of handicapped children murdered. http://www.deathcamps.info/

Total number of children tallied from the above? God knows. And maybe even he doesn’t know, spending all that time in eternity he could have lost count.

The following reporting, though it dates 2006, is currently replicated day to day in Sudan. If you read nothing else about Africa’s chronic pain read this. It covers a lot of ground and time in a short trek. You’ll get the picture, all you need to know.

The haunting story of Chad’s children
Orphaned and in constant danger, all they have is each other
By Mike Simon Cameraman NBC News 3/15/2006 

Orphans Samiyah, Safiyah and Gamara live in Eastern Chad, near Darfur

I close my eyes and I see them. The girls I met on a recent NBC News assignment in Chad are in my dreams. I think about what they have seen. I worry for their continued safety. In the picture above, you see everything that they have: Dirty clothes. Streaked faces. Each other.

Their names are Samiyah, Safiyah and Gamara. They live near the killing fields of Darfur. But they are not Sudanese. They are Chadian. Their only crime was an accident of geography and the color of their skin. The genocidal monsters of Sudan have changed everything about their lives. Starting with their mother and father.

The village of Gongour in Eastern Chad is a 200-year step back in time. Families wake up under thatched-roof huts over mud floors. Children ride donkeys on their way to the communal water well. Other children are assigned the day’s other major task: finding firewood for cooking the evening meals. The children sometimes walk for miles with huge bundles of firewood on their backs. Most of them have never experienced the modern luxuries of a hot water shower, their own beds, refrigerators or a Western toilet. There is schoolwork for the boys, but not always for the girls. Each day has its own hardship, but there is always a great sense of community.

The girls are Masalit, descendents of the harsh southern Sahara desert tribe. To reach them, one must travel to one of the most remote, dusty spots on earth. Our journey begins with a plane ride across the Atlantic to France. Another five-hour plane ride from Paris to the Chadian capital of N’Djamena. Transfer to a United Nations relief flight from the nation’s capital to the regional capital of Abeche. From there, it’s a torturous drive over tracked dirt that passes for a highway in Chad. It’s a four-hour drive to the eastern trading post of Adre. In my time in Chad, I saw two concrete roads. Both of them were runways.

Adre is tense. A cross-border raid in January brought most of the government’s troops back to defend this vital crossroads. Army tanks routinely run through town, kicking up huge amounts of dust. Toyota pickups are filled with young, eager faces holding onto AK-47s. In the countryside, the Sudanese militias step into the power vacuum. The villagers are defenseless. War seems imminent.

The drive to Gongour is still another three hours from Adre. It is easy to see into Sudan for most of the drive. In most other countries, the road would appear to end in Adre. But in Chad, the drive continues over tracked desert that feels like driving on the beach. We drive past women and children loading up donkeys with firewood and the occasional camel herd. We drive past many thatched-roof villages. During the day, it looks empty but there is much humanity here. Thousands of Africans live in these conditions, as they have for centuries.

In short order, the tranquil African countryside gives way to more ominous signs. Kilometer after kilometer of empty villages. Where are all the people? We arrive at the village and look for the local sheik. Small, dirty children instantly surround us. They follow us everywhere.

We are told of the nearby village of Ajani that was recently burned. The sheik rides with us to the site, about five kilometers farther south. He warns us to be quick, as there are many Janjaweed still around. As soon as we arrive, we realize we are stepping on hallowed ground. An utterly lifeless village transmits the horror. Several charred holes confirm it. Each piece of ash, each burned pot, each hole was the cornerstone for a family.

On a cool February morning, just two weeks ago, the first sign of trouble comes from a distant sound. Horses running fast.  It’s unusual in the hot desert at any time. But for Chadians, it may be the worst kind of warning signal. It jolts a primal instinct like no other. It the sound of Janjaweed — rebels from Sudan. Most stories are impossible to confirm, but they are all remarkably consistent. Thousands of refugees, many hundreds of miles apart, tell the same story. The Janjaweed ride into town on stolen horses. They wear khaki uniforms and turbans. The villagers run for their lives, but not all can get away.

The Janjaweed catch many. They pull everyone out of hiding places. They kill all of the men first. A quick, but ruthless, execution. They are called Nubi, similar to being called the “N” word in our country. They are told that this harsh no-man’s land no longer belongs to them. It belongs to Arab Africa. Next, they take the mothers. Often times, they force the kids to watch a slow, painful torture replete with the worst kind of violence against women, who are tied spread-eagle and gang raped repeatedly in front of their children. In an instant, they are traumatized for life. When they are able, the survivors run for their lives and retreat to nearby villages. They know no one. Thankfully, the orphans are not split apart. In interviews, we find these girls have not eaten in days. There is no ability to gather food. They are staying with strangers without any family. Alone, but they have each other.

 This is the story of Darfur. The Sudanese government, alongside the Janjaweed militias, is systematically killing all black Africans in this area. First in Darfur, now in Chad. The Sudanese government is complicit in this ethnic cleansing when it uses its helicopter gunships to mow down anything that moves through the village. The villagers have remnants of bomb fragments that they show us.

As I take their picture, I think of my own two children, safe and sound some 8,000 miles away. I think of the nights I spend reading to my 8-year-old daughter. We love the American Girl story of Samantha and her friend Nellie. Nellie and her two sisters were orphans, too. Three girls alone in the world with only each other to hold. The African girls are strangers in a village teeming with refugees. They have no food and no parents. I scan my brain to think of some way to take these kids with me, just like Samantha and Uncle Gard. Yet I’m resigned to knowing there will be no rescue for these girls. It would be an impossible legal nightmare even if the tribes would allow it.

What can be done? Beyond the stories of traumatized children, there must be something more to it. Just giving voice to a powerful story is a good start. When friends and family ask why we go to dangerous places, my stock answer is: It’s a powerful thing to witness courage, to witness bravery. It’s an honor to tell their stories. Here are children who have almost nothing left in the world. And yet they show us the face of courage and their bravery to face each new, unpredictable day. Most of all, they are trying to hold a family together. Their mother must be so proud.

Mike Simon with Chadian troops along the Chad/Sudan border

IN THE NUBA MOUNTAINS, SUDAN
Starving Its Own Children
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
New York Times Published: June 2, 2012

Two hungry children in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, sleeping inside a cave for protection from government bombers.

PERHAPS hundreds of thousands of people here have no food and are reduced to eating leaves and insects, as Sudan’s government starves and bombs its own people in the Nuba Mountains. Children are beginning to die.

“Yes, my children may die,” Katum Tutu, a 28-year-old mother, told me. She recently lost her 2-year-old daughter, Maris, to starvation and has nothing to feed her four remaining children. “I think about it every day, but there’s nothing I can do,” she said.

This week will mark a year since Sudan began its brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the Nuba Mountains, intended to crush a rebel force that is popular here and controls much of the region. Sudan has expelled aid workers, blocked food shipments and humanitarian aid, and dropped bombs haphazardly — and almost daily — on its own citizens.

Sudan bars outsiders, but I sneaked in from South Sudan on a dirt track controlled by rebels. Since my last visit, in February, the situation in these areas has deteriorated sharply: a large share of families have run completely out of food, with no prospect of more until the next harvest in November.

Ryan Boyette, an American aid worker who stayed behind when foreigners were ordered to evacuate, estimates that 800,000 Nuba have run out of food in South Kordofan, the state encompassing the Nuba Mountains. Boyette has created a local reporting network called Eyes and Ears Nuba, and the Sudanese government showed what it thinks of him when it tried to drop six bombs on his house last month. The notoriously inaccurate bombs missed, and he escaped unhurt in his foxhole.

Katum, the woman who lost her daughter, was typical of the dozens of Nuba I spoke to. Like many here, the family has been living in caves for most of the last year to escape bombs, and it ran out of the local food staple, sorghum, a few months ago.

She was blunt about the reason her daughter died: “We had no food to give her.”

Her husband and surviving children showed me how they use bows and arrows to try to shoot birds, and how they try to catch mice. “We eat them whole,” Katum told me. “Even the head and the tail.”

Families are also eating beetles and wild roots, but their diet today is mostly the newest leaves of three kinds of wild tree. New leaves are stripped bare from trees near villages, and you see children climbing high on thin branches to try to find new leaves that remain.

I also came across small children, sometimes just 2 or 3 years old, digging in the ground for edible roots or seeds that they popped in their mouths.

Some 50,000 people have fled their homes and are trekking to Yida, a refugee camp just across the border in South Sudan. But many I spoke to, Katum included, say they just don’t have the strength to walk for days to get there.

“There’s no way we can get there,” Katum told me. “So it is much better to stay and die here.”

At that point, our interview was interrupted by a humming overhead: an Antonov bomber, flying unusually low.

Katum scrambled off, seeking a cave in case a bomb fell. Antonov and MIG warplanes regularly fly over these rebel areas, dropping bombs without any apparent purpose other than sowing terror. Fear of them has kept people from farming and is a main reason for the food shortages.

Some farmers are now planting their fields as the rainy season begins. They can harvest in November and will have to get by on leaves until then.

Many other families, including Katum’s, ate their seed stockpile in hopes of keeping their children alive. So for them, the only hope is humanitarian aid.

Considering how many people are subsisting on leaves, perhaps the surprise is that the death toll isn’t higher. In Katum’s village, Famma, elders told me that about 40 people had starved to death in the last month, out of a population of thousands. Among children arriving at the Yida refugee camp, about 10 percent are acutely malnourished, according to Samaritan’s Purse, an aid group assisting the refugees.

World leaders are mostly turning a blind eye. There isn’t even serious talk about damaging the military airstrips that Sudan’s warplanes take off from before dropping bombs on civilians, or about forcing a humanitarian corridor, or about arranging airdrops of food. As a result, the only certainty is that many Nuba will starve to death in the coming months.

President Obama, you harshly criticized President Bush for failing to stand up to Sudan’s slaughter in Darfur. So now what are you going to do as Sudan kills again — on your watch?

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