I have stood in some of the world’s most horrible places. Auschwitz. Dachau. Cambodia’s killing fields. Hiroshima. At a mass grave exhumed in Guatemala. At genocide memorials in East Timor and Rwanda.
And a few weeks ago, I stood at Shark Island in Luderitz, Namibia.
Most people have never heard of Shark Island and the tragedy that occurred there. It’s a story that I’m compelled to tell – because it reaches to my own family.
My grandfather, Jacob Narotzky, was from Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. He fled from the inevitable future of poverty and oppression facing every Jew in then-tsarist Russia and he came to America in 1903. His extended family chose to stay behind in Vilnius.
During World War II, under the German occupation, his family, and all the other Jews in Vilnius, were rounded up and put into a ghetto. For the two years of the ghetto’s existence, the population endured starvation, disease, executions, and deportations to concentration camps, until the ghetto population of about 40,000 was reduced to zero.
That zero included my extended family.
The Nazis pursued their goal of ridding Europe of its nine million Jews with the full power of their bureaucracy and military might. Six million of the nine million Jews were murdered.
An earlier genocide — in Namibia
But this wasn’t Germany’s first foray into extermination. There was a precedent – an earlier genocide, this one in Namibia. And Shark Island was the location of an extermination camp.
In 1904, Germany’s Second Reich, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, had a colony called German Southwest Africa, today’s Namibia. The Germans wanted to develop the colony for agriculture and settlement.
The local indigenous people from the Herero and Nama tribes occupied the land, so the Germans slaughtered them. Fully 80 percent of the Herero and 60 percent of the Nama men, women, and children perished. This was a genocide, defined as “the deliberate intent to exterminate, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”
The genocide in Namibia foreshadowed the Holocaust.
Key perpetrators of this African genocide became high-ranking Nazis 30 years later. Names are chillingly familiar: Dr. Heinrich Ernst Goering was Namibia’s governor. His son, Hermann Goering, became a top Nazi leader. Eugen Fischer, a physician and professor of medicine, conducted experiments on the Herero that included forced sterilizations and injections of smallpox, typhus and tuberculosis. One of Fischer’s students was Dr. Joseph Mengele, known as the “angel of death” for sending people to the Auschwitz gas chambers and performing cruel medical experiments that he learned from Fischer. Franz Ritter von Epp commanded German troops against the Herero and later was a Nazi leader until he was captured by the U.S. Army in 1945.
The list of names linking the Herero genocide to the Holocaust is horrifying.
Labeled less than human
And so are the techniques. The Herero and Nama were used for slave labor. They were rounded up and transported in boxcars to concentration camps. They were starved, tortured, and branded on their arms. They were subjected to cruel and inhuman medical experiments. The women were brutally raped. The people died of starvation, torture, disease, shooting, and hanging.
The Herero and Nama were labeled as less than human, as worthy only of extermination – just like the Jews and other “undesirables” in the Nazi Third Reich.
There were many concentration camps in Namibia, where the Nama and Herero were imprisoned. But Shark Island was different; it was built primarily for extermination, and virtually everyone who was deported to Shark Island perished.
There were 42,500 concentration camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Most of them were designed for slave labor, just like the network of concentration camps in Namibia, but the Nazis also built six camps primarily for extermination – Auschwitz, Belzec, Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Majdanek, just like Shark Island.
No one held accountable
Despite chilling similarities, however, there is a significant difference between these two German genocides. After the Holocaust, there were hundreds of trials to prosecute the worst of the perpetrators. After the genocide of the Herero and the Nama? Not one person was held accountable. There was absolute impunity for the nearly complete extinction of the two tribes.
I stood at Shark Island and thought of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters and their children in that Vilnius ghetto. I thought of all of them, dead.
And I thought that, if the perpetrators of that genocide in Namibia had been publicly, legally, and morally held accountable for their brutality, perhaps the Holocaust might have been different. Maybe fewer millions of people would have been killed. We can never know, of course, and the speculation is almost too painful to consider.
But the message for me is that we cannot allow hate to flourish, because its legacy has deep tentacles that we often cannot foresee, tentacles that reach across time and place and turn hate into murder.
900-plus hate groups in U.S.
Where are we in our own country today? There are more than 900 hate groups in the U.S., and a shocking number of them have come into existence just in this past year. Violence against Jews, blacks, Muslims, members of the LGBTQ community, women, and other minority groups has escalated dramatically.
I have stood on the bones of innocent victims all around the world. Their deaths began with a slow and gradual process of marginalization and discrimination. We must take a stand to protect members of our own communities from today’s xenophobia that has led to widespread anti-Muslim demonstrations on June 10, vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, and record violence against gays and others.
We must stand up now to protect those who are being marginalized. It is too late when we stand on their bones.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
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