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Maybe the Holocaust was not enough

I

I jump off a packed train in Munich and walk from the platform towards the station when a plain clothes policeman stops me. He flashes his badge at me. He is not an immigration officer. He is an undercover cop. I give him my passport, simultaneously searching the crowds for the familiar face of my friend who was meant to pick me up. The cop asks me to stand straight. I shake my head, furious at the obvious profiling. Why didn’t he stop the Chinese guy sitting next to me on the train, or the British tourist in the next cabin who made it quite known that he wasn’t German?

Two other men emerge from the smoke and surround me. I ignore them and casually reach into my pocket for my cellphone. I had to tell “someone” I was off to Guantanamo. One of the men immediately reacts, pointing at me and ordering: “Take your hand out of your pocket.”

I raise my eyebrows in dismay and realise that this is no ordinary passport check.

I take my hand out of my pocket.

The cop makes a phone call, and reads my details out to the person on the other end, and waits for a response. He looks at me as he listens, his expression turning from one of expectation to one of surprise when it becomes evident that I am not who he thought I was ie I’m not on the list. He stares at me, and I stare back.

As he — almost reluctantly — returns my passport, I thank him in my choicest Punjabi.

So this is how tourists are treated downtown, I think to myself.

I furiously pull my phone out of my pocket, but sadly it too, decides to be a pain, dying on me at the most inopportune of moments.

So I start walking, searching for a public telephone when I see the three cops chilling at an ice-cream kiosk.

They get to spoil my mood by making it clear I am on their radar. My phone dies and I can’t find my friend. But they get the ice-cream?

I decide that I want that same policeman to lend me his phone so I can make my call.

After all, they delayed me at the platform, didn’t they?

I begin to march towards them, only to bump into my friend. I describe the ordeal but she nonchalantly takes my bag from me and seems hardly surprised.

“Forget it. They are doing it all the time now,” she says. “They stop people randomly and do these kinds of stupid checks.”

Okay — so they didn’t put a mask over my face and throw me into a van, or put me on a train to Auschwitz. They didn’t place a star (and a crescent?) on my forehead and beat me to shreds.

But again, why exactly was I supposed to forget the incident?

Because it was accepted, part of the post 9-11 status quo; normalised?

On the way to her place we discuss our observations that no other country in Europe admits their guilt and their shameless past to the extent the Germans do.

It is as if the Holocaust is joined at the nation’s hip; as if children are taught how to add, subtract, read and write from a book about the Holocaust.

It actually translates into a type of demented celebration of their melancholic past; where mere mention will turn jovial blondes into overly sensitive over-ripe tomatoes; faces reddened by the memory of blood spilt by their forefathers and the instant need to play their part: guilty grandchildren.

If they were so overwhelmed with guilt, what business did this cop have treating me like a leper from the Middle Ages?

“Because the Holocaust means everything to them; they treat it as if modern German history begins and ends with it,” she tells me.

In other words their sensitivity is compartmentalised to the Holocaust; donning blinkers to other more mortal concerns.

My friend is an Armenian from Turkey, presently completing her PhD in Germany.

She has no reason to throw punches.

I believe her.

II

My thoughts wander off to the Jewish Memorial in Berlin, dramatically fitting between Hitler’s bunker (now a parking lot) and the Brandenburg Gate.

I saw it for the second time just days earlier and I again felt like it was walking through a black and white war movie.

The structure had its desired effect; a powerful labyrinth of 2 711 differently sized concrete slabs in a space spanning three football fields that had real potential to make you dizzy.

I remember walking though the site and immediately feeling an incommunicable numbness; this tremendous blemish on human history ran down my spine.

I experienced that sinking feeling; I remember feeling claustrophobic.

But there was an edginess that morphed all intolerance into one single beam; a nameless graveyard for all souls lost to injustice. Even though the memorial had cost €25 million as a beacon of remembrance to victims of the Holocaust, I was convinced this was not the only tragedy present here.

Likewise, and after much reluctance (I don’t particularly love museums), I spent an afternoon at the Jewish museum near Checkpoint Charlie. It too, is not arbitrarily designed and serves as a painfully educative and remarkably poignant piece of interactive history.

The intention behind it is noble: to educate German society on its thousand-year-old Jewish history, the community’s contribution to Germany and to convey a message of peace and inclusion. It is, in all probability, the most culturally relevant and most astonishingly moving museum you will ever visit.

I also recall stepping on metal plates wedged between the pavements and stone-paved streets in random cities, bearing the names of the Jewish families removed from those addresses seven decades ago: all momentous and worthy tributes to victims of the Holocaust.

But then I thought about the gentleman from Congo with an MBA who told me Germans were not ready for black males in managerial positions, so he was leaving for Belgium. I thought about the monkey noises in the soccer stadiums directed at African footballers. I thought about the Marwa el Sherbini case and how the German media had shunned her. I thought about the German-Serbian Muslim who watched his Moroccan wife being spat on but felt too helpless to act in the small town of Freiburg. I thought about all the racial profiling I had encountered before being asked to take my hand out my pocket in Munich.

In an instant, Germany’s dramatic apologies turned hollow.

It suddenly felt like a charade; just an ingredient contributing to the melancholic texture of Germany’s dark 20th century history.

I recall the X-ray machines, policemen and surveillance at every Jewish monument, museum and synagogue I had the pleasure visiting.

Whereas I had once felt that Germany was terrified of the second coming (and I am not talking about Jesus), the extra security now just felt part of the tourism; a type of animated authenticity.

Of course neo-Nazis exist and there are places local Berliners would advise a brown man not to amble alone into.

But it is not as if there are millions sitting in old warehouses, drinking beer, taking steroids, wearing old SS uniforms, all the while singing Rammstein songs as they plan some hateful revolution.

The security threat to Jews in Germany today is really not as acute as it is made out to be.

Surely then, the whole point of going on and on about the Holocaust was that “never again” would any such profiling, discrimination and obviously violent atrocities take place?

But why then was Germany allowing vertebrae of prejudice, of racial-religious profiling to develop so easily?

Atrocities of genocidal proportions don’t just happen. Atrocities need a backbone; an established practice of prejudice.

The xenophobic violence in South Africa didn’t emerge from thin air. South Africans were speaking a language of xenophobia for some time before someone lit the first match. Likewise, in Rwanda, the Hutus didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to slay 800 000 Tutsis, and the violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat some years back also ignited after years of animosity, jealousy and right-wing politicking between the two communities.

The Gujarat riots of 2002 demonstrated that even the middle classes could dance violently to the tune of hate rhetoric as the poor are often said to be.

III

As our U-Bahn moved towards the suburbs I remember watching a political party’s television campaign for the EU parliamentary elections some weeks earlier at another friend’s place.

“No to Muslims” and “No to Turkey joining the EU” were the rallying call of the advert as part of a “No to a Muslim Germany” campaign.

Imagine — an advert screaming “No to Muslims” on national television in Europe — in 2009.

Draw as many cartoons as you wish friends, but is this acceptable free speech?

I remember how my friend had lowered the television volume after the advert passed and looked at me in shock. He didn’t need to. Europe voted in the right.

When we finally reach our place of rest, I browse through my notebook at some scribbling made during my trip to the Jewish museum:

“Just over a 100 years ago, in 1893 to be precise, long before the Holocaust, Germany’s conservative party made anti-Semitism their platform in the national election. Around the same time, Jews were changing their names from Hebrew to more German sounding ones, thousands were converting to Christianity and the idea of Israel was crystallised because ‘integration was said to have failed’. ”

I realised I couldn’t be disappointed with the way blacks, Muslims, the Roma people, even East Europeans were being treated in Europe today.

Germany and the rest of Western Europe were by no means ever traditional servants of human rights, vanguards of tolerance and human dignity.

This is a misnomer.

Modern Europeans’ desire for liberty might have been born from the French Revolution, but we all know this was still European liberty.

Europe was still marauding unsuspecting peoples of lesser civilizations across the globe.

Their declarations of a more universal type of human rights, dignity and right to self-determination emerged only after the World Wars; after they became too tired, too destroyed to handle both domestic and international colonies without e-mail.

Most colonies were dismantled in the fifties and sixties.

That wasn’t too long ago. Some people still listen to the Beatles.

Little wonder dictatorships in Arab countries continue, war-lords and banana republics in “Africa” can prostitute their resources for arms and flashy cars, and tribal folk in rural Pakistan are able to use religion to legitimise honour killings. It is then hardly surprising that a celebrated Indian democracy can easily continue with their military repression in Kashmir or in Assam, that the Turks can continue slapping around the Kurds and Myanmar authoritarians can continue their energy trade despite crimes against their own population.

These kinds of things have been going on for centuries.

But today thousands of European citizens will march against Israeli policy in London, will rise against an impending surveillance culture in Amsterdam, and will battle riot police in Heiligendamm to cancel debt in the developing world at a G8 meeting, or take the streets against nuclear proliferation, as they seek, in earnest to make the world a better place.

Then they take a train home, sit on their couch, read The Kite Runner and enjoy an eco-friendly bionade soft-drink.

But “to care” is not a European tradition. Today, “to care” is a European pastime; a fashion.

The concept of human rights for all and not just Marie Antoinette’s people of the cake is still something new in Europe itself.

No, I won’t forget my experiences, or the experiences of others, or the monkey noises at soccer stadiums, or the rising anti-immigrant sentiment of the political right, or the treatment of refugees in Italy or Greece or the spitting at women in burkas, or the selective morality of its “free media” to push their “free agenda”.

But I will try not to judge “Europe” for its hypocrisy.

After all, maybe the Holocaust was really not enough.

Maybe they really need more time to understand.

Author

  • Azad Essa

    Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also the author of a book called "Zuma's Bastard" (Two Dogs Books, October 2010) Yes, it is the name of a book. A real book. With a kickass cover. Click on the cover to find out more. You know you want to. or join the revolution: www.facebook.com/zumasbastard http://www.azadessa.com/about Accidental Academic won best political blog at the South African Blog awards 2009 and is a finalist for 2010.