Friday, 27 July 2012

Book Review: Escape from Camp 14

July 27, 2012

Every now and then someone who knows that I work on human rights asks me what is the worst place in the world. I usually answer the Eastern Congo, but lately I've been answering that it is the prison camps in North Korea, where between 150,000 and 200,000 people are estimated to be held at any one time. Blaine Harden's book, Escape from Camp 14 (Viking, 2012) is about the only person known to have been born in a North Korean camp and to have escaped. You might wonder how anyone can be born in a prison camp. The North Koreans inprison people to the third generation so that, for example, if your father is convicted of a "crime" (such as sitting on a nerspaper photo of North Korea's former leader, Kim Jong-Il) your mother, you and your siblings, and your uncles, aunts and grandparents might be sent to a prison camp along with your father. But that still doesn't explain how someone can be born in a camp. Shin In Geun was the product of a liaison between a male and female prisoner, who were ordered to have sexual relations as a "reward" for being model prisoners.

Shin thought the world in which he was raised was normal-- a normality consisting of routine starvation, backbreaking work even for small children, tortures, and executions. I will not tell you precisely what happened to him and his family, as I do not want to spoil the book for you, but he did not meet anyone who could tell him about the outside world and how normal people behaved until he was imprisoned with an older man at the age of 13. This man tended to his torture wounds and explained something of the outisde world. Later, as a young adult, he met another older prisoner who told him more about the world outside and helped him to escape; his main motive for escaping was hunger, he wanted to eat grilled mean. Even severa;l years after his escape, Shin refered to himself as having been an animal, and having to learn human emotions--especially trust.

North Korea is a truly horrible place, and its prison camps are a combination of the Soviet gulag and Nazi concentration camps. Not only that, a state-induced famine in the 1990s killed three to five per cent of the population, and people are starving again now. The international community, so-called, can do very little about the human rights abuses that occur there, as North Korea is threatening to develop nuclear weapons and the fear of nuclear attack takes precedence over humanitarian aid. Perhaps 200,000 North Koreans have fled to China, but China often returns them to face torture, imprisonment and execution. Kim Jong-il died in late 2011, and his young son Kim Jong Un took over. He seems more modern than his father, likes American cartoons and pretty women, but this does not mean he will liberalize.

For more academic information in North Korea, see my forthcoming article, “State-Induced Famine and Penal Starvation in North Korea,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, vol.7, no. 2, 2012. But to get a grasp of what North Korean prisons are like for individual prisoners, read Blaine Harden's book.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Reparations to Kenyan Victims of Colonial Violence

In July 2012 a legal case began in Britain to decide whether victims of gross human rights abuses in Kenya in the 1950s and 60s at the hands of colonial officials, police, and white settlers could sue Britain for reparations. I wrote about this case in my book Reparations to Africa (with Anthony P. Lombardo, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, pp. 57-59). As documented especially in the brilliant book by Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning (Henry Holt and Co, 2005) these abuses were appalling, just as bad as the tortures, rapes and murders the Nazis had perpetrated on their prisoners in the 1930s and 40s, although the purpose was to prevent Kenyan independence, not to commit genocide. 

British soldiers check identity papers of Kenyan men suspected to be
involved in the Mau Mau Uprising, retrieved from:
I believe that these Kenyan prisoners of British colonialists deserve reparations for torture, castrations, rapes, unlawful executions, and slave labour. They deserve reparations especially because the British were aware of the tortures and knew they had a legal responsibility to stop them. British officials tried to evade international and European Union laws protecting prisoners from abuse, laws that Britain had agreed to respect. The Colonial Office in London protected the governor of Kenya against complaints in the House of Commons from opposition members about the abuse and torture. These actions were illegal at the time and the perpetrators knew they were illegal.

One form of reparation is financial compensation to the victims and/or their descendants. Another is to put surviving British murderers, torturers and enslavers on trial. Some of these elderly British men have admitted what they did, and there is precedent in the trials of elderly perpetrators for Nazi crimes, for example the trial of Maurice Papon in France. Even if such perpetrators were not imprisoned, they at least would be publically shamed.

Book Review: Thea Halo's Not Even My Name

July 20, 2012
Thea Halo, retrieved from
I met Thea Halo last month at a conference of the International Network of Genocide Scholars in San Francisco.  A writer, poet and artist, she is also the daughter of Sano Halo, now 103. San Halo was born Themia, into a Pontic Greek community in northern Turkey. Many human rights and genocide scholars are aware of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915, but fewer are aware of the enormous scale of the tragedy that befell other Christian groups in Turkey at the end of World War I.
Thea Halo starts the book by describing a trip she took with her mother, then 79, to find her lost Pontic village. She then tells her mother’s story in an imaginative first-person style, interspersing some necessary background information. Themia was born into a relatively prosperous blacksmith’s family, living in two rooms with her parents, one brother, four sisters, her grandparents, and her uncle and aunt and their children. She remembers a loving, closely-knit family, feeling happy and needed. When she was nine or ten Turkish soldiers ordered the family out of the village on a long death-march south, without food, water, shelter, or any other necessities of life. Ironically, the Muslim soldiers who guarded the long convoy of suffering Greek Christians carefully stopped for prayers along the way, unaware that their religion would never have tolerated the massive suffering they were causing. 
Along the way, three sisters died, leaving Themia with only her mother, father, one sister and he brother.  At that point the family had stopped near a tiny village. There, a woman proposed to take in Themia to help with her children, and Themia’s mother agreed. The woman renamed Themia Sano, the name she bore for the rest of her life. Sano stayed there, treated like a slave labourer, constantly threatened with beatings and worse, until she finally fled to an Assyrian Christian family in a nearly town. Meantime, her remaining sister and her mother died, and her father and brother disappeared. That was the last she saw of her family.
Soon thereafter, the Assyrian Christians were also ordered onto the road and expelled from Turkey. Sano and the family who had taken her in ended up in Aleppo in Syria. When she was fifteen, the father of this family gave her in marriage to a 46-year-old Assyrian Christian who had been in America since 1905.  He “paid” $100.00 in gold coins for her to the family that had protected her. She spent the rest of her life in the US, raising ten children, including Thea.
This bare-bones summary of the story does not convey the beauty of Thea Halo’s writing, the pictures of Turkey she evokes, the sadness of the forced marches, or Sano Halo’s fears and reactions when she was married to a man she did not know but eventually came to love.  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading historical biographies: I also recommend it as a first step to anyone who would like to know more about the expulsion of Pontic Greeks from Turkey.
Thea Halo, Not Even My Name, New York, Picado, 2000

The Last Jew Deported from Norway to Auschwitz

Written July 2012

Published in Norwegian in Aftenposten (Oslo), July 14, 2012

Ludwig (Paul) Cohn was the last Jew deported from Norway to Auschwitz. On 29 October 1942, he was arrested by Norwegian police and interned in Bredtveit prison. Between his arrest and August 1944 he was imprisoned both in the Norwegian internment camp, Berg, and the German camp, Grini. On 3 August 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz, and stayed there until he was liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945, even though his wife was a German Gentile and he was not supposed to be sent to a concentration camp. No one knows why he was sent to Auschwitz.  After the war he was found by the Norwegian Sverre Løberg, who had been commissioned by the government to find deportees from Norway, and he returned to Oslo in early 1946.
 My information on Ludwig Cohn’s arrest and deportation comes from correspondence with Bjarte Bruland of the Jewish Museum in Oslo. Ludwig Cohn was the second husband of my paternal grandmother, Gertude (Hassmann) Cohn. My father’s biological father, Bruno Hassmann, a Jewish doctor in the German army, had died “for the fatherland” in 1918 or 1919. As far as I know from family stories, after his death Gertrude and my father, Helmut Hassmann, were invited to Norway in a program for starving German widows and their children. There, Gertrude met Ludwig, a German Jew from Leipzig who was in Norway to buy furs. They married in 1921 or 1922 and returned to Germany, though I believe Ludwig kept up his business connection with Norway. In early November 1938 Gertrude’s brother-in-law warned her about a planned attack on Jews, and she and Ludwig fled to Norway just before Kristallnacht. My father had earlier escaped, reaching Britain two weeks before WWII began. 
I am a professor of international human rights at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, where I maintain a website on political apologies. Earlier this year, I learned of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s apology for the role of Norwegian police in rounding up, imprisoning, and deporting Jews while Norway was under German occupation. I posted the apology on my website, but then I started to wonder what I myself thought about it. As far as I know Ludwig Cohn had no biological descendants, so I wondered whether I could accept or reject the apology on his behalf.
If I am the person who should accept or reject the Norwegian state apology on behalf of Ludwig Cohn, what should I do? As far as I know, under Jewish law if someone sincerely offers you an apology three times for the same event you are supposed to consider accepting it, but does that extend to the Holocaust? Common courtesy also requires that if someone offers you an apology, you should accept it. Scholars believe that if  an apology is properly formulated and shows sincere contrition and remorse, the person to whom it is extended should accept it. The Norwegian apology fits these criteria, and I have no doubt that Prime Minister Stoltenberg was sincere in offering it. But do I have any standing in this matter?
And if I do accept the apology, can I also forgive? Many scholars think that apologies once accepted result in forgiveness. Certainly I hold no grudge against Norwegians who had nothing to do with the Holocaust. But just supposing one of those Norwegian policemen who rounded up my grandfather is still alive today (a policeman born in 1920, for example, might be still alive). Do I have an obligation to forgive him? I think not. Recently John Demjanjuk, convicted of being a guard at Sobibor in 1942-43, died. My father’s aunt Kathe Hassmann Ehrenfried was murdered at Sobibor in 1943. If John Demjanjuk had asked my forgiveness for being implicated in the murders at Sobibor, I would not have forgiven him; I would have turned my back and walked away.
I’ve decided I can’t represent Ludwig Cohn in the matter of the Norwegian apology; he was the prisoner and only he could accept the apology. Nor, I think, can I represent my deceased father, his step-son. My father would not have accepted the apology; he was so angry about what had happened to him and his family that he was rendered inarticulate.
Perhaps, though, I can accept the apology on behalf of my grandmother and all she suffered, both during the war and afterwards. I wish the Norwegian government had decided to issue this apology many years ago. Ludwig and Gertrude Cohn lived together in Oslo until Ludwig died in 1952. Gertrude spent the rest of her life there, living at 2 Briskebyveien until 1986 when she entered a home for the elderly, where she died in 1988. An apology issued when my grandmother was still alive might have been meaningful, especially if she had been invited to the ceremony when it was delivered.
 My grandmother might have accepted the apology, although I am not sure of that. When I visited her in the home for the elderly in 1987, another resident told me in English (a language my grandmother didn’t speak) that she and the other residents did not like Germans. When I informed her that Cohn was a Jewish name and that my grandmother lived in Oslo because her husband had been a Jew, she did not apologize for her mistake. When I asked my grandmother why she had not let the other residents know she was the wife of a Jewish refugee, she said “They are all anti-Semites. I would rather they hate me for being a German than for being a Jew.”
Nevertheless, my grandmother would have known that the Norwegians among whom she lived for thirty-three years after the war were not the people who imprisoned and deported her husband. States bear an institutional duty to take responsibility for past crimes, but successor governments are not themselves guilty of the crimes, nor are the individuals who speak for those governments. So for what it’s worth, in the name of Gertrud Cohn I accept the apology.