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Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman

Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman

Posted April 13, 2009 | 12:44 PM (EST)

The Last Survivor: Survivor Networks



Survivor Networks from Genocide Prevention Month on Vimeo.

At a recent screening of the 20-minute sneak preview of our film as part of Genocide Prevention Month, a rather telling question was asked. The audience was primarily, if not entirely Jewish, as the screening was held as part of a Passover Seder - a means of recognizing that the freedom from slavery and persecution that Jews celebrate during Passover very much continues for others around the world.

"Does the term 'Genocide' refer only to the Holocaust," we were asked, "or is there another way the atrocities are distinguished?" It is an incredibly important question and one that should be answered with the delicate respect that comes with the understanding that just as we each mourn the loss of a family member in a manner that is deeply personal and in some ways isolated to the individual, so too each group mourns its own tragedy uniquely. Sympathy is an important human emotion, but it only goes so far; emotions of loss are much more pointed when they are born within our own soul.

The answer to the question is of course, "Yes - each is referred to as a genocide and, in terms of the lexicon of horror, there are no distinctions between the six genocides that are commemorated in April and the others that have pervaded human history." That is the short answer. The long answer begins with the origin of the word 'genocide' itself.

As was mentioned in an earlier post, the term 'genocide' was coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lempkin, a Polish Jew whose studies of the Armenian Genocide had brought him from Poland to the United States before Hitler invaded his homeland. While Lempkin lived securely in the U.S., his family suffered the same, horrific fate of eleven million others. Despite Lempkin's constant pleadings with his family to join him in the U.S., they were determined to remain in the land they called home until they were physically forced from it and taken to the gas chambers. Alive and lonely in the United States, Lempkin sought a word that might encompass the depths of his loss. After a long search, 'genocide,' the destruction of an entire group, was the word he settled on.

Most remarkably, in our eyes, Lempkin was able to separate himself from what was undoubtedly an overwhelming sense of personal loss, seeing the horror through the universal lens of history. In coming up with the term "genocide" and spending his life persuading the United Nations to adapt the Genocide Convention - an International law that would not only recognize genocide as a crime, but would require the International community to intervene once such a crime was acknowledged - Lempkin was well aware of the dangers of creating such a law in the aftermath of a crime as unfathomable in scale as the Holocaust. He understood that while the Holocaust was certainly an atrocious example of genocide, it need not be and must not be the rubric against which future crimes were measured.

It is true that the horrific death toll of 400,000 in Darfur pales in comparison to the 11 million lives lost under Hitler's reign. Even five million lives taken in Congo does not halve that number. What is remarkable about Lempkin is that, under the incredible personal duress that must come with the loss of one's entire family, he was able to see the dangers that lay in such comparisons. One cannot compare in the language of mathematics the value of human life nor the tragedy of its unnecessary loss.

However, in the same way that it is impossible to grasp all that is lost in a tragedy in a number, so too it is impossible for a single word to stand in for the suffering of all of those slaughtered at the hands of intolerance throughout history. We must therefore limit our expectations of the word "genocide" itself.

No word is precise enough to convey the depths of human suffering or human loss and because of this fact, mourning will always be a deeply personal and unique experience. Words do, however, offer incredible powers of unity. It is this unity that Lempkin sought in creating a name for the horror the world had witnessed - labeling the crime, he believed, was the first step toward defeating it.

The word "genocide" should never be used as a starting point for comparison; it is simply a common ground where we can meet. In April, six communities will commemorate the attempts at their destruction. Each will do so in a manner that acknowledges and mourns the uniqueness of the crimes perpetrated against them - distinctions in where and when they occurred, how they were brought about and, most importantly, distinctions in the names of those who were taken in the tragedies.

Afterwards, however, we must recognize that each crime was born out of the same evil ideology of intolerance and that such an ideology will only be defeated when its victims stand together - united in the commonalities they share as human beings.

In the panel discussion that followed the premiere of the sneak preview of our film in Washington, D.C., Jerry White the director of Survivor Corps - an organization dedicated to helping survivors of all tragedies, rebuild their lives in the face of trauma - made an important point about the need for Survivor networks. While he made the point in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, the message of statement is quite clear:

Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, he reminded the audience. And along with them, Hitler targeted gays, disabled people, gypsies, Communists, anyone who did not fit into his singular notion of perfection. Around the world, Jews such as Lempkin spoke with outrage about the horrors being perpetrated against their people, while gays and gypsies each did the same. Imagine, Mr. White wondered, what would have happened if the many groups came together and spoke with one voice.

It is the search for this singular voice that marks the goal of this inaugural Genocide Prevention Month. Lead by a chorus of Survivors from each of the six genocides commemorated during the month, Genocide Prevention Month calls on all of us to come together to mourn the loss of human life and to recognize that while each tragedy is unique, they are all marked by the same perpetrating ideology of intolerance and share common warning signs that offer the International community hope for preventing such horrors in the future. To do so, however, we must celebrate the undeniable ties that bind each of us by standing firmly together.


You can watch Jerry White and the other speakers on this distinguished panel as well as the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor NOW! Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide. This is blog is part 10 of multi-part series. Cross-listed on change.org.