Let the Remembering Begin

Published April 29, 2005, issue of April 29, 2005.
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In six days’ time, on the 26th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, Jewish communities in Israel and around the world will gather for the annual ritual of remembrance known as Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Solemn assemblies will be held in synagogues, museums and government buildings. Around the world the ritual will be repeated as the day unfolds, from Auckland to Sydney to Moscow to Jerusalem, from Warsaw to Paris, Miami to Vancouver.

In each place candles will be lit, children’s choirs will sing and speeches will be delivered. The speakers, rabbis, scholars, elected officials and Holocaust survivors, will try earnestly to capture in words the unspeakable deeds of the Nazi butchers, to evoke the heroism and innocence of their Jewish victims, to indict the criminal indifference of the nations that stood by and let it happen.

If only the Allies had opened their borders to Jewish refugees or at least bombed the rail lines to Auschwitz, they will say, thousands could have been saved. Millions still would have died. But every life has infinite value; that is one of the lessons of the Holocaust.

Although it is a yearly ritual, a special passion will ripple through the crowds next week. This is the 60th anniversary of the war’s end. Survivors will speak bluntly of their increasing frailty and beg their listeners not to forget them. Community leaders will muster their best voices of moral authority and cry out to the world community to learn the lessons, to ensure that such horrors are never again permitted.

Each ceremony will last on average about two-and-a-half hours. During that time, about 2,000 individuals will die in distant parts of the world, victims of the world’s continuing indifference.

They will die in hopeless villages and squalid displaced persons camps, some in Asia or the Americas but most in Africa. They will give up their last breath after wasting away from starvation or diseases easily prevented. One-seventh of them — nearly all children — will die of malaria, because they had no mosquito nets to protect them while they slept and no medicine to cure the fever.

By the end of the day, when the last Holocaust memorial candle has flickered out in Honolulu, some 20,000 will have died, more than five times as many as Hitler’s minions were able to kill in an average day.

No, the dying children of Africa are not victims of a Holocaust. Their killer is not a monster like Hitler or Saddam Hussein, not even a band of scoundrels like the Islamic extremists who rule Sudan. Their enemy is misfortune — a particular pattern of spiraling hardship known as extreme poverty. As Marc Perelman reports on Page 1, extreme poverty is different from ordinary poverty because it saps its victims of the ability to strive for better. Lacking food to eat, money to invest or the infrastructure — roads, electricity, telephones — that might attract foreign enterprise, they can never take the first step. Frequently, a lifetime of hunger and disease has left whole populations too dazed even to imagine something else.

But if the cause of their suffering is more complex and amorphous than the genocide that consumed the Jews of Europe, the solution is horrifyingly simple. Money would buy them food and medicine to keep them alive. More money would provide roads, schools, plumbing and tools to get them working.

According to most development authorities — including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and most European governments — a boost in foreign-aid spending by rich nations to just under triple their current yearly levels would suffice to eliminate extreme poverty within 15 years.

The actual sums needed are modest. Nations would need to increase their aid spending from one-quarter of one percent of Gross National Product to seven-tenths of a percent. For Americans, who spend less per capita on foreign aid than any other industrialized nation, meeting the U.N. standard would require taxpayers to come up with an extra $210 per person per year, or about 58 cents a day.

Awareness of the scope of the disaster and the possibility of a cure is spreading by the day. The idea of an international rescue operation of the sort the U.N. urges has won the endorsement of virtually every government and organization whose cooperation is needed. The glaring exception is the United States. Our government continues to quibble: Too much aid would be wasted or misdirected; estimates of the lives to be saved are exaggerated; America’s Congress and taxpayers won’t tolerate the cost; the poor must prove themselves worthy. Let the magic of the market fix it. We’re too busy elsewhere.

Starvation is not Nazism, and the children of Africa are not Jews. But criminal indifference is the same in every place and every time.

This time, “the rest of the world” means us. If “never again” is to have meaning, let the remembering begin now.






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