Opinion: Arizona plans to use cyanide on death row. Nazis killed millions with the same gas

A man walks through the gate of the former Sachsenhausen camp.

By CAROLINE PETROW-COHEN, the Los Angeles Times

High school history class taught me — and almost certainly you — that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews and other persecuted individuals during the Holocaust between 1941 and 1945. At extermination camps like Auschwitz, victims were stripped naked and herded into gas chambers disguised as crude bathhouses, supposedly to take showers before entering camp. Instead, they were poisoned to death by the lethal gas Zyklon B.

When I think of the horrors of the Holocaust, it’s details like those that disturb me the most. And when I learned that Arizona is preparing to use the same lethal gas to execute prisoners on death row, it’s details like those that rush into my head.

The Guardian first reported that the Arizona Department of Corrections has procured ingredients for hydrogen cyanide, the deadly gas trademarked as Zyklon B during World War II. According to documents obtained by the Guardian, corrections officials have also refurbished an old gas chamber at a prison in Florence, Ariz., and conducted a series of tests to ensure the chamber’s functionality.

The use of hydrogen cyanide to execute prisoners is neither new nor unique to Arizona. Lethal gas was first used as an execution method in Nevada in 1924. It was most recently used in 1999 to execute Walter LaGrand in Pima County, Ariz. LaGrand’s execution did not go smoothly. It took him an excruciating 18 minutes to die after the gas was administered, during which he was twitching, choking and in visible pain, according to witnesses.

Poisonous gas is still authorized for use in six other states, all of which employ lethal injection as a primary execution method. Gas has been used for only 11 executions in the past 50 years because it’s considered by many to be cruel and unusual punishment.

Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno, who has done extensive research on the death penalty, considers gas particularly barbaric. “Of all the methods that we’ve ever used in this country, lethal gas in the way that Arizona plans to use it is the worst of them,” she said. “Every single time you use it, there’s no question that it’s going to be inhumane.”

That’s why a federal judge in California barred the state from using gas as an execution method in 1994, a decision that never spread to the rest of the country.

“It was overwhelmingly likely that lethal gas was going to be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “It is overtly and obviously torturous.”

But the high court never made that ruling, and now Arizona appears ready to use the method again as it prepares to resume executions. The state had paused executions in 2014 after a horribly botched lethal injection forced a reevaluation of death penalty procedures.

Somehow, that reevaluation could lead to the first lethal gas use on death row since 1999. The decision-makers in Arizona’s Department of Corrections evidently did not prioritize humane execution methods, nor did they consider the trauma inflicted on Jewish communities by reintroducing a tool the Nazis used for genocide.

Capital punishment is wrong for so many reasons, but a particularly insidious offense is the way the death penalty has desensitized us to cruelty. Only utterly, helplessly desensitized corrections officials would think it was acceptable to bring back Zyklon B. Only a law as primitive and regressive as capital punishment would trigger a regression back to Holocaust-era techniques.

“Even without the history, it’s an awful and painful way to kill somebody,” Dunham said. “It’s also the same way the Nazis murdered more than a million people. If Arizona didn’t know that, then they’re completely incompetent. And if they did know that, it’s even worse.”

The closer you look at what’s going on in Arizona, the scarier it gets. Wendy Lower, chair of the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, sees various parallels between present-day Arizona and prewar Germany, including alarming efforts by state lawmakers to undermine democracy. These include attempts to reverse the vote in last year’s presidential election and to make it harder to vote in the future.

“The echoes of history are very strong,” Lower said. “As a scholar of the Holocaust, this is especially disturbing because of the context in which it’s unfolding.”

The death penalty is the mechanism that makes these parallels possible. It’s the vehicle that allows states to put time and effort into determining the best way to take a life. No vehicle like that should exist anywhere.

For Holocaust survivors, Arizona’s actions must strike a chord the rest of us can’t understand. For the broader Jewish community, of which I am a part, this news brings disgust and fear. In the midst of rising antisemitic incidents and rhetoric across the country, a callback to genocide compounds the pain we already feel.

“It’s really chilling and alarming just to see the term Zyklon B being used again,” Lower said. “It is a complete insult to Holocaust survivors and their family members and their legacy.”

If the Nazis did it, we should probably avoid it, right? Although I’d consider that an obvious, easy-to-spot moral line, Arizona has no problem crossing it. I think that centuries of capital punishment in this country have blurred some boundaries.

2021 Elbaz Post-Graduate Fellowship Program

Congratulations Tallan Donine ’21!

The Mgrublian Center is pleased to announce that Tallan Donine ’21 has been selected as the 2021 Elbaz Post-Graduate Fellow in Human Rights.

Tallan Donine
Tallan Donine ’21

The Elbaz Fellowship provides funding to a senior who is interested in pursuing a career in human rights for one year following graduation from Claremont McKenna College (CMC).  The program is intended to support a position that focuses on one or more of these areas:  leadership training; project management skills; field work and research; professional networking; and advocacy work to advance human rights.  Upon conclusion of the fellowship, the Elbaz fellow will return to CMC to present a public lecture.

Tallan was selected among several highly qualified applications and will begin her one year fellowship in July 2021 with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The mandate of the Simon-Skjodt Center is to alert the United States’ national conscience, influence policy makers, and stimulate worldwide action to prevent and work to halt acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity, and advance justice and accountability.

Ms. Donine’s fellowship is generously funded by the Elbaz Family (Elyssa Elbaz ’94, Center Advisory Board member, and CMC Trustee) and is a program first launched in 2018. Since its inception, the fellowship has supported six fellows (including Ms. Donine) to conduct work for a leading human rights organization post-graduation. Previous fellows and their respective host organizations include: Jasmine Shirey ’18 (Forum for African Women Educationalists, Harare, Zimbabwe); William Cullen ’19 (World Resources Institute, New Delhi, India); Rebecca Shane ’19 (Freedom House, Washington, D.C.); Laleh Ahmad ’20 (Enough Project / The Sentry, Washington, D.C.); and Jennifer Gurev ’20 (Alliance for Securing Democracy, Washington, D.C.).

Upon completion of her fellowship, Ms. Donine will return to CMC’s campus to deliver a public presentation in the fall of 2022.

Congratulations Tallan!

Biden recognizes Armenian genocide

“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide,” the president said in a statement.

By BENJAMIN DIN, as posted on POLITICO on April 24, 2021

President Joe Biden on Saturday recognized the Armenian genocide, fulfilling a campaign promise and taking a step that his recent predecessors have avoided while in office.

Biden’s designation, which coincided with Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, signals the president’s desire to prioritize human rights despite potential fallout in the U.S. relationship with Turkey. It comes 106 years after the beginning of the mass deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, which led to the deaths of up to 1.5 million people.

“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide,” Biden said in a statement Saturday.

“Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history that brought so many of their ancestors to our shores. We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated,” he added.

The United States is now part of a group of 30 countries that have recognized the Armenian genocide, according to the Armenian National Institute. Although Turkey acknowledges the “tragic experience” of Armenians, it maintains the number of those who died between 1915 and 1923 is inflated and denies the characterization of the events as genocide.

The largely symbolic declaration followed a Friday phone call between Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In readouts of their first call, neither the White House nor Ankara said if Biden directly addressed his plan to recognize the Armenian genocide. Biden however did tell Erdogan that he intended to recognize the genocide, the Associated Press reported, citing a person familiar with the conversation.

For more than a century the U.S. has not formally recognized the killing of more than a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during WWI as genocide. Over the weekend, that changed.

Erdogan has been adamant in not referring to the World War I-era events as genocide, and in 2019, Erdogan spokesperson Fahrettin Altun said any such recognition would “endanger the future of [U.S.-Turkish] bilateral relations.” In 2014, the Turkish president called the events “inhumane.”

Turkey’s foreign ministry quickly denounced Biden’s statement Saturday, saying it doesn’t have “a scholarly or legal basis.”

“The US President’s statement will not yield any results other than polarizing the nations and hindering peace and stability in our region,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan hailed the move, writing in a letter to Biden that his “principled position … is a powerful step towards the restoration of truth and historical justice, invaluable support to the descendants of the victims of the Armenian genocide.”

Over decades, lawmakers in Congress have been willing to recognize the genocide but sitting presidents historically have not. In a statement to mark the day of remembrance last year, Biden said he was “proud” of his role in the Senate to recognize the Armenian genocide and his endorsement of 2019 resolutions in both chambers of Congress that did the same.

In recent weeks, lawmakers have been increasingly vocal about their desire for Biden to take this step. On Wednesday, more than 100 representatives called on Biden to “clearly and directly recognize the Armenian Genocide.” Last month, 38 senators signed on to a letter that also urged Biden to classify the events as genocide.

Prominent Democrats backed Biden’s decision Saturday, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“Our hearts are full of joy that President Biden has taken the historic step of joining Congress with formal recognition on Armenian Genocide Day,” Pelosi said in a statement Saturday. “History teaches us that if we ignore its darkest chapters, we are destined to witness the horrors of the past be repeated.”

Ocasio-Cortez called the move “long overdue” in a tweet Saturday and said that she hopes it will bring peace to people affected by it.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) thanked Biden on Twitter for “speaking truth to power.”

“He has cast aside decades of shameful silence and half-truths, and the broken promises of so many of his predecessors, and spoken truth to power,” Schiff said in a statement.

Past sitting U.S. presidents have danced around the issue, not wanting to disturb relations between the NATO allies.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to recognize the Armenian genocide if elected, although his administration ultimately did not do so — a decision his ambassador to the U.N. ultimately expressed remorse for in 2018.

President Donald Trump declined to classify the Armenian genocide as such, despite both chambers of Congress overwhelmingly passing resolutions to do so in 2019. Instead, Trump called it “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.”

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan referenced “the genocide of the Armenians” in a statement that remembered victims of the Holocaust.

Ben Leonard contributed to this report.

When Genocide is Caught on Film

From the New York Times Book Review by Susie Linfield

A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed
By Wendy Lower

“What does one do upon discovering a photograph that documents a murder?” Wendy Lower asks in her new book, “The Ravine.” Lower, a historian of the Holocaust who has worked with Nazi hunters, ponders a photograph, taken in October 1941, in the once thriving, now desolate Ukrainian town of Miropol. It shows several men — Ukrainians and Germans — shooting a woman who, bent over, holds the hand of a small, barefoot boy just before they tumble into a death pit. (The boy would be buried alive, not shot, since Nazi protocol forbade wasting bullets on Jewish children.) Smoke from the gun blasts obscures the face of the woman, who wears a polka-dot housedress; later, on closer inspection, Lower will discover another child nestled in the woman’s lap. The photograph reveals the “Holocaust by bullets” in Ukraine, where more than one million Jews were murdered not in terrifying death camps but in prosaic “fields, swamps and ravines.” The Jews’ tormentors were, very often, their lifelong Ukrainian neighbors.

The scene was not unusual; neither was the photograph. During the war, German soldiers took troves of photographs — perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions — some of which memorialized, indeed celebrated, their cruelties, tortures and crimes. Nazi authorities forbade these unofficial images, but to little avail; they circulated widely to friends and families back home. These celebrations of sadism — which shake our ideas about an innate human capacity for either shame or guilt — are sometimes referred to as “trophy photos,” though I think “atrocity selfies” is a better term. (Lower claims that, in showing the actual moment of death, the Miropol photograph is rare, though there is no way that she — or anyone else — could know this: For obvious reasons, many of these amateur photographs have never surfaced.)

By tracing the identities of the figures in a photograph documenting the murder of Jews in Ukraine, Wendy Lower hopes to reveal the networks of complicity that made the Holocaust possible.
By tracing the identities of the figures in a photograph documenting the murder of Jews in Ukraine, Wendy Lower hopes to reveal the networks of complicity that made the Holocaust possible.
Photo Credit…Jonathan Petropoulos

Lower wants to do several things with this image. She hopes to discover who, exactly, the Jewish victims were: to say their names. Though she is an admirably dogged researcher — she uses, among other sources, live and videotaped witness testimonies, legal documents and grave excavations — in this she fails; their names are lost to history.

She also hopes to recreate the details of that day in Miropol and thus reveal the networks of complicity that made the Holocaust possible. Here, she succeeds with a vengeance: Her chapter “The Aktion” is devastating. Finally, she wants to expose the killers.

Knowing how an event occurred removes it from the realm of abstraction — and genocide has, unfortunately, become an almost abstract term. Photographs are particularly good at piercing haziness, since they often capture individuals taking action, not so-called cogs in a machine. As the historian Jan Tomasz Gross wrote in “Golden Harvest” (2012), his own book about a Holocaust image, photographs “remind us most directly of human agency in what otherwise we would know only as a numerical phenomenon.”

Lower shows that it takes a lot of people to kill a lot of people. There are the Ukrainian teenage girls forced to dig the mass graves; the Nazi customs guards (including volunteers) and Ukrainian policemen who rounded up the Jews and forced them to the death site; the Ukrainian neighbors who plundered their homes and “assaulted them — throwing stones and bottles.” Then there are the Ukrainian militia who, “armed with clubs, tools and Russian rifles, chased Jews, bludgeoning some to death. … They chased young Jewish women, ripped off their clothes and raped them.”

The town rang out — who could miss this? — with gunshots, “yelling, screaming and howling.” This was not the bureaucratic killing many associate with the Holocaust. This was mass murder at its most intimate: The Ukrainians “taunted the victims by name. … The victims were known to them from the dentist’s office, the cobbler’s shop, the soda fountain and the collective farm. They grabbed small children and babies by the legs and smashed their heads against the trees.”

There is a vociferous debate among historians and photography critics about whether “perpetrator photographs,” especially from the Nazi era, should be viewed. Some argue that they revictimize the victims. Lower, rightly, disputes this, though in a sparse and not especially illuminating way. Yet her book is a refutation of those who urge us not to look. Indeed, the big surprise of “The Ravine” is the identity of the Miropol image’s photographer: a Slovakian soldier named Lubomir Skrovina. He took the photograph with the full knowledge of his German superiors, but he did not take it in service to their aims. In fact, Skrovina was, or at least became, a member of the Resistance. He smuggled atrocity images to his wife back home as possible material for anti-Nazi forces; wrangled out of further military duty; hid Jews in his home and helped some escape; and joined the antifascist Slovakian uprising of 1944. Lower describes Skrovina’s photograph as “an expression of defiance.”

Though the Jews in the photograph remained anonymous, the names of their killers were known. West German authorities opened an inquiry in 1969, then quickly dropped it. But a Soviet K.G.B. major named Mikola Makareyvych was more determined. In 1986, his investigation yielded convictions for three of the Ukrainians in the photograph. Two were executed, one sentenced to prison. I oppose the death penalty. But I read this chapter of Lower’s book — entitled “Justice” — with deep and unshakable satisfaction.

Susie Linfield is the author of “The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence” and “The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left From Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky.”

Statement on Nagorno-Karabakh

The Mgrublian Center condemns the violence against civilians in the Nagorno-Karabakh (Republic of Artsakh) region.  Heavily comprised of Armenians since the 8th century BC, Nagorno-Karabakh lies within a mountainous region of Azerbaijan.  While conflict is not new to this area, there has been a marked increase in the frequency and severity of violence since the summer of 2020, amplified by not only Azerbaijani forces but with support from neighboring Turkey and mercenaries transported from Syria.  The risk to civilian lives and to peace in the region is grave.  The Mgrublian Center calls for humanitarian assistance to those affected in the region, among them Armenian women and children, and for an end to the war crimes being committed there.

See below for additional resources on the current situation and the historical roots of this conflict.

The History Behind the Violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, Anoush Baghdassarian, CMC ‘17

Turkey’s Alarming Regional Intervention Continues to Affect Minority Communities with Impunity, This Time in Azerbaijan, Anoush Baghdassarian (CMC ’17) and Sherin Zadah (CMC ’17)

Turkey Leads New Atrocities Against Armenians, Raffi Hovannisian, first Foreign Minister to Armenia

UN chief condemns continuing escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, United Nations News

Joint Statement Calling for a Ceasefire in Naborno-Karabakh, U.S. Department of State, the Russian Federation, and the Republic of France

Nagorno-Karabakh: Declaration by the High Representative on Behalf of the European Union, Council of the European Union

2020-21 Research Fellowships – Call for Applications!

The Mgrublian Center for Human Rights is currently accepting applications for the 7th annual Human Rights Student Research Fellowship Program.

Research fellows work closely with a faculty advisor on a year-long (2020-21 academic year) project related to the Holocaust, human rights, or genocide studies.   Fellows will be provided with access to the Center’s professional networks, digital library and other resources.   Each fellowship recipient will receive a $500 stipend to be used toward research materials and/or field research expenses.  Seniors working on relevant honors theses are encouraged to apply.  Past fellowship projects can be found on our website.

Application process: Submit your research proposal, resume, and transcript via our website.

Application deadline: Friday, September 25th

Questions?  Contact Kirsti Zitar,

In Memoriam: Dr. Eva Fleischner, Holocaust Survivor and Founding Advisory Board Member

Dr. Eva Fleischner, a loyal and distinguished member of the Mgrublian Center’s founding advisory board, died in Claremont on July 6, 2020, one day before her 95th birthday.

Born in Vienna in 1925 to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Fleischner fled the Nazis to England and eventually settled in the United States in 1943. She would go on to become a well-known scholar of Jewish-Christian relations, first attending Radcliffe College where she graduated magna cum laude in 1946, then earning her doctorate at Marquette University with a dissertation on “The Impact of the Holocaust on German Christian Theology since 1945.” She taught religion and philosophy at Montclair State University (1972–1991).

Fleischner published with distinction on topics such as teaching the Shoah, women who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, and relations between Christians and Jews. Her publications include “‘Who Am I?’ The Struggle for Religious Identity of Jewish Children Hidden by Christians during the Shoah,” a chapter in Gray Zones: Ambiguity and Compromise in the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, the 2005 volume based on the Center’s first international conference, February 5–7, 2004.

In 1999–2000,   Fleischner was one of six Catholic and Jewish scholars—including Gerald Fogarty, Michael Marrus, John Morley, Bernard Suchecky, and Robert Wistrich—who served on the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, which examined and reported about  the available records on Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. The Commission’s work laid early groundwork for the fuller 2020 opening of the Vatican archive’s files on Pius XII’s wartime actions.  Fleischner generously donated to the Center her copies of the documents supplied to the Commission by the Vatican.  They are housed in the Center’s Roth Library.

Atrocity Prevention Simulation

Join the Mgrublian, Keck, and Salvatori Centers on Friday, March 6th for a one-day Atrocity Prevention Simulation. Work with expert practitioners to devise policies and strategies to de-escalate an international atrocity situation in “real-time”. RSVP now to secure your spot! Food and beverage provided. Open to all 5C students.