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Research Fellowships – Call for Applications!

The Mgrublian Center for Human Rights is currently accepting applications for the 8th annual Human Rights Student Research Fellowship Program.

Research fellows work closely with a faculty advisor on a year-long (2021-22 academic year) project related to the Holocaust, human rights, or genocide studies.   Fellows will be provided with office space at the Center and access to the Center’s 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 24th

Questions?  Contact Kirsti Zitar, kzitar@cmc.edu

Now Hiring!

The Mgrublian Center is now hiring Student Assistants and Human Rights Legal Assistants for the 2021-22 academic year.  We are looking for creative students with strong research, writing and communication skills, and a commitment to the values of the Center.

Student Assistant

  • Act as a liaison with the Center’s volunteer human rights task force groups
  • Promote Center events on campus through creation of flyers and via social media
  • Assist faculty with human rights research
  • Update the Center’s library and maintain inventory
  • Edit and create the Center’s quarterly Newsletter

Other responsibilities and duties may arise during the course of the school year. The approximate time commitment is 5-10 hours per week. Positions are open to CMC freshmen, sophomore, junior, and senior applicants and to both work-study and non-work study students.   

Apply in handshake: https://cmc.joinhandshake.com/jobs/5180215 (job ID#5180215)

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Human Rights Legal Assistant

  • Conduct background research for a local (LA area) human rights lawyer
  • Participate in bi-monthly progress meetings with Center staff and sponsoring attorney(s)
  • Create spreadsheets of data and written reports as deemed relevant by the project
  • Work as a team member with fellow students, paralegals, Center staff and the attorney(s)

Other responsibilities and duties may arise during the course of the school year. The approximate time commitment is 5-10 hours per week. Positions are open to CMC sophomore, junior, and senior applicants and to both work-study and non-work study students.  

Apply in handshake:  https://cmc.joinhandshake.com/jobs/5311850 (job ID#5311850)

Application deadline for BOTH jobs is Friday, September 24th

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.

2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

BUREAU OF DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND LABOR Co-Edited by Harrison Schreiber CMC ’22

The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – the Human Rights Reports – cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The U.S. Department of State submits reports on all countries receiving assistance and all United Nations member states to the U.S. Congress in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974.

Preface


Announcement: Upcoming Addendum

Later this year, the Department of State will release an addendum to each 2020 country report that expands the subsection on women in Section 6, entitled “Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons,” to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights.  The addendum will cover maternal health issues such as maternal mortality, government policy adversely affecting access to contraception, access to skilled healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth, access to emergency healthcare, and discrimination against women in accessing sexual and reproductive health care, including for sexually transmitted infections.  These topics were included in previous Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, and they will be included again in future years.


I am honored to release the 45th annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to placing human rights at the center of our foreign policy.  The cause of human rights, freedom, and dignity is close to the American heart.  As President Biden emphasized, “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”  Transparency and accountability are integral to this process.  By documenting the status of human rights around the world each year, the U.S. Department of State provides objective and comprehensive information to Congress, civil society, academics, activists, and people everywhere – all of whom have roles to play in promoting human rights and accountability for rights abuses and violations.

The 2020 report reflects the unique challenges that nations had to confront as the COVID-19 virus spread throughout the world.  The pandemic impacted not only individuals’ health, but their abilities to safely enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Some governments used the crisis as a pretext to restrict rights and consolidate authoritarian rule.  Other governments relied on democratic values and processes, including a free press, transparency, and accountability, to inform and protect their citizens.  Women and children faced heightened risk as the prevalence of gender-based and domestic violence increased due to lockdowns and the loss of traditional social protections.  Other marginalized populations, including older persons, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQI+ persons, experienced particular vulnerability.

Human rights are interdependent, and the deprivation of one right can cause the broader fabric of a society to fray.  Despite potential risks to their health or threats of arrest or other repercussions, people around the world demanded that governments respect their human rights and inherent dignity.  From Hong Kong to Belarus, from Nigeria to Venezuela, people assembled in the streets.  They called for governmental protection of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, safeguards for free and fair elections, and an end to discrimination.

Too many people continued to suffer under brutal conditions in 2020.  In China, government authorities committed genocide against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and crimes against humanity including imprisonment, torture, enforced sterilization, and persecution against Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.  Assad’s atrocities against the people of Syria continued unabated, and this year marks ten years of their struggles to live in dignity and freedom.  The war in Yemen has driven millions to extreme humanitarian need, preventing them from exercising many of their basic rights.  The Russian government has targeted political dissidents and peaceful protestors, while official corruption remained rampant.  The corruption of Nicolas Maduro increased the dire humanitarian crisis of the Venezuelan people.

In Nicaragua, the corrupt Ortega regime passed increasingly repressive laws that limit severely the ability of opposition political groups, civil society, and independent media to operate.  Meanwhile in Cuba, government restrictions continued to suppress the freedoms of expression, association, religion or belief, and movement.  State-sanctioned violence in Zimbabwe against civil society activists, labor leaders, and opposition members continued a culture of impunity, and LGBTQI+ persons continued to be vulnerable to violence, discrimination, and harassment due to criminalization and stigma associated with same-sex sexual conduct.  In Turkmenistan, citizens criticizing the government faced possible arrest for treason, and the whereabouts of more than 100 political prisoners remain unknown.

These and other ongoing rights abuses cause untold damage well beyond the borders of any single country; unchecked human rights abuses anywhere can contribute to a sense of impunity everywhere. That is precisely why this Administration has placed human rights front and center in its foreign policy.    Recognizing that there is work to be done at home, we are also striving to live up to our highest ideals and principles and are committed to working toward a fairer and more just society in the United States.  We all have work to do, and we must use every tool available to foster a more peaceful and just world.

Antony J. Blinken
Secretary of State

Overview and Acknowledgements

COUNTRY REPORT PREPARATION

This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State pursuant to Sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.  19 U.S.C. § 2464, 2467 also require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ human rights and worker rights performance and that country reports be submitted to the Congress on an annual basis.

This report includes documents on several countries that do not fall into the categories established by these statutes and thus are not covered by the congressional requirement.

The report addresses situations and events in calendar year 2020 only.

The Department of State prepared this report using information from U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, foreign government officials, nongovernmental and international organizations, jurists and legal experts, journalists, academics, labor activists, and published reports.  U.S. diplomatic missions abroad prepared the initial drafts of the individual country reports.

Once the initial drafts of the individual country reports were completed by U.S. missions abroad, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), in cooperation with other Department of State offices with the relevant country and regional expertise, reviewed and edited the reports, drawing on its own sources of information as well as of the Department of Labor.  Bureau officers also consulted experts in the Department of State and elsewhere on worker rights, refugee issues, police and security issues, women’s issues, and legal matters, among many others.  The guiding principles were that all information be reported objectively, thoroughly, and fairly.  DRL, working with other Department offices as necessary, also ensured that all reports followed the same methodology and conformed to standard format and structure.

THE DRL EDITORIAL TEAM

Coordinator of Human Rights Reports/Editor in Chief:  Stephen Eisenbraun

Senior Advisor:  Marc Susser

Senior Editors:  Wendall Albright, Jonathan Bemis, Jillian Burns, Doug Kramer, Stephen Eisenbraun, Jerome L. Hoganson, Victor J. Huser, Lawrence Lesser, David Morris, Dan Vernon, Joseph Dean Yap.

Editors:  Muzna Abbas, Maureen Ahmed, Paula Albertson, Wendell Albright, Asim Ali, , Mary Angelini, Paul Baldwin, John Barone, Jonathan Bemis, Brian Campbell, Alexandra Cantone, Kelsey Carido, Dana Castagna, Ken Chern, Jessica Chesbro, Michael Cocciolone, Ann Cody, Mauricio Cortes, Stephen Dreyer, Christina Droggitis, Sandra Dupuy, Mort Dworken, Sara Epstein, Janie Esteva, Gabriella Fernandes,  Ryan Fioresi, Sheridan Gardner, Karen Gilbride, Sarah Givens, John Gorkowski, David Guinn, Charles Gurney, Ian Harrison, Matt Hickey, Anya Howko-Johnson, Victor Huser, Rachael-Therese Joubert-Lin, Richard Kaminski, Stephen Kaufman, Orly Keiner, Charles Kellett, Esther Kim, Douglas Kramer, Lawrence Lesser, Kevin Lewis, Maureen Limon, Vidya Mani, Sarah McGonagle, Veronica McIntire, Geneve Menscher, Hannah Meropol, Stephen Moody, Greta Morris, Thomas Opstal, Kurt Pearson, Steven Pierce, Samantha Powell, Gerald Quattro,  Lauren Ravekes, Ereni Roess, Emily Rose, Hilary Rosenthal, Stephanie Sandbeck, James Sayre, Stephanie Schmid, Daniel Schneider, Austin Schott, Harrison Schreiber, Samantha Schwartz, Thomas Selinger, Corena Sharp, Adam Sheffler, Lisa Sherman, Wendy Silverman, Kristen Smart, Rachel Spring, Greg Staff, Jennifer Stein, Brandon Strassberg, Zackary Suhr, Sarah Swatzburg, Leslie Taylor, Dennis Dean Tidwell, Dania Torres, Ambar Valles, Brooke Van Slyke, C. Eduardo Vargas, Dan Vernon, Pilar Velasquez, David G. Wagner, Rachel Waldstein, Micah Watson, Tracy Watson, Alexander Werman, Sonya Weston, Thomas Whitney, John Whittlesey, Megan Wong, Joseph Dean Yap.

Senior Technical Editor: Janine Czarnecki.

Technical Editors:  Jessica Adams, Dhuha Baig, Ryan Jolley.

Technical Coordinator:  Geoffrey Palcher

Rollout Preparation:  Jessica Adams, Dhuha Baig, Ryan Burris, Karlygash Faillace, Carol Finerty, Caitlin Hawes, Stacy MacTaggert, Eunice Mooney, Nicholas Murphy, Lauren Pagan.

Country Reports

AFRICA (SUB-SAHARAN)

AngolaCôte d’IvoireGuineaMozambiqueSouth Africa
BeninDemocratic Republic of the CongoGuinea-BissauNamibiaSomalia
BotswanaDjiboutiKenyaNigerSouth Sudan
Burkina FasoEquatorial GuineaLesothoNigeriaSudan
BurundiEritreaLiberiaRepublic of the CongoTanzania
Cabo VerdeEswatiniMadagascarRwandaTogo
CameroonEthiopiaMalawiSão Tomé and PríncipeUganda
Central African RepublicGabonMaliSenegalZambia
ChadGambiaMauritaniaSeychellesZimbabwe
ComorosGhanaMauritiusSierra Leone

EAST ASIA AND PACIFIC

AustraliaJapanNauruSingaporeTonga
BruneiKiribatiNew ZealandSolomon IslandsTuvalu
BurmaLaosNorth KoreaSouth KoreaVanuatu
CambodiaMalaysiaPalauSouth KoreaVietnam
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)Marshall IslandsPapua New GuineaTaiwan
FijiMicronesiaPhilippinesThailand
IndonesiaMongoliaSamoaTimor-Leste

EUROPE AND EURASIA

AlbaniaCyprusIcelandMonacoSerbia
AndorraCzech RepublicIrelandMontenegroSlovakia
ArmeniaDenmarkItalyNetherlandsSlovenia
AustriaEstoniaKosovoNorth MacedoniaSpain
AzerbaijanFinlandLatviaNorwaySweden
BelarusFranceLiechtensteinPolandSwitzerland
BelgiumGeorgiaLithuaniaPortugalTurkey
Bosnia and HerzegovinaGermanyLuxembourgRomaniaUkraine
BulgariaGreeceMaltaRussiaUnited Kingdom
CroatiaHungaryMoldovaSan Marino

NEAR EAST (MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA)

AlgeriaIraqLebanonQatarUnited Arab Emirates
BahrainIsrael, West Bank and GazaLibyaSaudi ArabiaYemen
EgyptJordanMoroccoSyria
IranKuwaitOmanTunisia

SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA

AfghanistanIndiaMaldivesSri LankaUzbekistan
BangladeshKazakhstanNepalTajikistan
BhutanKyrgyzstanPakistanTurkmenistan

WESTERN HEMISPHERE

Antigua and BarbudaCanadaEcuadorJamaicaSaint Lucia
ArgentinaChileEl SalvadorMexicoSaint Vincent and the Grenadines
BahamasColombiaGrenadaNicaraguaSuriname
BarbadosCosta RicaGuatemalaPanamaTrinidad and Tobago
BelizeCubaGuyanaParaguayUruguay
BoliviaDominicaHaitiPeruVenezuela
BrazilDominican RepublicHondurasSaint Kitts and Nevis

When Genocide is Caught on Film

From the New York Times Book Review by Susie Linfield

THE RAVINE
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, kzitar@cmc.edu