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May 24, 2008

Dagmar Barnouw, denouncer of the hierarchy of suffering, died

I was powerfully moved by the LAT obituary of Dagmar Barnouw, a USC professor who passed away on May 14. She had a stroke in April and never regained consciousness.

In her most recent book, "War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans" (2005), Barnouw examined Germans' failure to acknowledge and mourn their war dead and the devastation German citizens suffered in Allied air raids.

After the war, ordinary Germans were viewed collectively as perpetrators of the Holocaust and responsible for World War II. Silenced by this presumed guilt, even German war remembrances maintained an exclusive focus on Jewish victims of the Nazi regime, to the detriment of historical reality, she wrote.

[Amazon link added.]

I'm fascinated to learn of an intellectual who wrote passionately about the need to understand post-WWII in totality, rather than only through the lens of the Holocaust. It is a real shame that so many Americans, especially Jewish Americans, are indoctrinated to believe that Jewish suffering is somehow worse than the suffering that occurs throughout the world on a daily basis. That genocide was over 60 years ago and many genocides have occurred and are being perpetuated since then. Yet, somehow the refrain "never forget" is allowed to continue as an excuse for apartheid in Israel and starvation in Palestine.

Let me be clear: the Holocaust was a tragedy of incredible proportions. I have no doubt that we lost untold generations of brilliant people. I acknowledge that it was the most significant event for the Jewish people in the 20th century. However nothing - not the Holocaust or the pogroms of Russia that forced my family to flee to the U.S. or any other aspect of Jewish history - makes me or my people the world's most suffering ethnicity. Indeed, I believe this past suffering has been used to justify a horrific amount of racism and discrimination and colonial exploitation in Israel and Palestine.

I do not understand how my religion, which has so many threads of peaceful nonviolent resistance in its history, and my people, who have been on the forefront of the movements for social change, have become so entrenched in bigotry and discrimination. I fear that writing these words makes me a larger target for political reprisal. My friends joke that they don't want to stand too close to me walking down a street - fearing an assassin will be off-target and shoot them instead. (I actually found this to be the strangest aspect of my trip to NYC; my friends who do not participate in social activism seem to believe my influence and notoriety is any larger than the few people who occasionally read this blog.)

But this post was not supposed to be about me, rather about Dagmar Barnouw, whose books I must search out and read.

Read about her life from USC, including her enduring marriage to a man who fell in love with her at first sight.

I hope to have the courage to speak and write as passionately as Dagmar, even if it makes many people uncomfortable.

Posted by cj at May 24, 2008 1:23 PM


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