Jewish leaders stand up for Uighur Muslims

Modern horror: China is believed to have sent over one million Uighurs to prison camps.

Is hope made stronger through tragedy? On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the plight of the Uighurs and a new musical both remind us that genocide is more than a historical threat.

For a Jewish organisation, it was an extraordinary move. On Monday, setting aside the widespread antipathy between Muslims and Jews, the human-rights group René Cassin hosted a meeting to highlight the persecution of the Uighur people.

“We have been there, we have experienced this,” said the organisation’s director, Mia Hasenson-Gross. “The difference now is that there is still time to act.”

René Cassin is not alone in using Holocaust Memorial Day to criticise China’s mistreatment of the ethnic Muslim group. The newspaper Jewish News also made a comparison with Nazi Germany’s murderous anti-semitism, declaring that “few issues could… be more urgent than the human rights atrocities currently taking place against Uighur Muslims under the world’s nose.”

Jonathan Wittenberg, a senior rabbi, echoed this sentiment: “We have learnt on the body of our own people what persecution means. It is morally indefensible to be silent when crimes are perpetrated against another people, simply because of who they are.”

Equally extraordinary to some is another event marking Holocaust Memorial Day: the launch of a new musical.

Written during the Covid-19 lockdown, Broken Instruments is the story of a violinist who survived the Holocaust. Recording it was a hugely complicated process involving three writers, twelve actors, four musicians, a director and a studio engineer all working remotely.

The musical has its origins in the remarkable work of a father and son, Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein. The pair have spent more than 20 years restoring instruments – mainly violins – belonging to Jewish people who lived through the Holocaust. These have then been used in concerts given by some of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic.

They have also been shown in touring exhibitions, one of which inspired an American academic, James A Grymes, to write a book called Violins of Hope. It, in turn, inspired composers Phil Baggaley and Mark Edwards to collaborate with writer William Varnam on Broken Instruments.

The musical focuses on Ari Vander, a jazz and classical musician who survived Auschwitz and afterwards started to renovate violins. The camp had a number of orchestras forced to play for the German guards.

Another character, Rose, is the leader of a women’s orchestra who encourages her fellow prisoners not to give up hope. The symbolism is clear. “Broken instruments can be mended,” she sings. “They will play again once more.”

“The human spirit is an incredibly strong thing,” says Phil Baggaley. “We’ve seen that lots of times in history. When people are really struggling, they’ve managed to find a way.”

Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein share his belief. “Our violins present the victory of the human spirit over evil and hatred. As many as six million Jews were murdered in World War Two, but their memory is not forgotten. It comes back to life with every concert.”

Is hope made stronger through tragedy?

Positive energy

Some say, no: tragedy just crushes people and exposes them to the harsh reality of life. No one who lived through the Holocaust could possibly take an optimistic view of the world. In her book, We Want You To Know We’re Still Here, Esther Safran Foer writes of her father’s inability to put the experience behind him: “Outlasting the war didn’t necessarily mean you survived.”

Others argue that we do not really know what hope is until we find ourselves in a terrible situation. Hoping to get into a school team or receive an exciting present does not compare to hoping to stay alive when all the odds are against you. Those who give up hope reduce their chances of survival enormously; those who embrace it come to recognise it as one of our greatest resources.

You Decide

  1. What are the key things that distinguish one ethnic group from another?
  2. Denying the Holocaust is a crime in 17 countries, but advocates of free speech believe this is wrong. Do you agree with them?

Activities

  1. In Greek mythology, Pandora released evil into the world by opening a box that the gods had told her to keep shut. But afterwards, she found one thing left at the bottom: hope. Find a cardboard box and decorate it to illustrate the story.
  2. Write a one-act musical about a serious subject, using existing songs or ones you write yourself.

Some People Say...

“Every area of trouble gives out a ray of hope; and the one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.”

John F. Kennedy (1917 - 1963), American politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that anti-semitism is still a widespread problem today, and is compounded by ignorance. A recent survey found that almost two-thirds of young American adults did not know the scale of the Holocaust, and 23% thought it had been exaggerated. The UN’s secretary-general António Guterres warned yesterday that co-ordinated global action was needed to combat an increase in neo-Nazism, which conspiracy theories about Covid-19 have encouraged.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the persecution of the Uighurs can be described as genocide, and who has the right to make that decision. Last week, the outgoing US secretary of state Mike Pompeo formally declared that the term could be used, and his probable successor Antony Blinken agreed. In the UK, Parliament debated whether British courts had the right to pass judgement on the matter, or whether it was a question for international courts. One MP said he wanted to “shine a light of hope” for victims.

Word Watch

Antipathy
Strong dislike. It is the opposite of sympathy.
René Cassin
The organisation is named after a French Jewish lawyer who helped draw up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Uighur
The Uighurs are believed to be native to the province of Xinjiang in north-west China, but the Chinese authorities regard them as incomers from Mongolia.
Holocaust Memorial Day
First held in Britain in 2001, it is a forerunner of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was introduced by the United Nations in 2005. The date for both is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Rabbi
A Jewish religious leader. Some types of Judaism have female rabbis as well as male one, but Orthodox Jewish communities do not.
Berlin Philharmonic
During World War Two, the large orchestra was renamed “Reichsorchester” and was led by a member of the Nazi party. In 2007, on its 125th anniversary, it conducted a full examination of its Nazi past.
Auschwitz
The largest Nazi concentration camp, situated in Poland. Out of the 1.3 million people sent to it, 1.1 million died. It was liberated by the Red Army on 27 January 1945.

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