Inquiring Words The Road to Prinsengrach
A month ago I stood in a tiny bedroom at the top of a house in Amsterdam. Yellowed post cards of the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and newspaper cuttings with stories of Hollywood stars are stuck to the wall. There's a post card of the chimpanzees' tea party from the London Zoo, just the sorts of things a young girl sellotapes over her bed. But this is not the room of an ordinary girl. It is the place where Anne Frank lived in hiding and wrote in her little red-and-white-checked diary. It was her home and, in a way, her cell. She and her family and the acquaintances who joined them were trapped in that small, steep space behind the bookcase that camouflaged their annex; forced to hide from the blind hatred which would kill them for their beliefs.
It was my second visit to the house on Prinsengracht, the second time I climbed the steep, creaking stairs, the second time I stared out the window at the chestnut tree whose very existence comforted Anne.
My first visit to Me annex was in January 1993. I was travelling from Mogadishu to New York after reporting on the famine in Somalia. My flight landed in Amsterdam before dawn. I needed some air. I was fighting amoebic dysentery and struggling with what I had witnessed in the streets of Mogadishu, the harsh calculus at the gates of feeding censures and hospital doorways. Life and death left to the decisions of strangers, the size of your weapon.
My most vivid memory from that 1993 visit to Anne Frank's house is not the little room at the top of the hidden stairs. It's the ground floor museum, filled with photographs of concentration camps - the withered limbs of the naked survivors, their deadened eyes staring out from gallery-white walls, the countless sunken cheeks and distended bellies of hunger. It was all too familiar, too much like what I had left behind in Somalia. The mothers I met who had nothing to offer their dying children, the lonely father who dug a grave on Christmas Eve for the second of his sons to die that week could have been in those museum pictures. It all felt the same. The famine in Somalia was a human construct - nature's fury exacerbated by a power struggle. Warlords who controlled the fertile regions cut off the food supply. More than a quarter-million people died.
The dehumanization of Somalis allowed the dying to continue - just as the Nazis dehumanized Jews, homosexuals, disabled people. Despite the hopes of the little museum on Prinsengracht, there is no such thing as 'Never Again'.
The hatred, the refusal to see victims as human beings, worthy of dignity and care began with words, began with irresponsible leaders who bought into the easy and cowardly politics of 'us' and 'them'. The wilful misinterpretation of belief - repeated as if to make it truth - justified the ghettos, the trains, the work camps, the gas chambers, the ovens. It started with words. It started with taking the tenets and history of a rich faith and twisting them into something else.
I write as the police begin an investigation into the bomb placed beside a mosque in Walsall. Racist graffiti just appeared inside a mosque in Redditch. As of June, 632 anti-Muslim acts in Britain have been reported since March 2012, according to MAMA, 'Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks'. Each of those acts of hatred started with words, and with silence. Every time a politician or other leader implies there is a difference between Muslim values and Christian ones, the hate is justified. Every time individuals stay silent when prejudices are repeated, the hate grows. And if you are part of the group being marginalised, every act of vandalism, every attack, every ignorant rant is a new blow to a still-tender bruise.
As people who don't proselytize, as people who are not wed to dogma, as people of compassion, Unitarians can help. Confront the ignorance. Remind leaders that none of us should be judged by the worst acts committed by other members of one's faith. Reach out.
It is a shorter road than any of us may think to that small attic room on Prinsengracht. -MC Burns
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