The bogus claim recently that Jews in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk must register with the pro-Russian militants who are trying to control the government sparked a passion that's heartening.
The hoax has shown that maybe the human race does sometimes learn from history so that the worst of the past will not be repeated. And it demonstrates the power of technology to reveal what's happening to the entire world.
By now, most people have heard that some leaflets were handed out by masked individuals to Jews who were leaving a synagogue. The contents were enough to send chills rippling around the world. They said Jews would be required to pay a fee and register with the militant government. Those fliers were a cruel hoax now widely condemned not only by Ukrainian officials, but by high-placed officials elsewhere, including in the United States.
The fliers deliberately bring to mind the horror show that was the Holocaust, when Jews were terrorized and forced to identify themselves publicly by wearing a Star of David. By the millions, Jews were ultimately rounded up by Nazi forces and taken to concentration camps, where many of them were slaughtered outright and many others died of illnesses and overwork and neglect. I have heard the stories over the years firsthand from several people who survived the death camps but lost all their loved ones.
What happened in World War II was at least on par with the cruelest that man has ever been to his fellow beings.
The Jewish community in Donetsk has, according to various articles about the incident, dismissed the incident as provocative but meaningless. Many of the articles say the international horror that was initially sparked has provided exactly what the thugs who handed out the leaflets craved: attention and a backlash against the pro-Russian faction it pretended was demanding the registration of Jews.
"It's an obvious provocation designed to get this exact response, going all the way up to (U.S. Secretary of State John) Kerry," Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, told The New Republic. "I have no doubt that there is a sizable community of anti-Semites on both sides of the barricades, but for one of them to do something this stupid — this is done to compromise the pro-Russian groups in the east."
I believe the reaction to the leaflet has done more than that. It has provided a pretty potent demonstration of how fast bad acts can be condemned in a world capable of gathering instant reaction because it can spread the word of those actions in a nanosecond through television, radio, Twitter, Facebook and so many other instant-message media.
My mother-in-law grew up in Germany during World War II. She was once arrested for stealing food from a prisoner-of-war compound because her own small community was starving. She was petite and they could throw her and a neighbor boy over the fence. She was a teenager when she was arrested, midway through the war.
But she never knew, she said, what was really happening to Jews in places like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. Any rumors were denied by officials. And she and her family were so busy trying to survive themselves in poor communities where food was scarce that they didn't pay attention.
I do not know who knew what in World War II, though it seems odd that such evil acts could be hidden. What I do know — and celebrate — is that global communication means the hint of such action today makes the international news circuit within hours.
It didn't take much longer than that to learn that it was a cruel, petty hoax. Any benefit someone hoped to gain was stripped away.
Now what we have to work on is our reaction should real atrocity occur. I'm hopeful that the swift, horrified reaction we saw last week means decisive, effective action would be the result.
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