Nip racial and religious hatred in the bud


Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;

Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,

Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;

Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,

Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;

Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

- Hymn sung at the Independence Day Service of Lamentation, Anglican Cathedral Colombo.

Fellow Island columnist Nan wrote that she chose to be away from Colombo last week-end when the capital city observed the anniversary of Sri Lanka re-gaining independence from colonial rule. Like Nan, this columnist was also away, enjoying the hospitality of family and friends in the capital city of our last colonial rulers. While the year 2013 marks the 65th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s Independence, it also marks the 75th anniversary of a horrendous event in world history that should be lesson to rabble-rousers in Sri Lanka and elsewhere who attempt to rouse passion and hatred against minorities. This is the anniversary of Kristallnacht in November 1938 when goons in uniform, on instigation by Hitler’s Nazis, went on a rampage destroying and setting fire to Jewish synagogues and business establishments in various parts of Germany. The campaign against Jews had begun some years earlier, after Hitler had turned his democratic election into authoritarian rule. There were insults and degrading verbal attacks on Jews leading to calls for boycott of Jewish businesses and occasional vandalism and physical violence. Kristallnacht was the beginning of the holocaust when thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps and gas chambers. While this columnist was in London, he was fortunate to get a first- hand and tragic account of the horrors of racial and religious hatred from a survivor of the holocaust. This survivor does not mind his name or his stiory being shared. Indeed, his story needs to be shared if only to alert our people to the dangers of racial and religious hate mongers who, if unchecked and not held accountable, can turn our country into cauldron of burning violence. That has been the experience of many countries, including our own, where an irresponsible leadership has, to suit their own short-term political agenda, tolerated and even promoted such hate-mongers.

Personal Story of a Holocaust Survivor

Ernest Kolman is a Jew who now in his eighties and lives in Greenford in the London Borough of Ealing. He was born in the small town of Wesel but in the nineteen thirties when the anti-Jewish sentiments became pronounced, his parents moved to the bigger city of Cologne where they thought they would be safer. At that time, it was not possible for Jewish children to gain admission to state schools, but fortunately Kolman found himself admitted to a well-ranked Jewish grammar school in Cologne. Thousands of Jews were fleeing Germany and going as refugees to other countries. But many countries had closed their borders fearing an unmanageable influx of refugees.

Britain was one of them but later it reluctantly agreed to take in 10,000 children but they were not be be accompanied by adults. Kolman’s school took advantage of this and sent, with the consent of parents, many of its pupils to Britain for continuing their education. Kolman says he remembers his mother shopping and packing a trunk of new clothes and other necessities for him to take to England. He bade good-bye to his parents at home as parents were not allowed to come to the rail station to see their children off. He was never to see his parents again. The train journey took them to Holland and then by ship across the English Channel and then by train again to London’s Liverpool Street Station. He says he still retains the ticket from the ship. Despite the absence of his parents, he says that when the train crossed the German border, it was like a huge weight lifted from his shoulders. It was an exhilarating feeling of freedom – freedom from fear of the consequences of saying or doing something not pleasing to the Nazis.

Kolman says many ordinary Germans were good and kind and willing to take a huge personal risk to help the Jews. He recalls that on Kristallnacht, they could see the smoke billowing out from the nearby burning synagogue. The family did not know when the goons would come for them; so they panicked when their door bell rang. But it turned out only to be a friendly neighbour who had come to offer shelter in her home for the night. His father had gone on a business trip and the driver of his car took him to his home and sheltered him until things calmed down.

In school in Britain, for the first couple of years, the Red Cross enabled him and some of the other children to send and to receive letters from parents. These letters were restricted to 25 words each. Occasionally they would receive a parcel as well. But then the letters and parcels stopped coming. It was only when the war ended that an uncle who had fled Germany earlier confirmed to him his worst fears about the fate of his parents.

Lessons that people must learn

Kolman says that he is telling his story for people to know what happened and to guard against it ever happening again. "I say to the people here: You have liberty here and you have no idea what that is. I tell my story to make people aware of what a racist policy can lead to and the damage it can cause." He is hoping to travel in November to his home town of Wesel for 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht as the sole surviving male member of the pre-war Jewish community of Wesel.

The lessons from war-time history unfortunately do not appear to have been learnt, or forgotten within a gap of one generation. The horrors of the holocaust are being repeated in many countries. Even in Sri Lanka, the scars of July 1983 are yet to be healed – the scars have affected all communities in different degrees. The Commission of Inquiry into Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC) gave a patient hearing to hundreds who came forward to give evidence and thereafter made well-thought out recommendations, which if implemented in the same spirit in which they were made, would have gone a long long way to heal wounds and place our people on the road to reconciliation. But alas! The government chose to act according to the agenda that the ethno-religious bigots had proposed.

Obviously encouraged by the government’s short-sighted stance, several organisations are springing up that promote an ethno-religious doctrine far removed from the non-violence, tolerance and peace that the Gautama preached. Bodi Bala Sena and Hela Sihala Hiru are two such organizations. The tragedy is that these organizations take the law into their own hands, spreading vicious vitriol against non-Buddhists, with the law-enforcement authorities turning a blind eye. Surely, the Police will not refrain from dispersing a mob engaging in unlawful acts if they had not received instructions to allow such events to happen.

The President is reported to have entertained the leaders of the Bodi Bala Sena at Temple Trees. According to press release issued by the Presidential Secretariat (not by the BBS) after the meeting, the BBS leaders had stated that various other groups were acting in the name of the BBS and they do not take responsibility for such groups. The President is also reported to have told them that they should not act in a way to disrupt racial and religious harmony in the country. Even if we accept the Temple Trees statement at face value, it still leaves unanswered the question as to why the Police took no action against the demonstrators. At least in one town, the Police authorities have reportedly said that they were helpless as they had received orders to allow the demonstrations to take place. Also, if the demonstrations were by a group taking on the name of BBS, why had the BBS remained silent when the demonstrations were taking place.

A strong public response is needed

In pre-war Germany, the Nazis, covertly at first but openly later, espoused the deadly doctrine of the Final Solution, a plan to annihilate the Jews. As Pastor Martin Niemoller was later to lament, the ordinary peace-loving Germans failed to take a stand against such hatred and violence. In Sri Lanka at the moment, organisations with similar chauvinistic doctrines still remain only at the fringe. But unless their activities are nipped in the bud by strong public opinion and firm action, they will not just remain a threat but they will grow in strength to once again plunge our country into the mire of ethno-religious violence.

Lakshman Wickremesinghe, one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, was an Anglican Bishop who courageously fought for the rights of the people, whether they were the youthful southern insurgents during the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, or the striking workers during the government of J R Jayawardena, or the pogrom against the Tamils in 1983. This column is happy to note that the leadership given by Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe for the Anglican Church to emerge as a defender of the rights of the people is still being maintained. The words quoted at the top of this column is from the opening hymn that was sung during the service held at the packed-to-capacity Colombo Cathedral on Independence Day last week. Martin Luther King’s ‘We shall overcome’ and the Revd Walter Senior’s meaningful Hymn for Sri Lanka (creatively set to the tune of Dhanno Budunge by Deva Surya Sena) were some of the other hymns sung while Bishop Dhiloraj Canagasabey gave a powerful message for peace and reconciliation. It is not without significance that among the congregation was the Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera.

We may end our column this week by quoting the opening verses of another meaningful hymn sung the previous day at the Sunday service of another notable Anglican institution – the Chapel of Transfiguration at S Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia:

In an age of twisted values

We have lost the truth we need;

In sophisticated language

We have justified our greed;

By our struggle for our possessions

We have robbed the poor and weak

Hear our cry and heal our nation;

Your forgiveness Lord we seek.

We have built discrimination

On our prejudice and fear;

Hatred swiftly turns to cruelty

If we hold resentment dear.

For communities divided

By the walls of class and race

Hear our cry and heal our nation;

Show us Lord, your love and grace.

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