In 1944, hundreds of thousands of words already existed in the English language, but not one could accurately describe the cruel and unfathomable purpose behind the Holocaust.
So the word genocide – geno- meaning race, and -cide meaning killing – was added to the dictionary.
Most people, aghast by the newsreels of stacked, emaciated bodies in concentration camps, had hoped that was where the word would stay: buried and hidden away in the pages of a reference book.
But time since the Holocaust, it’s been dragged out time and again, for Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur.
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In “Understanding the Holocaust and Modern Genocide,” a lecture scheduled for Oct. 28 at UNC Charlotte, Professor Philip Spencer will examine why genocide continues today, despite the horrific lessons taught decades ago by the Holocaust.
Sponsored by the UNCC Department of Global, International and Area Studies and the Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the lecture is the second in a series from Spencer.
He will also present “Kristallnacht in the Legacy of the Holocaust” Oct. 27 at Temple Israel in Charlotte. That lecture will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass, an attack on Jewish communities in Germany that was fueled by Nazis.
Both lectures are free and open to the public.
Spencer, an expert on the Holocaust and modern genocide, is the founding director of the Helen Bamber Centre for the Study of Rights, Conflict & Mass Violence at Kingston University in England. He’s spent a good portion of his career interviewing hundreds of Holocaust and modern-day genocide survivors.
“Every single encounter has been educational in a way that I can’t even begin to talk about,” he said. “One of the most important things about learning from the Holocaust is to listen to what the survivors have to say about it. Pay attention to what they say was happening to them, what was done to them.”
For most of society, the Holocaust serves as the ultimate example of the most evil side of human nature. For Spencer, it serves as a window into the understanding of why genocides occur at all.
“You have to take seriously what people say. When a political group says, ‘We hate this group. They don’t belong here. We want to get rid of them,’ they usually mean what they say,” said Spencer. “I think this was a mistake people thought about the Nazis, that it was rhetoric.”
More than six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. And although the genocides that have occurred since have not reached those numbers, “suffering is suffering,” said Spencer.
“It’s happened again, lots of times, but they’re not all the same as the Holocaust,” said Spencer. “The Nazi ambition was to eliminate the Jews completely from the world. I don’t think subsequent genocides have had quite as grandiose an ambition.”
Spencer has found that the number of people who believe genocides have happened at all since the Holocaust is low, but he understands the reason.
“It’s so off the spectrum of most people’s experience,” he said. “The idea that anybody would want to eliminate one group is pretty hard to comprehend. And the scale of cruelty and violence is too difficult to think about.”