It was to have been the very last time that a world gone mad would permit the attempted genocide of a people. For Jews it became known as the Holocaust or in Hebrew the Shoah; for the Roma, another group persecuted by the Nazis, it was called the "Porajmos" or the "Devouring."
To be sure it was not the first time in human history when such evil walked the earth. Only a generation before the Nazis, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin attempted to rid the U.S.S.R. of a portion of the Ukrainian population by instigating a man-made famine known as the Holodomor.
Earlier in the 20th century, the Turks, trying to find ways to deal with its rebellious Armenian population slaughtered over one million men, women and children. Known as the Meds Yeghern, it was this genocide that Adolf Hitler, in preparing his own plans to murder the Jews of Europe, famously asked his leadership "who remembers the Armenians?"
So out of the ashes of the Holocaust where Hitler's barbarians managed to murder almost two-thirds of European Jewry and just as many Roma, the cry "Never Again" was repeated and almost believed.
And yes, immediately following the war, with war crimes trials in full swing, with the reconstituted United Nations developing international law against genocide, humanity took a break from such evil.
Sadly evil never leaves us. It may remain dormant for a while, but like a virus it needs only to find a willing host to yet again spread its poison.
It didn't take long. Barely 20 years later as we entered the 1960s mass murder was once again in vogue. As the Vietnam War dragged on, it provided a shield for Cambodia's brutal dictator Pol Pot to slaughter almost two million of his people.
And let us not forget the wanton slaughter by the Pakistani army of upwards to 1.5 million Bangladeshis. And of course Mao Tse Tung was responsible for countless millions of deaths of Chinese during his rule.
More recently, Rwandan Hutus are said to have hacked to death close to 1.5 million Tutsis, fellow countrymen of a different tribe. And in the last decade, Sudan's brutal Janjaweed are responsible for the mass murder of countless Darfurians. Indeed "Never Again" seems to have become "Again and Again."
Canadian philanthropist and Manitoba politician, the late Izzy Asper was deeply troubled by such ugly inhumanity. He struggled to find a way to ensure that the lessons of history would become real for the next generation. And so was born the Asper Foundation Human Rights and Holocaust Studies Program. Over the last ten years thousands of young high school students have benefited from this course of study which culminates with a trip to Washington's astounding United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Students who go through this program are moved to action.
After visiting the museum, one 14-year-old student remarked "I think there is a big importance in teaching our youth about what has happened in the past so it doesn't happen in the future. We need to teach good values like tolerance and to be fair and not discriminatory."
However, Asper realized that even his widely used program could only touch a fraction of people. He had bigger dreams; a museum similar to the United States Holocaust Museum but moreso, a museum that would detail both humanity's capacity for evil while trumpeting the need for human rights as a standard bearer. Thus was born The Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
To be situated in the center of Canada, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Asper's dream was to have a place where the next generation can learn, and visualize a future; a place that would speak forthrightly of genocide, discrimination, and even Canada's own human rights record both good and bad, while heralding human rights heroes; a place that would be a canary in the mine for future generations.
With $20 million dollars from his own foundation, this was to be a private public partnership. And while Izzy Asper did not get to see his dream fulfilled in his lifetime, his daughter Gail has stalwartly taken over the reins.
It has not been without its difficulties. Victimized groups vying for limited space, arguments over the extent of one genocide over another. Yet despite these issues, Gail Asper moves boldly forward. Gail has quite simply inherited the spirit of her late father. She gets it. As she told me, "we can't be complacent, we can't rest while any one's rights are under attack, and we all need to take personal responsibility for the preservation and enhancement of human rights in Canada and around the world".
Sadly today human rights are under attack from those who believe it stifles freedom. Can anything be further from the truth? Thankfully with visionaries like Gail Asper, Canada can become a focal point of understanding humanity through a museum whose time has come.
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