Off topic but strangely not, I am currently reading Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa as a mixed child during the end of apartheid (see below).
I’ve read quite a number of celebrity memoirs in my life, even a few Jewish ones though surprisingly not as many as you would think which is rather ironic considering Jews can talk about themselves plenty. At any rate, I most definitely did not expect to run into the Jewish question in this particular story given that a. Noah is not Jewish, b. he is from South Africa, c. he is African, and d. he is a television host (though shoot, I guess that’s more of a likelihood territory especially since he used to work for John Stewart).
Anyway, and this probably should have been the tip-off, I was reading a chapter called “Go, Hitler.” Now, to make it clear, this is not what it sounds like. Noah had a friend in SA who was in fact named Hitler because his parents and others in SA were under the impression that the name literally stood for “tough guy.” Noah had already gone on extensively about the absurd and deliberate lack of education for both the African and the colored community from the white dominant force. So the people’s lack of knowledge who Hitler was and what he did and subsequent usage of his name, did not offend me as much as it made me uncomfortable.
Fine, whatever, I move on and read. Then however, Noah says the following “I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation…..But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess.”
My first gut feeling was to be completely freaking disgusted. How dare he say something like this? Those numbers were fucking estimates to begin with and I highly doubt my great grandfather, great uncle, great aunt and families who got shot and buried in the forests of Ukraine were ever meticulously documented before their murder. My second feeling after I slept on it was to attempt to approach Noah’s statement from his point of view. And yes, I will say this, a lot of what he says is valid. Yes, there are no numbers of victims of apartheid, of white colonialization, of intertribal warfare and sales into slavery, all they have is estimates and not even good ones. He is entirely justified in looking at the history of his continent in that way.
However. And this is a gigantic however. The Holocaust was just the latest atrocity in the two thousand year old history of atrocities against the Jews most of which were most definitely not documented with meticulous records. There are the post WWII pogroms in Eastern Europe, there are pogroms in Kishinev in 1905-06, there are pogroms in 1880s all over Russian Empire that spurred on massive American Jewish immigration. There are Cossack pogroms in 1648 in Ukraine, there are blood libels and resulting massacres in medieval France, Germany, Poland, etc. Then of course one can’t forget the Crusader massacres throughout the centuries. And so on and on and on into the depths of Jewish history post-exile.
There are no records of how many were killed. What there is the deep, bloody wounded memory going back more generations than any of us can count. And it’s most unkind to forget about the suffering of those people in favor of their distant descendants. But really ultimately, this should not be about who suffered more. It shouldn’t be about saying that this particular set of murders was worse than another. Genocide is genocide is genocide regardless of which group was targeted. It’s the keeping score rhetoric, the my suffering is worse than yours, and to a degree a slight flavor of well Jews are white so….their suffering isn’t quite the same anyway, that made reading that part of Noah’s book unbearable. Can’t we just agree that my people have suffered greatly and his people have suffered and both sides still continue to suffer? Why should it always come down to my pain is worse?
I would like to think that Noah wasn’t going down the casual anti-Semitism route, after all his mother eventually converted to Judaism herself. I want to think that he is doing his very best to understand the history of himself in context of his own people’s experiences. I would prefer that he keeps comparisons such above to a naught because there is no need for them. People have suffered greatly, their suffering was ignored. The end.