Slavery was like what happened in Terezin, and we’re still wrestling with its legacy

"New Roles for Roma in an Integrated Europe?”
Session III, ARTS OF TOLERANCEDiscussions, Workshops and Performances organized by the Stories Exchange Project in Terezin, formerly a Nazi concentration camp from which Jews were sent to Auschwitz
John ShattuckU.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic
We should remember where we are right now: we’re in Terezin. And this is the first story.
Not so very long ago, a little more than half a century ago, the direction of civilization itself seemed to be tending toward Terezin. Which stood not only for the concentration of minorities but also for their liquidation.
But people came to together to try to stop this horrible tendency of civilization. People from all over the world, we all know: an international force rose up against the Nazis. And that force was made up of people from the Soviet Union, from the United States, from throughout Europe and from countries all over the world.
My own country, the United States fought on two fronts because we also had a war going against the same horrible tendency of civilization, in the Pacific Ocean, where my own father was involved in major battles to try to prevent the kind of concentration and liquidation that had been going on here in Europe: he was involved in battles as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific.
I don’t think we should forget that story. That’s why we’re here, that’s the importance of being here for this kind of discussion, trying to continue this liberation that Terezin has had in the last half century and to broaden it.
The issue of new roles for Roma in an integrated Europe is not an issue that I can easily discuss because I am neither European nor Rom. But maybe this invitation to an American to talk about that indicates that this theme is truly broader than Europe and certainly broader than the Czech Republic.
I spent a large part of the last decade as a human rights official, traveling throughout the world on missions of human rights. Probably the most powerful experience I had in terms in terms of stories of the kind that are being told here was in South Africa.
I was struck by the comments that have just been made about the tent and the stories that were told in that tent in Usti.
[see “How can Roms have a white tent?” also in this menu, Being a Citizen]
In South Africa I traveled widely with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who put together a project similar to the Stories Exchange Project. It was called the Truth and Reconciliation project. This was an official organized effort by the South African government after Nelson Mandela was elected President in 1993.
When the black majority of South Africa finally got their rights, the new South African government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This meant taking a tent – like the one that’s been discussed here, the one that the Stories Exchange Project put up in Usti – , all over South Africa and inviting people to come and tell their stories.
They were terrible stories. They were stories of people whose fathers or mothers or brothers or sisters had been bludgeoned to death or had been killed by the police. And in some cases they were stories about atrocities that had been committed by the African National Congress against the white majority. Individuals came forward and told those stories too.
It was a tremendously emotional time.
As an observer I watched these stories being told in many cities. Many people were brought to tears, broke down and found it difficult to tell their stories. But you could tell that as a result of telling those stories they went through some catharsis . They felt — as Martin Cichy from Usti just said when he was telling us about the tent – somebody was listening to their story. They had an audience, and they could finally say something publicly about what had happened to them.
[once again, see “How can Roms have a white tent?” also in this menu, Being a Citizen]
I’m not suggesting that the story here n the Czech Republic is comparable. But I am saying that it can be very, very strong to tell the story about what has happened to you or your family or discrimination that you have experienced.
In the United States we have every people in the world represented in our population. As you know, we’re a country that was a melting pot. But we’re also a country where people are proud of their ancestry and their background. And we’re also a country where there is a terrible, terrible legacy of slavery – which in many ways was like what happened here in Terezin.
For several centuries our ancestors participated in a world-wide program that brought people from Africa to the United States, and then they were bought as people and turned into slaves. This was a terrible scourge against humanity.
So we have this in our own past, and about fifteen per cent of our population are direct descendents of people who were slaves. We’re still wrestling with the legacy of slavery.
As a student I was deeply involved in the U.S. civil rights movement. White people and black people, people who were concerned about the legacy of slavery were involved in efforts to change our laws and to bring about fundamental change in the way we saw our relationships to each other.
And today I’m involved in a small foundation in the United States where we recognize people who have come through terribly difficult situations as minorities in our society and have been leaders in that way.
One woman whose name is Robin Cannon comes from a part of Los Angeles – the very big city of Los Angeles – , which is many ways the poorest: South Central Los Angeles.
Robin is an African-American woman who was working for the city government, and she learned that there was going to be a new dumping facility, a garbage dump, right in her neighborhood. The city was gong to place this garbage-dump there.
So she started organizing her neighbors and getting attention from the outside, from some NGOs and some other public- spirited people to try to stop this from happening.
All the powers of the city were against her. But somehow she managed over the course of a year to put together this very large organization of neighbors, and they stopped this project from going forward. She had almost lost her job at the City Hall, but she stayed with this effort. She was very courageous to try to do that, and in the end she succeeded and many people saw her as a heroine.
But she was just a normal person, a mother of five children. She still is, and she still works at City Hall. But she did something. She decided she was going to take on this struggle.
The second story involves a friend of mine who is a very distinguished Navajo Indian judge. Tom Sall is a very dignified man who feels strongly about the integrity of his people. For thousands of years the Navajo Indians have lived in the lands that became the southwestern United States.
He used the laws of the United States to develop special laws inside his own tribe, the Navajo people. He has developed a whole system of courts in the Navajo nation which provide justice for the Navajo peoples even within the larger context of American society. Many people criticized him for doing that, but he’s been a hero, a model for his people in establishing their own integrity.
The last person I want to mention is a white American woman named Linda Stout who is a poor woman living in a trailer with a mother who is an invalid in the rural part of North Carolina. She’s a very energetic woman.
She realized that her community was not getting the resources they should be getting from the Federal government. So she organized her neighbors who are poor black and poor white and brought them together and they defeated in an election the member of Congress from the district. As a result of that they elected somebody who is more to their own liking and began to get a much more effective Federal services.
I tell these three stories because I think they are the kinds of people we can all respect and relate to in this context, the context of Terezin.
[see responses to these stories in another menu of Stories and Responses on this Web-page, in “The Broken Mirror”: “We Roms have opened ourselves up to you.”]

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