Holocaust Museum Turns Efforts to Darfur

The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., is leading a major effort to bring international attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We heard earlier on our Roundtable about the escalation of violence in Sudan. Now celebrities and everyday Americans are urging an end to the genocide. The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. is even stepping in. Museum directors say they know what genocide looks like and how to help stop it.

Joshua Levs reports from Atlanta.

JOSHUA LEVS: It's a weekday evening and a few dozen people have gathered at a church on Peachtree Street. John Heffernan, with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, recites a phrase associated with the Holocaust: never again. Then he points to atrocities from recent years.

Mr. HEFFERNAN (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum): Bosnia, where over 200,000 people were killed. We have witnessed Rwanda, where over 800,000 people in a period of 100 days were killed. Cambodia, now Darfur. What we seek to do is to give that phrase never again meaning.

LEVS: Heffernan leads the museum's Committee on Conscience, which is focusing on Darfur where Arab Janjaweed militias have raped, pillaged, destroyed entire villages and carried out mass killings. Heffernan chose photos from his trips to the province in western Sudan, then he looks back at the Holocaust.

Mr. HEFFERNAN: A lot of people knew about what was happening, but they didn't do enough to stop it. And our challenge at the Committee on Conscience is to move people from memory to action, and to say that there are still bad things happening today. And you in fact can't afford to be a bystander, that you need to act.

LEVS: He encourages the audience to pressure lawmakers, write op-eds and support groups that push for divestment from Sudan. One woman points to all the advocacy for Darfur that's already taken place and asks whether any amount will bring the horror to a halt.

Mr. HEFFERNAN: I do think that it has to reach a certain level. It has to reach a critical mass to really, really affect change. And I would venture to say that as a result of this mobilization that probably more people in Darfur are alive today than if there had been no mobilization.

LEVS: The audience is attentive and seems well informed. Several, like Holly Levinson(ph), says knowledge of the Holocaust helped turn them on to this kind of social action.

Ms. HOLLY LEVINSON: My connection to Judaism was always this sort of extra obligation to fight against any forms of hate and injustice, and that's what always drew me to Judaism. And so these kinds of issues are just critical to me to what it means to actually live out my faith and it have any meaning.

LEVS: Organizers say highlighting lessons from the Holocaust helps drum up support around the country for action on Darfur. David Lefkovitz(ph) is with the Darfur Urgent Action Coalition of Georgia, which was spearheaded by a group of Jewish organizations. He says the Holocaust is a powerful, palpable image to many people of different backgrounds and religions.

Mr. DAVID LEFKOVITZ (Darfur Urgent Action Coalition of Georgia): It's a good catalyst, and that's why we've been organizing our main events around the U.N. Holocaust Remembrance Day as a way to slide in to this situation in Darfur.

LEVS: Heffernan with the Holocaust Museum finds this is true all over the country. That reminding people of the Holocaust is helping trigger action not just among visitors to events like this but among decision makers in Washington and elsewhere.

After two decades of work combating genocide and holding senior positions at human rights organizations, he calls his work at the Holocaust Museum the most powerful platform he's ever had.

Mr. HEFFERNAN: There's nothing stronger than to be in a situation where you're talking about genocide, whether it be in Darfur, whether it be in Rwanda, whether it be in Bosnia and have the Holocaust behind you. In a sense what we're saying is that the Holocaust Museum, we know what genocide looks like and therefore we're poised to support what's needed to end it.

LEVS: He travels the country speaking to groups like this. The museum also has created an exhibit on Darfur and co-founded the Save Darfur Coalition. Heffernan points to a quote from the Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel, who recommended the creation of a committee on conscience years ago.

Wiesel said, quote, “a memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past.”

For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta.

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