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Jewish Journal

Auschwitz in North Korea

by Rob Eshman

January 23, 2014 | 10:43 am

From left: Children at Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II and children photographed in an orphanage in North Korea during the 1997 famine.

From left: Children at Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II and children photographed in an orphanage in North Korea during the 1997 famine.

This week’s cover story by Jared Sichel is one of the most important pieces the Jewish Journal has published in our 28-year history.

It is not about the Holocaust, or Israel, or modern Jewish life. It’s about the unrelenting evil of North Korean concentration camps. And it’s about why the world continues to ignore them.

Why should this be featured on the cover of a Jewish newspaper?

On Jan. 27, we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day in 1945 when the Soviet army entered the Auschwitz concentration camp complex in Poland and freed the 7,000 remaining prisoners. The rescue came too late. About 1.3 million Jewish men, women and children were deported to Auschwitz and its satellite camps between 1940 and 1945. An estimated 1.1 million of them were murdered. 

The lessons of Auschwitz are not just Jewish lessons: Jewish history is not just Jewish history. Auschwitz revealed the human capacity for unimaginable evil. It continues to teach us the consequences of looking away, of choosing not to know, or of knowing — as the Allied leaders did, as the neighboring Poles did, as many American Jews did — but deciding not to act. It challenges us to decide what we mean when we say, “Never Again!” If we mean it only for ourselves, to paraphrase Hillel, then who are we?

Tens of thousands, or, by some estimates, as many as 200,000 men, women and children today live and die inside North Korean prison camps. Some from birth. They are subject to torture, rape and inevitable death. 

Is it a stretch to compare what the North Korean regime is doing to its own people to what the Nazis did to the Jews? I don’t think so.

In Auschwitz and the other camps, one could argue, the ultimate purpose was annihilation, not imprisonment. But, as an eyewitness to the horror told our reporter, there is good reason to believe the North Korean regime fully intends to ultimately exterminate its prisoners.

In Europe, you might counter, Jews were singled out simply because they were Jewish. In North Korea, the prisoners are no different than their captors — they’re all North Korean. But prior to the Holocaust, Jews also considered themselves German or Polish or Hungarian. The definition of “holocaust” is destruction or slaughter on a mass scale. Replace the label “Jew” with “dissident” or “undesirable” — does that make it better?

“The camps are a gruesome and powerful tool at the heart of a vast network of repression,” Rajiv Narayan, Amnesty International’s North Korea researcher, told the PBS series “Frontline.”

“People are sent to the political prison camps without charge, let alone a trial, many of them simply for knowing someone who has fallen out of favor.

“Conditions are dire. Torture is rampant; there are reports that women are raped, and we know that public execution is commonplace. Many of the prisoners die of malnutrition and overwork in dangerous conditions.”

So, let’s be clear: “Never Again!” is happening right now.

In 1945, most people in the world could claim they had no idea what was happening, or at least no proof. Not so today. The next time you go on the Internet because you feel like buying something on Amazon or checking your Facebook account, Google “satellite images of North Korea prison camps” instead. Anyone with a computer can use Google Earth to see the actual camps, right now.

We know where they are, and we know what’s going on in them. And what is most predictable is the response most people have when they accept those two facts: What can I do about it?

Sound familiar? Sixty years ago, as Jews suffered and died in Auschwitz, the civilized world asked, What can be done? Hitler is a mad man with a powerful army.

And likewise, no doubt, Kim Jong-un is a mad man, and North Korea has nuclear weapons and enough conventional weapons to turn the Korean peninsula into an inferno.

But “Never Again!” doesn’t come with an asterisk. It’s not “Never Again!” — unless it’s non-Jews. Or, “Never Again!” — except if the perpetrators are really scary.

There is a growing international movement to focus on this North Korean horror, to help the prisoners by drawing attention to their plight and to speed the collapse of the regime. We must support that movement.

There are levers we can pull, as well. China is still the single-largest supporter of the North Korean regime. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China provides 80 percent of North Korea’s consumer goods and 45 percent of its food. I know it’s infinitely more popular to figure out how we can make money in the “new” China, but Chinese leaders and businessmen need to hear our outrage over their country’s continued support for Kim Jong-un.

Maybe that alone won’t be enough — but the civilized world hasn’t even begun to try.

The psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl concluded there are only two races of men — decent and indecent. It is relatively easy to know which side you’re on — when you’re the victim.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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