“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa
Children have always been the barometer from which we measure the goodness of our universe. The quote by Nelson Mandela tells us precisely what we need to know. And sadly, our soul has become tinged with darkness. Four iconic photographs over the last 65 years have become illustrative of human suffering and have in their own way led us back to what we should be as a society.
Perhaps the photo that best represented the 20th century’s inhumanity and a metaphor for the Holocaust itself is this one below:
To this day, the identity of this little boy has not been established. In reality he represents the 1.5 million children under the age of 12 years that were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The look of dread on his face tears out a piece of our heart. We can all identify with the horror a child must feel. However, it is the victimizer that we must also recognize and here we have precise information.
SS-Rottenfuhrer Josef Blosche was identified as the SS trooper pointing his sub machine gun at the young child. And here too Blosche becomes the symbol of evil of the time. Assigned by the SS to root out all Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto following its annihilation, Blosche indiscriminately murdered hundreds of innocence.
“For his dedication and zeal during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Blosche was awarded the Cross of War Merit 2nd Class with Swords. During his trial in Erfurt in April 1969 Blosche was found guilty of war crimes, including the participation in the shooting of more than 1000 Jews in the courtyard of a building complex on the morning of 19 April 1943. Blosche was executed in Leipzig on 29 July 1969” (Holocaust education and Research centre.)
One would have hoped that this little boy’s photo would have moved forever the world to action against heartlessness but alas this was not to be. Just 29 years later this photograph below became the symbol for the futility of America’s involvement in the Vietnamese war.
This picture was taken on June 8 1972 in Trang Bang. It depicts nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack. She was badly burned and the terror on her face similar to the last photo tears yet another piece from our collective souls.
However, unlike the fate of the child of the Holocaust, Phan Thị Kim Phúc survived her ordeal. In 1992 Phan Thị Kim Phúc and her husband arrived for a refueling stop in Gander Newfoundland after leaving her home then in Cuba where they asked for political asylum. It was granted and today she lives in Ajax Ontario where she has established a Foundation which provides assistance to children who are victims of war.
The next photo was taken only last year, 43 years after that of Phan Thị Kim Phúc impacted our country greatly:
Alan Kurdi became emblematic of the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War 2. Alan and his family were among the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe last year. The Kurdi family apparently had as an end destination our own country of Canada. The entire family with the exception of Alan’s father drowned only a a kilometer from shore after its rickety barge transporting hundreds across the Mediterranean capsized. Alan’s body washed up on shore and it became our tragic rallying cry for a country to act.
And act we did. Canada took in 25,000 refugees with more to come as a result of the horror represented by this little boy’s death.
And finally, our own despicable treatment of Indigenous children in residential schools has become epitomized by one picture:
Chanie Wenjack a young Ojibway boy was only 10 years old when Federal Indian Agents stole him from his reserve in northern Ontario and sent him to the Cecilia Jeffery Residential school in Kenora more than 600 Km from his home. Beaten, sexually abused and starved Chanie ran away and tried to go home. His frozen body was found days later on October 22, 1966 beside a railway track miles from his home.
Joseph Boyden one of Canada’s fiercest advocates for Indigenous children and an award-winning writer explains it best:
“Only a single photo of Chanie exists, a photo that his sister Pearl was kind enough and tough enough and giving enough to share. A sepia-toned and worn print of a young Ojibwe boy with black, tussled hair, the boy leaning slightly on a pine wall outside somewhere north, with one skinny leg crossed over the other all casual, his rubber boots too big for him and his hands held together in the slight grip we all sometimes do that betrays a bit of nervousness, possibly, at being photographed. But what’s most striking in the photo is his face. Sweetness is the word that comes to me when I stare at it. His eyes are slightly narrowed and his round cheeks highlight a smile that tells you everything you need to know. He’s good. He’s kind. He’s shy. He’s going to be something great one day. He already is, and I can just bet that he makes every one of his family feel a tinge of warmth, of happiness, when he walks into a room. Chanie’s smile chose me. It dared me to try and decipher him. Chanie Wenjack’s cruel and unnecessary death 50 years ago, I realize, isn’t a story of innocence lost. It is Canada’s story of innocence violently taken.”
Four photographs, taken decades apart but each conveying the horrors and heartlessness that children are forced to endure by our own actions and negligence. Let us all hope that there are from this day forward no further such images to tear away the rest of our collective souls.
Bernie M. Farber is Executive Director of The Mosaic Institute. He is a native of Ottawa and a graduate of Carleton University. His long-spanning career in the not-for-profit sector includes the role of CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (2005-2011) where he spearheaded multiple inter-faith initiatives and dialogues among diaspora groups in Canada including Rwandan genocide survivors and support for the Roma community. Most recently, Bernie has served as Senior Vice President of Gemini Power Corporation where he has been working in partnership with First Nations peoples towards economic development and community self-reliance in a way that respects both the environment and First Nations’ traditional values. Bernie is a recipient of the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, the Zaionz Award for Jewish Communal Service, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the St John Provincial Commendation.
“Bernie’s View” is Bernie’s regular contribution to the Mosaic Institute blog. We hope you are stimulated and challenged; and we look forward to your comments in the Mosaic manner.