Tim Cornwell reports on a challenge to the Jewish Holocaust. When the Nazis came to test the gas that they would use in their death camps, they chose 250 Gypsy children as the guinea pigs. In fact, the Nazis all but wiped out Germany's Gypsy population and killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands in Eastern Europe. And yet, claims Ian Hancock, professor of linguistics and English at the University of Texas, scholars turn "a very blind eye" to the Gypsies. In a new book he and other specialists of ethnic persecution allege that Jewish historians, in particular, have glossed over other cases of genocide in their bid to preserve the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust.
Was the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives in Comparative Genocide (Westview Press) was planned by editor Alan Rosenbaum to tackle the question of how future generations will see the Holocaust.
"A lot of young people know very little about the Holocaust," says Rosenbaum, professor of philosophy at Cleveland Stand University in Ohio. For them, he says, there is a danger that the Holocaust will be seen as just another tragic historical episode.
Despite his intent, the book has stirred up a hornets' nest. In an unusual foreword Israel Charny, director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, declares himself "stunned and upset" by the contents of its eight essays, though he praises Rosenbaum for collecting them.
Hancock, as well as being the UN Representative for the International Romani Union, alleges "an element of racism in the Jewish response" to his attempts to elevate the memory of the Nazi's Gypsy victims. And David Stannard, professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii, whose recent book on the Indians of the Americas is called The American Holocaust, condemns a "self-serving masquerade of Jewish genocide uniqueness".
In their essays both Hancock and Stannard single out the author of a third essay, Steven Katz, for criticism. Katz, professor of Jewish thought and history at Cornell University, has long argued that the Holocaust historically stands alone. He tried, but failed, to withdraw his work from the book after learning at the last minute of what he called their ad hominem attacks.
As scholars argue the pros and cons of Holocaust "uniqueness", as well as which massacres are worthy of the word genocide, they run the risk of sounding deeply insensitive.
Vikhan Dadrian, a New York sociologist, sets out to compare the mass killings of Armenians by Turks during the first world war to the Holocaust. He observes that "the evidence demonstrates that the Nazis eventually opted for the Holocaust largely by default". In Germany, the Nazis allowed 165,000 Jews to take flight for other countries, he says, but in the Armenian case "no person was allowed to emigrate or leave the country".
Katz, defending the Holocaust's "historical and phenomenological" uniqueness, by contrast calls the war against the Armenians "a vulgar and desperate manifestation of raw nationalist politics" that did not require "the complete physical extirpation of every person of Armenian heritage". He lists figures for "total survivors" of double the number for "total deaths" and remarks: "This is not the Holocaust".
The Gyspy population in pre-war Germany on one count only numbered 16,5. But as few as 10 per cent may have survived waves of shootings, gassings, and being worked to death in concentration camps - which Hancock cites to prove that Gypsy deaths "proportionately at least matched, and possibly exceeded, losses of Jewish victims".
He laments the fact of finding "the attempted genocide of one's own people written completely out of the historical record" in books and museums on the Holocaust. "I want to be able to watch epics such as Schindler's List and learn that Gypsies were a central part of the Holocaust too," he said.