A chilling lesson from the 1930s

In the late 1930s, my grandmother — she was then just a young mother — suffered from tuberculosis. This was a major health concern in that era.

May 10, 2020

By Anil Netto
In the late 1930s, my grandmother — she was then just a young mother — suffered from tuberculosis. This was a major health concern in that era.

The disease killed one billion people in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Like COVID-19, tuberculosis is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, spits — except that the droplets carry bacteria not a virus.

The best-known treatment at that time was complete rest and isolation. The concept of the “sanatorium”, originated in Germany in the 19th Century — a place that provided ample rest, isolation and clean fresh air, nourishing food and perhaps light exercise for patients.

The setting was perhaps in a hilly area, with a pleasing and refreshing climate, which was felt to be more conducive to recovery.

The most commonly known treatment at that time was “collapsing” the affected lung. This was before antibiotics were developed in 1946.

And the only place for treatment in this part of the world was in Sumatra, where my grandmother spent months in a sanatorium, receiving treatment from a brilliant doctor, a German Jew, who was credited with saving her life.

The treatment comprised “burning” the affected lung. Ammachi went on to live to 85 with just one lung.

We had a photograph of that GermanJew surgeon in the family album somewhere, and I sometimes wondered what he was doing in Sumatra, of all places, in the late 1930s.

It was only later that I felt he might have fled Germany during the Nazi persecution of the tiny Jewish minority in the 1930s which culminated in the Holocaust (19411945).

The Holocaust did not happen just like  that.

Antisemitism goes back to ancient times; there was also Christian antisemitism, and later political, social, economic and then racial antisemitism.

This kind of prejudice happens when people stereotype an entire people based on the perceived actions of a few, and this is then reinforced by propaganda, fake news or whatever.

The danger is when such prejudice is then picked up by more and more people, turning the entire people into scapegoats for some grievance or other.

In Germany, not all the Germans were against the Jews, but the Nazis deftly manipulated the situation to crack down on this tiny minority and seize their assets and property. This took place even though most German Jews were German citizens who were very much part of German society.

People may know of the Holocaust, but well before that horror, a chilling precursor unfolded — Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) on November 9-10, 1938. (This was around the time when Ammachi was being treated in Sumatra.)

Nazi stormtroopers and civilians launched a pogrom against the Jews and rampaged through Germany. They smashed synagogues and Jewish-owned shops, buildings, schools, hospital and homes, leaving shattered glass on the streets – hence the term “Crystal Night” or “Night of the Broken Glass”. Some 7,000 businesses were destroyed.

Many other Germans privately sympathised with the Jews and some even helped the victims. But they feared the Nazi mob inspired by Hitler. Some 30,000 Jews were herded into concentrations camps. Although fewer than 100 were murdered that night, hundreds of others were believed to have committed suicide later or suffered from post-arrest ill-treatment.

The pretext for all this bloodshed and violence? The assassination of a junior German diplomat in France by a 17-yearold Polish Jew, whose parents were stranded as refugees along the GermanyPoland border.

The violence did not happen out of the blue. In the years leading to the bloodshed, Nazi propaganda had scapegoated the Jews, who constituted less than one per cent of the population in Germany, for almost every major problem in Germany: their defeat in World War One, hyperinflation in the 1920s, the Wall Street crash that led to the Great Depression.

When hate speech dehumanises an entire people, it is a slippery slope down, as the community is then perceived as less than human and deserving of their fate. Hate speech eventually led to the bloodshed, expulsion and finally genocide that killed six million Jews in concentration camps.

This is why we have to be careful not to stereotype entire communities, no matter who they are. Perhaps we may have had a  negative experience or encounter with one or two people from that community, but it does not mean the rest of the community is like that.

Words have a powerful effect in stigmatising entire groups of people — no matter who our punching bag may be — and assume a life of their own, whether it is foreign groups or minority groups or people who are different from us one way or the other.

In his time, Jesus was constantly breaking barriers, and reaching out to those who were stereotyped by his contemporaries – whether it was the Roman occupiers (remember his conversation with the centurion?), those with leprosy, those possessed by demonic spirits (mentally ill?), the despised tax collectors, the “foreign” Samaritans and their ‘ungodly’ practices…

Jesus spoke to their hearts — the language of love and compassion, and the lives of these ‘outcasts’ of society were forever changed.

In contrast, his tongue lashings were reserved for the oppressive rulers and their sycophants who were burdening or oppressing the ordinary people, never an entire community of people.

We in Malaysia too should watch against blaming an entire community or resorting to hate speech just because of the actions of a few individuals who may have hurt or upset us — for, this fosters hate, suspicion, stereotyping and racism.

We must not let our guard down, especially living in a society where race and religion are sometimes used as convenient tools for those with vested interests to exploit for their own ends. This also applies to our relations with communities who are considered foreign to us.

So let’s be mindful of the words we use, and avoid generalising and stereotyping entire communities, local or foreign.

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