After 75 years, the two tonnes of human hair piled up to the ceiling in Auschwitz is disintegrating. Only the tightly bound children’s plaits retain their shape. The Nazis, who were big on euphemisms, called their depraved plunder “human recycling” and used it to make military socks and blankets.
I couldn’t shake the vision of those ghostly display cases in Block 4, Room 5 when news broke of the seizure of 13 tonnes of Muslim Uighur hair, shipped from China to be sold as wigs.
The plight of the Chinese Uighurs touches the rawest of Jewish nerves. We’ve been here before.
The maths is macabre. A full head of human hair weighs roughly one ounce. There are 35,274 ounces in a tonne, so those 13 tonnes on a US-bound ship was forcibly shorn from half-a-million heads.
Its original owners are among three million Uighurs corralled into 1,200 camps in the country’s north-western region of Xinjiang. Confronted with official leaked documents and verified satellite images, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) quit calling their existence a “rumour” and began referring to them, euphemistically of course, as “locational education and training camps” where Muslims are willingly sent to learn to become good citizens. A more mundane term for these hell holes, encircled by razor wire and guard towers and monitored by Huawei surveillance systems, is concentration camps.
Of course, modern-day comparisons with the Holocaust are fraught with hyperbole and inaccuracy. China can be accused of many cruelties. The gas chamber is not one of them. Yet the Uighurs are being ethnically and religious persecuted. Their identity and culture isbeing eradicated. The evidence does amount to genocide, as defined by the UN’s Genocide Convention, established as a result of the Holocaust, as “acts committed with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” to “bring about its physical destruction”.
A recent report by Jewish human rights group René Cassin bears this out: “Former detainees shared stories of torture, medical experimentation, forced sterilisation, abortion, sexual humiliation and rape. Women are forced to eat pork, a food forbidden in Islam, attend political re-education classes and sing political songs, in attempt at a Uighur cultural genocide.”
China’s methods and motivation are eerily familiar. This week, accusing it of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the fate of the Uighurs “reminiscent of something not seen for a long time”. Confronted on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday with footage of bound and blindfolded Uighurs forced onto trains, China’s UK ambassador Liu Xiaoming channelled the spirit of Comical Ali by insisting it was faked by “so-called” western intelligence and Uighurs lived a “happy life” in a “beautiful” part of the country. Such surreal hogwash would be amusing if it wasn’t so horrific.
China might be an economic superpower, but it can be held legally and morally accountable. Last week two Uighur groups in exile filed evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, accusing more than 30 high-ranking Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, of genocide and crimes against humanity. An inter-Parliamentary alliance of MPs and MEPs has been launched to co-ordinate the international response, which could see Chinese officials having their UK assets frozen and banned from entering the country. And a petition to impose sanctions, championed by British-Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz, will be considered for a debate in Parliament after collecting 122,000 signatures.
You can sign it at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/300146
Symbolic gestures are also important. Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has called for London to end its twinned status with Beijing.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews and Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) are among those moving people to action. The Board’s president Marie van Der Zyl wrote to Ambassador Xiaoming on Monday, pointing out “similarities” between what is happening to the Uighur people and the crimes of Nazi Germany and warning “China risks squandering its achievements and sabotaging its own legacy if it fails to learn the lessons of history”.
When we talk about learning the lessons of the Holocaust, it’s not simply a matter of reading history books. It’s about recognising when history risks repetition. The world knows where segregation and exploitation can lead. Inaction is not an option.
When Jews see the bound and blindfolded put on trains to concentration camps, they hear the chilling echoes of the past and mourn the broken branches of their own family trees. And they ask the question the civilised world failed to ask 75 years ago: If we stand idly by while an entire race is being erased for who they are, then who are we?
• First published in The Times