‘The Past is Repeating Itself’

uyghur-washington-march-april-2019-crop.jpg Supporters gather at a rally in Washington calling on the Trump administration to take action against China for repressive policies in Xinjiang, April 6, 2019.

Sami Steigmann, 79, is a Holocaust survivor who was held at the Mogilev-Podolsky labor camp in the Ukraine between the ages of two and five with his parents, from 1941-1944. While he was too young to work at the camp, he was subjected to Nazi medical experiments and still suffers from side effects today. After the camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army he and his family relocated to Transylvania, where they spent nearly 20 years before immigrating to Israel in 1961. Steigmann eventually moved to New York in 1988, and now campaigns against genocide and cultural eradication.

On April 6, 2019, he joined hundreds gathered in Washington in urging the Trump administration to sanction those responsible for human rights violations in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). He recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service about why the international community must come together to end the kind of persecution now underway in the XUAR, where authorities have held an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a network of political “re-education camps” since April 2017.

RFA: Would you please tell us when you hear about the Uyghur situation, what does it remind you of?

Steigmann: One of the things that is happening in the world is that there is a lot of hatred. People have forgotten how to disagree in a civil way. In this day and age, we have not learned enough about what happened during the Holocaust—the darkest period in human history. There is no room for an individual or a group of people to suffer the discrimination, persecution, intimidation, and being forced to give up their heritage and their culture.

RFA: Why do you support the Uyghurs?

Steigmann: I support them because, as a Holocaust survivor, we suffered. Nobody can [bear] that by themselves. The problem that happened with the Holocaust is that the world stood by and nobody helped us. So I am a strong believer that we have to help each other, and the whole world is of one race—the human race. We are all people. The only difference is that we have different cultures and different opinions, but we have to learn to respect each other.

Sami Steigmann at a rally in support of Uyghurs in Washington, April 6, 2019. Credit: RFA
Sami Steigmann at a rally in support of Uyghurs in Washington, April 6, 2019. Credit: RFA
RFA: What do you think about the world’s reaction to this issue, now that it’s been happening for nearly two years? Why do you think the global community needs to do more?

Steigmann: In my particular case … I did not know anything about the Uyghur people, and I believe that most of the people around the world do not know about this particular problem. So one of the things I would suggest is that young Uyghur people should go to schools and universities and talk about the plight that [Uyghurs] are suffering so that everybody will become aware of the problem.

RFA: We hear that the Chinese government is forcing people to stay in camps. What do you believe they are doing [to them] there?

Steigmann: What they want to do is have the people who are in the camps give up their own culture and to adapt to Chinese culture. There is no room for that in this century. We have to learn from the past because, as you can see, the past is repeating itself.

Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA's Uyghur Service.

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