Interview with Prof. Dr. Joaquín Gonzáles Ibáñez on the occasion of the presentation of the autobiography of Raphael Lemkin
By Dr. Irmtrud Wojak
Today, 21 January 2019, the Spanish translation of the autobiography of the lawyer Raphael Lemkin, “Totalmente Extraoficial. Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin”, will be presented in Madrid. On this occasion, we spoke with Joaquín Gonzáles Ibáñez, who translated the book. Prof. J. Gonzáles Ibáñez is co-director of the Berg-Institute where the book was published, and has spared no effort in making the autobiography of Lemkin accessible to a Spanish-speaking audience.
JGI: Let me explain to you, what Berg Institute is and what we do here. Berg Institute was founded in 2008 by a group of scholars, a group of friends, who were involved in the protection of international human rights victims in the field, especially in Colombia, but also in Mexico, Israel and Palestine. We thought we needed to create, besides what we do as academics who research and study at university, a practical approach to human rights protection. So from 2003 we ran a program for professionals in Germany, Otzenhausen, called “Human Rights in Context: Europe”. And we also wanted to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela. The name of Berg Institute comes from one of the wonderful passages from his autobiography. In the epilogue, Nelson Mandela says, life is like climbing a hill or a mountain, it´s hard, you have to be constant, you have to thrive to keep on pushing far. And what happens when you reach the top? When you reach the top, the landscape is a view of many other mountains and high picks, even higher from where you look at. So life is a constant thrive and our lives are worth to take a walk up to the mountains and strive to have a HUMAN LIFE.
The most infamous moments in the last two centuries were precisely created by Europeans
That´s why we decided to do this and remind of Nelson Mandela. And that´s why in politics or human rights, Mandela is always present. So, we decided in the Berg Institute to develop several programs for professionals. The program in Israel and Palestine and in Europe, which we run as a fourteen-day program and we go through the international institutions in Europe. But also we go to those sites, where we as Europeans can ask ourself who we are and what we have done. We always refer to the historic perspective, that probably the three worst legacies in the last centuries, the darkest hours, the darkest chapters, the most infamous moments in the last two centuries in world history were precisely created by Europeans. What I mean are the legacy of colonialism and fascism, all of them are European creations. So, Franco, Mussolini and Hitler and other historical characters are as European as van Gogh, Goya or Picasso. And in this program, we start with Auschwitz and we go to the Modern Art Reina Sofía Museum to encounter the Guernica from Picasso. And we have this tool, which is a legal approach, but also historical, political and in the end, these is a human right program on leadership. The idea is how you can create public value being human rights your inspiration. And besides, if you are a democracy your main responsibility is to redimension the opportunities of your own citizens, which means having recognition and access to human rights and to strengthen human rights policies. In the case of we Europeans, we must act on a national level, at the EU level and trying to project in our deeds and programs our democratic values in the policies to the rest of the world.
So we have developed for the last seven years, we think the most important human rights library in the Spanish language. And in 2017 we decided to create a new collection of books. Not focusing on international human rights law, which is quite technical, but we wanted to amplify the spectrum of our readers. And because of the number one collection is Primo Levi´s Trilogy of Auschwitz, this is the cradle of the project, this is the first book of the collection, number zero, we were lucky to have the best departure point. In 2017, we were able to cooperate with Yale University Press to translate and publish for the first time the Autobiography of Rafael Lemkin. Originally published in English, Lemkin wrote it in English, though it was not his mother tongue. So I was lucky to be the translator and the editor and we created a new book with seventy extra pages in comparison to the original version from Yale University Press that includes a big annex with photography’s and also with the prologue of the Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina. It also contains a legal annex and some extra documentation about the international convention for the prevention and punishment of genocide.
It´s not about Auschwitz or the Second World War, it´s about what is ahead of us
IW: And how did the idea came up to start with Primo Levi and the second book you thought should be Rafael Lemkin?
JGI: Well, I think I would lie if I say to you that everything was on our agenda. We started in 2010 with Primo Levi´s classical work of the Auschwitz Trilogy. We reached a special agreement with the editing house and we have our special cover and edition, also with Antonio Muñoz Molina´s prologue. And we received the support from Levi´s family. Three years ago, we did a new edition, which is hardcover, it became something like an identity to us. And, why Primo Levi? Because it´s the core of the whole issue on how to start the process of protecting human rights after the efficiency and success of the denial and destruction of human life and dignity. It´s not just, in my opinion, the most relevant book, because it has the legitimacy and the way it is written. It has the experience of a direct victim and it´s not based on vengeance or a demoniacal approach, but it´s a fairly analytical perspective. But in the end, if you read the trilogy, specially If this is a Man and The Saved and the Sunk, which is the last part. It´s about how democratic societies should work in order to prevent those kinds of situations. So, in the end, it´s always a lesson on how to understand, identify and act against similar patterns that have occurred and will occur to humanity. And for us, it is the perfect reference for our work. But also a wonderful combination to use the legacy of Primo Levi to understand all the international material that has been built in order to avoid the situation described by him. And it´s not about Auschwitz or the Second World War, it´s about what is ahead of us and why we are unable to stop: the events that took place in Rwanda or what happened in Cambodia or many other genocide cases or serious human rights violations. So Primo Levi was like a compass for the future. A warning voice on how to address and identify the future threats to human dignitiy and act with responsibility to our fellow human beings, communities and nations. Going to Auschwitz hand in hand with Primo Levi, it shows you not just the past, but what are your main responsibilities towards planet earth. And if you are a democracy and believe in human rights, you have to have a proactive approach and that´s not enough. Even awareness is not enough, because that also means to be proactive, having a voice and being a part of a complex process of national and international justice.
I dreamt of my heroes, Lemkin, Primo Levi, of course Beate and Serge Klarsfeld and finally, Fritz Bauer
So Primo Levi was like the core of the whole process and why Lemkin? Me as a professor, I´m always trying to understand and to learn. And three years ago, I read this book by chance. I knew the two lines, the basic references about his life and that he coined the term genocide. But I decided to share the book with a friend and it all started here: this is some kind of joke, but it happened this way, I read the book, I was fascinated and I wanted to share the book with a friend of mine, which is one of the co-dierctors of Berg-Institut, Javier López de Goicoechea Zabala. But he just speaks Latin and Greek, so I wasn´t able to share that extraordinary world that Lemkin depicts in his autobiography. So, we contacted Yale and we explained our project. Of course, we had a great deal of publications in international human rights, so they supported our idea and we were really happy. And that was the start up of a vision that it´s been kept growing and we think with the help of friends and institutions like BUXUS STIFTUNG the best is to come. Lemkin in the number 1 of the collection and number 10 will be your biography of Fritz Bauer. I am happy and proud of this achievement of bringing to the Spanish reader the ethical and legal legacy of Fritz Bauer.
I personally dreamt of my heroes, Lemkin, Primo Levi, of course, Klarsfeld and finally, Fritz Bauer. But also, we have included in the collection the book Once upon a time a Country. A Palestinian life by Sari Nusseibeh. Also, we are working in something special about the Civil War in Spain and the post-civil war and the trauma and the punitive and infamous legacy of Franco´s dictatorship and the luck of a democratic response during the last 40 years of Spanish democracy. We didn´t have in Spain any agenda designed when the Spanish transition unfolded on how to address the human rights violations and crimes of Franco´s dictatorship from 1939 to 1975. Probably few people thought about this necessary scenario.
When we started the book collection in 2010 all was about international law and for the first time, we will have the opportunity to look at the sensibility of a larger scope of readers, who will understand a narrative much richer than we are used to and everything will be for the cause of human rights. We are also very happy, and that´s something that’s very beautiful to us, that Lemkin was not translated into German. So, we decided, once again with Yale, and Yale supported our idea, and we will not do the Yale version, but we will follow the Berg Institute Spanish version, which has 70 extra pages included new photographs and documents from Lemkin´s archives. And we know that the German public will be really interested and I´m happy to tell to the public that Irmtrud Wojak will do the introduction for the German book. So, for us, it´s very promising and we are aware of this opportunity. On a personal basis, from my personal perspective, I am not a translator, I am an international law professor, but I speak several languages and I am interested in that process of uniting the dots of a large narrative on human rights that we refer as a sophisticated vision. I have participated in some projects as translator of technical legal books and I had some articles translated from professor John Pocock, the New Zealander historian from the Cambridge School. I have participated with professor Eloy García López in the translation of Pocock´s epic book The Machiavellian moment, I translated part of the book, but also translated some other articles. I felt specially fortunate when I translated from French into Spanish the most important intellectual of the III French Republic, Emile de Chartiers, better known in French history after the name of Alain and his book The citizen againts the power (Propos sur le povoir). And, now after Lemkin´s Autobiography, I am currently translating Antonio Cassese´s book L´esperienza del male who talks about the challenges of human rights in our globalized society. Lemkin to me was some kind of inspiration, and kind of must, but I did not perceive it as a challenge.
Now that Lemkin´s book has been published I like to share this story. While I worked on the translation, I continued to perform my other personal and academic activities. I kept on doing my job, travelling and teaching and I had to wake up in the mornings early, for almost one year, and the story is – and this is true – , that Lemkin was helping me in my house. Whenever I went upstairs at home and reached the library, Rapahel Lemkin was waiting for me, just to check on my commitment and whispering that my work was necessary to give him voice and I should keep translating day after day… And some months later I shared this real story with Donna-Lee Frieze, which is the editor-author of the autobiography. She spent almost four years during different research periods at the New York Library in order decipher the handwriting of Lemkin and she made the final layout of the autobiography. And she told me this story that I really liked. There is a wonderful documentary, WATCHERS OF THE SKY, which our university and Berg has translated the subtitles into Spanish and we are also very happy with this outcome. Donna-Lee told me this other anecdote about some members of the film crew who started to encounter Lemkin as a real figure the same way I did. Every day I started to translate at 5.30 a.m. Lemkin was waiting for me in my library in the penthouse at home. So, as I said, it was Lemkin, who was inspiring us, or he was asking us, not to give up and to keep on. And apart from enjoying the nuances of the intelligence and humour of Lemkin, it was also a wonderful experience, because I was writing not just the text of Lemkin, but I wanted to write the whole thing to understand his autobiography.
The idea of “We humanity”
Lemkin also brought me new ideas. Also for me, as a Spaniard and a “madrileño” – citizen from Madrid – everything started in Madrid. Because Lemkin, the very origin of his idea about the protection of human groups was presented for the very first time in October of 1933. The week before he was about to departure to Madrid, he was not allowed to participate in the conference. The reasons are not very clear, but reportedly he as a civil servant working at the Ministry of Justice was not trusted. He was a high ranking officer and served as public prosecutor of the city of Warsaw. Lemkin was banned to attend the Madrid conference by the Minister of Justice based on anti-Semite prejudices; the Minister thought that Lemkin was acting in the name of the Jewish community and not the official Polish police. Nevertheless, Lemkin managed to circulate the paper in the Madrid Conference and I was very happy to find the original document at the Spanish National Library. And there you could see the core idea of how we should protect human groups in international law. At that time in Madrid, he did not have a legal concept associated to a new name for an old crime. It came later on, in 1943 when he published his classic work Axis Rule in occupied Europe, which is not in the proper technical sense a book, but a translation of German Nazi Decrees in the European occupied territories. So, in chapter nine and the introduction, you can see written the word genocide and he explains, how he reached and coined this neologism. Me as a European, as it´s in the Spanish introduction of Raphael Lemkin´s autobiography, I wanted to underline the great universal height of Lemkin as a humanist. Under my perception Lemkin was not just a regular professional of the legal world, but he was an intellectual in the best tradition of European culture. He spoke twelve languages, first he had introductory studies of linguistics and philosophy and later he studied law. And also besides being Polish, Jew and being aware of his background he always spoke about “humanity”, and he had the vision and generosity to overcome some prejudices. The first one was about his heritage. He thought that belonging to a group, which is the Jewish community in Central Europe, but he, for the very first moment of his life, when he was six, seven, he understood, regardless where you come from, regardless your language, regardless your faith, regardless your ethnicity you belong to a community, which is much stronger than that. He called that “humanity as a whole”. And that is why Lemkin, in a way, he revolutionized, not only the language, but at the same time he also protected all human beings regardless their origin, language, heritage, etc. Human beings should be protected not just because they have passports, but by the mere fact of being human beings that belong to a unique, a common spicy. So, when you think about nationalism, Lemkin is not well treated, because he represents a threat to a strong vision of national sovereignty and he was asking for something larger. In the autobiography, it is amazing when you realize that 49 members of his family were killed in the genocide, included his parents exterminated in Treblinka, and he never said anything in the name of Jewish people, but he always referred to the idea of “We Humanity”, a common and unique human group.
IW: So, he was not a religious person?
JGI: No, I think, in my opinion he was an agnostic person. (…) I think you cannot see it from his writing, but probably, he was an agnostic. He was very proud of his Jewish heritage, loved the Jewish history, the Hebrew language and his genuine history. But we will always have this confusion when it comes to the use of the term ‘race’. In one of the footnotes, in a long footnote, I explained, even when the genocide convention was approved, in the legal terminology on 1946-1948, it was still used the term ‘race’. And the only race that exists is the homo sapiens. And we all belong to this syndicate! What we identify as race is what we understand now as ethnicity. A specific group with an identification in historic legacy and linguistic bound. But nothing to do with a biological sphere. He belonged to the Jewish European group, probably not assimilated in the national culture, and he showed his pride of being part of that heritage. It was very beautiful when he talked about the human language and he mentions the concept and how they were intertwined and rooted in history et cetera. He was the very product of that immense Jewish tradition. And also not just the stories he listened as a child and the songs his mother used to sing. But you can see that was part of him. He knew where he came from and I he ascertained that part of his identity was rediscovered, when he looked other humans and he clearly perceived the direct link that reminds us that we are part of the same aspiration of dignity, freedom, and peace. And because of what happened during history, mistreatment of minorities, human rights violations and discrimination, he did not say that specifically, but when you read the book, probably the most unique thing that we human beings produce is culture. Compared with the rest of the animal kingdom, we product this thing called culture. Which is a thing with which we used to discriminate other people. Our religion, our language, our tradition, et cetera. He said precisely we have to overcome this, because the idea is that there is a constant in human history, that we repeat over and over and over that kind of behaviour. Antonio Muñoz Molina, he mentions this in the prologue of the Spanish edition in such a nice way, when he asks, why has this happened in history? It has happened because we know it was there, it was something real, but we could not fight against that, because we missed the term, the word that could conceptualize the crime. So what Lemkin accomplished first, was a unique capacity to trace this kind of atrocities throughout history. And he realized that if we name the conduct and identify the perpetrators and the victims it will be easy to identify the same scenario throughout human history. This kind of conduct can serve as a basis to create a legal framework to avoid this precise kind of conduct which is criminal. So, it was very interesting for Lemkin, because he realized that in order to be effective, he needed to create a parameter and that parameter was a word, a new concept in semantics: genocide. It was like a catalyst to propel the human rights machinery.
Lemkin made me think and he lead me and reminded me the ideas and lessons of Viktor Klemperer, in his book The language of the Third Reich, Klemperer affirmed – and I think he is right – that the first victim of a conflict is the language we use. Because you change or you modulate and alter the meaning of words that depict the reality that is not the one that it is used to be, but one that came out of it forced by political intentions. Lemkin when he created the word, and that is important, because he did that on a personal basis and he introduced a new paradigm, and this is very important; when he created the word genocide, he was sometimes challenging conventional wisdom in the sense that you normally play the rules that are already given and you accept the rules. But when you are creating a new crime, with a new word you are creating a new scenario. And that provokes concern and incentive, because you are introducing a new element.
So Lemkin was in a kind of way, he was a shortcut to a voice of the diplomatic intricacies, the political fights and I like to bring here also George Orwell that pounded me when I was translating the book and writing the comments. If you read 1984, Big Brother (BB), in order to control society, he took out of the dictionary every week some words. So, the less number of words you have to elaborate your thoughts, the less free you are, because you have a reduced way to think, because you have less words, less concepts. So, this idea of I control people through the capacity to reason and of course, words are a concept that enable your capacity to imagine different scenarios, Lemkin was acting the other way around. It was not like he deleted terms from the dictionary to make people poorer in their thought. But it was the other way around, he was creating new terms to think in new dimensions and he was able to provide new scenarios. If you have the linguistic part and you incorporate the legal one, you create “unchartered territory”. It is not unusual to provoke reactions and activate new fights. So, for Lemkin at those times, after the Second World War, not only he was he challenging international law, but he was promoting the idea of focusing on human beings regardless their passport. But at the same time, this new territory needed new international law. So, the convention is also something that is the outcome of some political visions.
Lemkin also put into practice a new interesting tactic in international law. The UN Charter introduced the concept of equality among nations in the sense of legal equality. One country, one vote. So Lemkin thought, if I want to accomplish this idea of a new legal order and the creation of a convention, I need to have the support of the international community. And he said, the vote of the Soviet Union or the vote of the U.K, or the vote of the U.S.A counts as much as the vote of Panama or Cuba. And he started with the small nations, knocked on every door. And he also recalled about the history of each country he lobbied to get its support. You see the book about Haiti and other nations. And he started with that so today we have the genocide convention because Cuba, Panama and India supported Lemkin´s narrative at the UN General Assembly, it was a group of small nations. That is also the lesson that your tactics can be implemented within the right strategy. And for him it was not about the big fellow or the big partner, it was about the numbers. So, I will have it passing the resolution in the UN and the second part will be ratification, which will be the hard part, I need to have a minimum number for the convention. And that was in general terms, the legacy of Lemkin. Lemkin helped us to understand that we can create new scenarios for conflict resolution, that you can create new ways of protecting the human rights, new ways that are not written. Like the quotation “imagination is the strongest nation on earth”. One of the legacies for Lemkin is, it is not only about the law, it is about education, it´s about persuasion, it is about inviting all the people, all the sensibilities in a common purpose.
And today, with this strong filing of nationalism at the epoch – thinking of both sides of the Atlantic – and the peculiar Lemkin´s analysis and thoughts, you end up surprised how a person could achieve such a goal. In the end you understand that it was his imagination, it was his capacity to imagine scenarios.
For me, there was a personal feeling, a private issue with the peculiar human figure of Lemkin, and I think that any person can be identified with these words I am going to mention now regarding the Lemkin´s peculiarities. Because he was special, he was peculiar, he reminded me of the people I had seen in life and I neglected them or did not pay attention at all. And I think about, I thought about that I probably had been unfair to some of my friends at the school, because they were very rare and special in their vision, in their attitude, in the things they like. And they pass by and you did not take them into consideration. They were very good in what they do, but they were strange people. And I have something in mind, I remember when we were teenagers and your sexual orientation defines you and I remember homosexuals, friends of mine, that they were not appreciated in the class, but I remember, they had their own way. So, there were people, that did not pass the exams because they had other “better interests or goals in life”, and they were focused, and they just wanted to do that. And now I understand they were right. So, someone who was a very good carpenter, but he was not understood. And I thought, that person could have been an artist or a real artisan. All of them have something related to Lemkin.
So how many people pass by through our lives and no one notices. And we do not care. And I have seen some Lemkins in my life. And to me it is important, because I had the chance to vindicate these people that I probably did not pay that much attention, even as a child and sometimes I think as a professor. Probably I have been unfair not understanding the qualities and the reasons and the charisma of some students. Lemkin, he was the one who was nagging me, that is the point. He said, because I am doing this, how many other people were not successful? Even he ended up in a very tragic position, his story is a positive success in the sense that he was successful because he accomplished the approval of the Genocide Convention, and he sacrificed his entire life for it. I am now not to tell the reader how it ends and I do not want to unveil the story, but he passed away poor, he was almost a beggar, asking for support from his friends.
IW: How could this happen? For many years he had this success with the convention and then he had to die in this way in New York in the street?
JGI: Well that is the point. I mentioned Antonio Muñoz Molina because when I talked to him about the idea, I get him the book we discussed about it. We decided that we should bring Lemkin´s life and legacy into peoples´ lives, because he was renowned and heard in International Law circles and sometimes, he was forgotten on purpose. So how many people do you ask about Lemkin and they are not aware of his mere existence? 99 percent? That is one of the nicest things about Lemkin, how many ethical lessons we can draw from him. How many legal? Lots of them. So, the question is, regardless, and this is the possible part, he would be happy, regardless that he is not a common character in public opinion et cetera. What he understood, what he protected, what he accomplished is part of our lives. Even in a terrific spectrum, which is genocide. But genocide in a way, the convention is the only and the best way we have created to prevent, protect from this crime and eventually sanction the perpetrators.
So the legacy of Lemkin is still unfolding, the sensibility, for the first time in history, even if it is not working as it should, but we have for the first time a president who is in office, Omar Al-Bashir, President of Sudan was indicted in 2009 for the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of war, although Al Bashir has been pushing and acting beyond international obligations. In a way, in the core of this idea is that we can not let ourselves to create any sphere of impunity and we accomplish that through proper international criminal proceeding. It was because of Lemkin and the idea of preventing the crime and fighting against impunity. Democratic societies, they consolidate in a way, because we are committed legally and politically to the idea that in order to have peace, in order to have stability, truth, memory and justice, you must avoid impunity and respect human rights. This is not an option, it is a must, because otherwise, we will not create sustainable societies. Sustainable, peaceful and fair societies, kind of reasoning, against malice´s in the realm of international law is that one.
IW: And do you think he started with his project because he was a survivor himself?
JGI: That is a good question. In his life, he, we went to different stages and some of them are more critical than others, in his autobiography he has a revelation, when he understands that the superficial life of being a lawyer and earning a lot of money and talking abut the same things all the time – about money and prestige -, he decided to renounce to that and to work for something greater than that life. He always was afraid to be a refugee. And he was a refugee on the spot, when the Second World War was declared. Of course, how many people are victims? And they decide to have a life and catch up with ordinary life and to have family and to have some comfort. I think the question is, and I believe in this analysis, that he understood that he could work throughout his life in order to avoid other people to become victims of genocide.
IW: The idea is, you think, you have to be a victim to start a proactive engagement for human rights? How can you engage people for human rights without being victims or survivors?
JGI: I think that is a very good question. In the case of Lemkin, of course that was a catalyzer to understand his meaning in life. There is a part where he mentions that he never felt like a victim, although his parents, his uncles, his cousins had been killed in Treblinka. He never considered himself to be a victim, but he proclaimed that I am someone who has an extra responsibility.
I do not think you have to be a victim to serve the cause of human right. And that is my case. I always say that I work with victims, I know what a victim is. But I can say I am lucky enough not to have gone through that and I am not a victim. Probably what you need is empathy. And what I have learnt is that what you need to develop is the skill, your listening and commitment skill. But the empathy to listen to other human beings is just the first part. A victim will be near to share with you the drama.
IW: I agree with you, you need empathy to understand the side of a victim. But empathy alone does not help.
Everyone who believes in democracy has to be a human rights defender
JGI: No, but it is a process. That was my point, that once you are aware of the situation, you in your position understand, what kind of leverage you have. I am not saying that you have to be a professional or that you have to be an activist, I do not like the idea of activist. Everyone who believes in democracy has to be a human rights defender, or at least respect human rights. So, the thing is that empathy which literally means, from Latin, to feel in the same way, to place yourself in the position of others is the first part of this process. So, empathy does not only mean to understand the other, but what would happen, if I, if I was the victim, I know I would not make it. I have seen so many situations, I always asked myself and I still do that, I probably would not have the courage or the capacity like the victims that I see. Especially with children, their dramas; I have two children. I think that I never in my case, I would not make it. I try to be objective and understand the situation. So, my response is a natural one. This is something, that should not happen. And this is something created by human beings, so the answer is something created by human action. So, it is like Mandela used to say, “poverty does not exist in nature. It is human made.” So, the question is, I can be part of the solution. I have the dimension and the leverage of being an escolar,that is for me the most effective way. And apart from that, I am a law professor, I have an instrument for freedom and responsibility, which is the law, to make it efficient. So, the second part is you have a voice, you have a choice and only throughout history you learn, it is not someone else, who will do the action that will change the course of history. In my course I have personal references, I have no choice, but to follow and keep on the legacy of other colleagues and specially what I have learnt from victims of Human Rights violations. I have so many victims in mind and in my soul. How can you betray these friends, these people, or even these people that you do not know by remaining silent? And I realized that you become someone uncomfortable for many people. I have seen that. I have seen that specifically in Colombia. So, in a way, it is an ethical response and it is also about my parents and my family. Probably because you don´t have another choice. Justice and probably the ethics of justice in human rights has to do with how can you enlarge other people´s choices, dignity, opportunities, by embracing this idea of we are all equal.
Everyone is different but with the same rights and responsibilities and the capacity to change our destinies
Of course, everyone is different but with the same rights and responsibilities and the capacity to change our destinies. It would be quite irresponsible not to be part of that decision. And if we could do this kind of analysis to most of the people you encounter in your life, they will start thinking about their parents. My parents, who are human beings, they gave my everything, full generosity, love and empathy. But I see my grandfather, who was in jail, and my other grandfather, who did not fight in the war, but he was an extraordinary wise good human being himself. The question is, and I think this a little bit an interpretation of what you do in the sense that if you have the opportunities, what are they for? And I think, I know how it is to not have opportunities. You can see when you travel. When you see different contexts out of Europe, where you do not have the possibility to choose. I do not think, as a matter of fact, victims are not the best, efficient human rights defenders. They can be important symbols and motivation, but that does not mean that will be more efficient in prompting people and institutions to respect human rights. I would say that probably the more important are those people who are not visible to us, people, who have not had the chance to speak to everyone, but they are generous, they respect the law, they really believe in equality of rights and no discrimination and everyday they fulfil their vision. I always mention about secondary and high school teachers. The way they treat everyone in an adequate way, a way they enhance the potential of everyone, they are leaders. We do not see them in newspapers or in front of the camera. I have had teachers at school who are my heroes in the sense that they never expected to do anything more than to do the right thing. And human rights is just to, the first part is to know what is right and wrong, then there is a little machinery to do that. But it is true that you have to interpret what your responsibilities are and this is important, probably I realize that I was lucky and had the opportunities to study, have a proper house and proper food. And I have seen a lot of people of my age in other countries, that they were not lucky and probably they became criminals. I know some cases. Or they just are not as free to choose, because they were not allowed to study. So, to be involved in human rights is not about you, it is about what you recreate in society. It is not about me that I have already had all the opportunities, but it is about other people who do not enjoy the same opportunities you did, because they were not from a family, that enjoyed all the opportunities. Probably they will not be as vulnerable as other people. And that is probably, when you think about human rights, it is not about you. The idea of justice is not about you, it is about what happens around you. And this is also a key factor to bear always in mind: where, who, how, what and why.
The idea of solidarity is not just something alien but is probably the most revolutionary thing
IW: Let me ask you one more question about the Fritz Bauer Library of Remembrance and Human Rights. You know about the project and when you are talking about your story and Lemkin and Spain, I was thinking, whom would you like to see as part of the interactive library from Spain?
JGI: I think probably these unknown teachers, that managed to explain and to make feel to all children – “those little human beings” – that they have potential to be citizens and whatever they can dream of, it can be accomplished. I am not thinking about politicians, I am thinking about those people I have known. And I think our societies are made out of that fabric and we do not really acknowledge them. I always think about the people who wanted to study but could not. But they are more efficient than many professors, they lecture with their commitment, their example. So, I do not have in mind a specific person, but I would like people to realize that we enjoy free societies not because we have a super president and government, but it is because you have institutions that work. Societies are a very rich spectrum. For instance as a European, as a Spaniard, I am really proud of that we are irrationally solidarian, generous, and at the same time, unfortunately, we are intolerant in many ways, but that idea of solidarity, I think, that is the most important thing we have ever created. And even we start to think that it is not only an ethical commitment, but it is a leadership question and it is something probably that we Europeans are different from the rest. I like to believe that is not wishful thinking but now Europe is not giving the best fortunate examples if we take into account what has happened with the crisis of refugees from Syria, Africa, the new Government of Italy and the ones in Poland and Hungary. The idea of solidarity is not just something alien but is probably the most revolutionary thing. And we apply that every day, even if we do not realize this moment that probably passes every day. I will think about those unknown persons, victims. And I think about the persons who gave their life to create a basis for our democracy. I like to explain with a metaphor the idea of human rights and democracy to some young people. First, I remind them that you have to be involved in politics, you have to be involved in public affairs, you have to be involved and be part of the aspiration of a world based on justice, responsibility and solidarity, because this was gained, this was conquered, this was fought by many other people. So we enjoy a legacy from our previous generations and I think those are the people that we never have in mind. And I think that is really a human rights defender.
I want to finish with a story, it always moves me to tears. I am always thinking about my mother in the sense of the person that I am, what I am because of my mother. When I received my baccalaureate, at the age of fourteen years old, I received my degree with my mother when she was 45, because she was not able to do it before, to study before. So, how can I explain, how could anyone explain, what my mother was doing for everyone of us? So, that would be my last comment. I do not know if it was really rhetorical, but it contained the whole idea. It is probably to rhetorical, I do not know if it was probably to personal to put in there. (…)
IW: It was wonderful.
Interview: Dr. Irmtrud Wojak (BUXUS STIFTUNG gGmbH)
Film: Jakob Gatzka
Photo: Rafael Lemkin, unknown author, Center for Jewish History, NYC