There were two holocausts. The one that is acknowledged and commemorated and the one that has long been hidden: the Ethiopian holocaust.
"Mussolini attached spraying mechanisms to planes that the pope blessed and sprayed poisonous mustard gas over Ethiopia," says Imani Nyah, organizer of the Ethiopian Holocaust Remembrance Committee. "This happened three years before the European holocaust. Our position is that had the League of Nations decided to stop the aggressions of Italy, the extermination of the Jewish people would never have occurred."
The Ethiopian holocaust resulted from Benito Mussolini's attempt to expand his African empire beyond Somaliland and Eritrea. Other European countries had carved up most of Africa and he was scrambling for a larger share. In 1934, Mussolini initiated his move against Ethiopia in a minor border incident, prompting emperor Haile Selassie to appeal to the League of Nations for mediation. Britain and France ignored his request for assistance; Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Churchill later admitted that the invasion helped build Mussolini's great power.
The conflict that followed has been described by eyewitnesses as not a war but the torture and slaughter of thousands of people. Selassie went into exile in Britain and, in the speech that he became most famous for, argued for help before shamed representatives of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1936.
"I, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim . . . the justice that is due my people and the assistance promised to it eight months ago by 52 nations who asserted that an act of aggression had been committed in violation of international treaties," he declared. He concluded prophetically, "It is us today. It will be you tomorrow."
Today, Nyah carries on the plea for recognition of the Ethiopian massacre. "When we saw that the Ethiopian holocaust was not included in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it was like a slap in the face," she says. "We decided to tackle the issue." She formed the Ethiopian Holocaust Remembrance Committee in January 1993, pulling together a 4-member executive board and a 12-member board of advisers from four countries.
The museum asked Nyah to prove her claim of mass extermination of Ethiopians by Italian invaders. After submitting a paper on the topic, Nyah compared the two tragedies in a letter to the executive director. "Both holocausts involved mass exterminations carried out by poisonous gas, both were state-funded, one by Germany and one by Italy, and both intended to completely exterminate masses of people based solely on ethnic origins and/or racial identity."
"The only difference," wrote Nyah, "is that one was boldy carried out before the world and sanctioned by the Vatican and the other was secretly carried out and not discovered until after World War II."
Gently flipping through a crumbling 24-page pamphlet entitled Italian Atrocities in Ethiopia, Nyah slowly shakes her head. Its horrific photos, published by survivor Sylvia Pankhurst in 1941, offer a rare testimony to the crimes. There's a picture of an Italian soldier smoking a cigarette as he holds a severed head above clusters of decapitated Ethiopian bodies; a child covered in blood with his mutilated hand detached and lying at his side; a portable gallows simultaneously hanging seven people; scores of skulls and bones found in an Addis Ababa well; and Ethiopians struggling under cattle yokes as they are led to their death. One caption reads, "Blood was literally streaming down the streets and the corpses of men, women, and children over which vultures hovered were lying in all directions."
Nyah, a Rastafarian and 46-year-old mother of six, works within the prison system to educate chaplains on Rastafarian theology. She writes and produces cable TV shows on the topic.
It was during her talks in prison and elsewhere that Nyah discovered the lack of awareness about the Ethiopian holocaust. "I would touch on it as a tenet of the faith and people always wanted to know more," she recalls. "The more I researched, the more I found how much has been hidden.
"This happened only 58 years ago," says Nyah, waving her open hands. "We're talking about the murder of civilians, men, women, and children, the burning alive of people in their huts, publicly executing priests and bishops, and burning monks alive in their churches. People need to know about this."
On Saturday Nyah will lecture on "The Destruction of Judah: The Ethiopian Holocaust of 1936-1941." The free talk, along with an exhibit of the photos from Pankhurst's book, runs from 1 to 6 at the north entrance to Jackson Park Harbor, 6401 S. Lake Shore Drive. Call 752-1071.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.