Ellen J. Kennedy: Jews to Madagascar, Rohingya to Bhasan Char

22January 2021

On Dec. 4 the government of Bangladesh put 1,642 Rohingya Muslims onto seven naval vessels and took them 30 miles out into the Bay of Bengal to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited pile of silt in the ocean that is vulnerable to flooding, and left them there.

On Dec. 28, four ships carried 1,804 more Rohingya to sea.

The Rohingya were taken from a refugee camp in Bangladesh where nearly a million Rohingya are living.  They fled from their home country of Myanmar to escape rape, torture, and murder by Myanmar’s military. The UN calls this Muslim minority group “the most persecuted people on Earth.” The Bangladeshi government calls them unwanted.

This is like a plan that Hitler had for the Jews.

Hitler wanted a Europe free of Jews, “Judenrein.” The challenge was how to get rid of 9 million Jews.

Although Jews were only 0.7% of Germany’s population in 1933 when Hitler came to power, hatred toward Jews was a rallying theme for the Nazi party and, eventually, for Nazi supporters in German-occupied countries throughout Europe.

The extent of Jew-hatred manifested itself in burning books by Jewish scholars, eliminating narratives of the Old Testament from Christian bibles, destroying Jewish businesses, appropriating Jews’ bank accounts and other assets, excluding Jews from all professions, prohibiting Jews from schools, universities, hospitals, libraries, and other public institutions, forbidding Jews to marry non-Jews, and stripping Jews of their citizenship.

But the big question was how to get rid of the Jews themselves.

At first Jews were encouraged to leave Germany. By 1939, when World War II began, around 250,000 of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had fled to the United States, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Palestine, and other countries.

But what to do with the 200,000 Jews still in Germany? To make the problem more urgent, Germany had invaded Poland, home to 3 million Jews. In 1940 France fell to Germany; and there were 340,000 more Jews living in France.

Jews were put into concentration camps in German-controlled Europe, but the “final solution” was not yet clear – how to eliminate them entirely.

And suddenly a solution was at hand.

In 1885 a German scholar, Paul de Legarde, an anti-Semite whose works Hitler revered, had proposed exiling Europe’s Jews to the African island of Madagascar. When France capitulated to Germany, the French colony of Madagascar came under German control.

Madagascar offered the ideal solution. SS officer Adolf Eichmann planned to ship 4 million Jews to Madagascar, which would become an SS-run police state with such harsh conditions that the Jews would perish.

The Nazis endorsed the plan in August 1940, but it didn’t materialize.

By 1942 there was a new proposal: gassing Jews in camps built to handle murder by the millions.

The Madagascar Plan, scholars say, had paved the way for the “final solution,” an important psychological step toward annihilating 6 million Jews at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec, and Majdanek.

Jews were never sent to Madagascar.

But the Rohingya were sent to Bhasan Char, and it is suggested that up to 100,000 may ultimately be relocated. The UN decries the action.

The Myanmar government is currently on trial for genocide and related crimes against the Rohingya in three courts: the UN International Court of Justice; the International Criminal Court; and the national court of Argentina using universal jurisdiction, which allows cases to be heard anywhere because the crimes are so heinous.

Bangladesh can’t provide a permanent haven for the Rohingya.  What can be done?

Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, urges more financial support for Bangladesh.  The ultimate solution, however, is the Rohingyas’ safe return to Myanmar and reinstatement of their rights.

The Biden administration must continue humanitarian aid and pressure the Myanmar government to bring the Rohingya back.

We know the ultimate ending to the Madagascar story. There must be a different ending for the Rohingya and Bhasan Char.

Ellen J. Kennedy is executive director of World Without Genocide at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, St. Paul.


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