Black Grass.  No one knew for certain when it had started to grow.  Farmers assumed that like the green grass outside the deserted and shuttered death camp, the black grass had come up when the days turned warm in late March.  But around the beginning of May, the farmers started to worry when the black grass started growing thick and full in ever-expanding circles outward from the camp. It was, after all, only a Jewish problem.

Because I’m a child Holocaust survivor, when I wrote these lines about virulent, inexplicable black grass spreading from the ruins of a Nazi death camp, I entitled the story Black Grass and set it in an unnamed eastern European country. I wanted to show that if the genocide of the Jews of Europe was forgotten or ignored, it would sap the strength and will of the community of nations to prevent future genocides.

Unfortunately, in Sudan, the metaphor of black grass has become very real.  In this case, black grass is caused by the deliberate setting ablaze of hundreds of native villages in the Darfur region.  Black grass encompasses and surrounds burned-out huts slaughtered livestock, and charred black human corpses.

In my story, the direct cause of the black grass, some 20 years after the death camps are closed, is left a mystery.  In Darfur, the cause is very clear.  The Sudanese government has trained and unleashed a militia called the Janjaweed, an armed extermination force that rides camels and horses and, with the aid of the Sudanese Army, systematically and mercilessly attacks native villages killing men and boys they can find. Equally devastating is the capture and rape of women and girls who are unsuccessful in their desperate effort to escape.

Recently, these forces have started attacking not only villages, but also towns on the border between Darfur and Chad. Killing is not new to Sudan.  Perhaps the oldest civil war in the world is being fought there.  It erupted even before the nation gained independence from Britain in 1956.  Except for a frail peace between 1972 and 1983, the more developed northern part of Sudan under the banner of the National Islamic Front has waged war against the underdeveloped rest of the country populated by Pinkas, Nuers, Azandes, and many other ethnic groups of African descent.

Despite numerous reports of these crimes taking place in Darfur, initially, the world stood idly by. Subsequently, the United Nations Security Council authorized an African Union force to provide security for the beleaguered Darfur population. But due to resistance by the Sudanese government, backed on the Security Council by China and Russia, the resulting mandate of this African Union Force was very limited—its size too small, its arms and equipment inadequate for the mission.  The killing, burning, and raping continued. The area of black earth covered by black grass keeps growing and expanding. It is estimated that 200,000 Darfurians have been killed and 2.5 million driven from their towns and villages.

In 2007, the Bush Administration called the killings and the uprooting of the Darfur population “genocide”.  However, in part because of its deep and costly involvement in Iraq, and to a much lesser extent in Afghanistan, its ability to unilaterally intervene in Darfur is not possible.  In addition, the moral influence of the United States in the world has been severely diminished.  Nevertheless, the United States did prod the Security Council into forming a large force, almost 19,000 troops, to secure Darfur. Sudan, however, is placing obstacles before the formation and equipping of this force.

It’s not likely that this new United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force will be capable of stopping the genocide in Darfur. On the contrary, as in my story, the fighting and killing has spread to a neighboring country, Chad, and is also likely to affect the Central African Republic.

I believe that a child Holocaust survivor, as well as others, can only lead a normal life—seek and education, get married, work in a profession, raise a family, and give to charity— if he or she believes that mankind has learned a lesson from the premeditated and systematic murder of six million European Jews. In World War II, the Allies, particularly the Americans and British, had many options to save Jewish lives, especially in the last year of the war, but failed to do so.  Let us not repeat the same mistake in Darfur.

“Black Grass,” Bernard Otterman’s collection of short fictions inspired by the Holocaust will be released by Jewish Heritage on May 2, Yom Hashoah, the day of Holocaust, Remembrance. For more on the book, visit and the author’s website,

  © 2008, Bernard Otterman