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After swastikas, UND law professor teaches horror of intolerance

When swastikas were found scrawled earlier this year on four UND buildings -- the latest, in May, on a window of the law school -- law professor Gregory Gordon responded with the focused intensity of a war crimes prosecutor.

When swastikas were found scrawled earlier this year on four UND buildings -- the latest, in May, on a window of the law school -- law professor Gregory Gordon responded with the focused intensity of a war crimes prosecutor.

He has the credentials. In 1996, Gordon went to Rwanda as a prosecutor for a United Nations-sponsored criminal tribunal examining the recent misery of that African nation, where ethnic hatreds had led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

He went to Rwanda carrying childhood memories of horrific newsreel images from the Holocaust, the mass killing of Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II.

"It left a profound mark on me," Gordon said.

At UND, Gordon teaches courses in international human rights, and he leads the university's new Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. Earlier this month, the center hosted a hero of the Norwegian World War II resistance, 90-year-old Gunnar Sonsteby, who told of his five-year fight against Nazi propaganda and repression.


Tonight, Gordon will introduce another speaker brought to campus by the Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies: Dr. Fred Lyon, 80, a retired Minneapolis physician who as a child of 10 lived through Kristallnacht, "the night of broken glass," when Nazis ransacked Jewish businesses in Berlin in 1938.

Gordon hopes to arrange for a third speaker, a concentration camp survivor, to drive home the dangers of complacency toward graffiti swastikas and other expressions of hate.

"We are sadly mistaken if we view these swastikas as pranks, or simply as vehicles through which 'anger' is channeled," Gordon said. "We're in trouble as a community if we dismiss them that way.

"During World War II, the silence and neglect of the international community is what allowed there to be mass murder. We shouldn't be complacent and think the swastika is ever used in an innocent way. It's the symbol of perhaps the worst barbarity in history."

Not On My Campus

After UND administrators were chided for not responding more forcefully to the swastika incidents, the school appointed a task force to review policies and procedures and recommend changes to discourage such incidents and encourage reporting of those that occur.

Also, a grass-roots coalition of faculty and staff members, students and others established a Web site, Not On My Campus, "to affirm the rights, privileges and obligations of every individual who claims an identification" with the university. The coalition encourages visitors to make "a pledge to inclusiveness" and to resist apathy and bigotry.

Gordon came to UND in 2006 after working as a prosecutor in the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, where he helped to investigate and prosecute Nazi war criminals and more recent violators of human rights. The department also dispatched him to Sierra Leone to conduct a post-civil war justice assessment, and he went to Ethiopia to train high-level prosecutors in that country.


He initially saw the UND human rights center as a way to archive records of genocide in Ethiopia, where witnesses have reported seeing government troops target and kill people of the minority Anuak tribe. After conversations with Provost Greg Weisenstein -- and seeing the rash of swastikas appearing on UND buildings -- he determined to expand the center's range.

One of the center's first projects, in collaboration with Chester Fritz Library, involves establishing a digital archive of records from the post-World War II Nuremberg war-crimes trials as they relate to the German occupation of Norway.

"I was a Nazi war crimes prosecutor," Gordon said. "I was working to inform the world about the horrors of Nazism and bring a measure of belated justice to victims of Nazism. Then to see it occurring here in our own community was quite upsetting.

"We want our community to be the best place it can be," he said. "We want to promote a culture of diversity and tolerance."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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