Meet Dorit Oliver Wolff and Ruth Barnett, who ask Boris Johnson to stand up for Uyghur Muslims.
by Georgia L. Gilholy
Dorit Oliver Wolff’s early childhood was mostly a happy one. She was unaware of her Jewish identity until, at the age of five, she was spat on in the street by a woman who called her a “stinking Jew.” In the same year, 1941, her home country Serbia was bombed, forcing her family to flee to Hungary where her mother masqueraded as a Red Cross nurse to avoid Nazi persecution. At 11 Dorit was awarded a scholarship to a music academy in Montenegro. In 1968 she recorded her first record, inaugurating her successful career touring Europe before settling in the sleepy seaside town of Eastbourne in Southeast England.
Ruth Barnett and her brother arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport in 1939. Her Jewish father had escaped to Shanghai. Her non-Jewish mother remained in hiding in Germany until 1945. She had taken part in the Rosenstraßeprotest in which around 200 non-Jewish German wives of Jewish men demonstrated outside a building where many of their husbands had been imprisoned by the Gestapo. Ruth worked as a high school teacher for 19 years and a psychotherapist for 28.
Both Ruth and Dorit have spent decades as tireless public speakers, regularly giving talks on human rights and the consequences of the Holocaust. Now both women have decided to take a public stand against an atrocity taking place as we speak: the genocide of the Uyghur minority in China’s Northwest province of Xinjiang.
Since 2017, at least a million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities have disappeared into the vast network of transformation through education camps. Detainees are subjected to political indoctrination, forced labor, coerced into renouncing their religion and culture and, are in many instances subjected to torture, rape, and organ harvesting. Women in and outside the camps are regularly the victims of forced sterilization and abortion. As Newcastle University expert Joanne Smith Finley told the Associated Press last year, “It’s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type genocide, but slow, painful, creeping genocide…These are direct means of genetically reducing the Uyghur population.”
Last month Dorit and Ruth took the “unprecedented step” of publishing a video, and open letter petitioning Prime Minister Boris Johnson to meet ahead of the vote on the Genocide Amendment to the UK Trade Bill, set to be voted (again) next week. The petition currently stands at just under 50,000 signatures, having received over 41,000 within 48 hours of its launch. They are yet to receive a response from the Government.
The amendment would allow the UK High Court to make a preliminary ruling on whether genocide was occurring. The House of Commons would then be permitted to vote on the policies it judged fit to end complicity with the designated abuses. Although the amendment does not refer to any case in particular, but much campaigning for the amendment has been by groups concerned about the pressing issue of the Uyghurs in Northwest China.
In a recent interview with Foundation for Uyghur Freedom Director Laura Bierer-Nielsen, Dorit and Ruth explained the onus behind their campaign. “For 76 years we’ve made no headway whatsoever,” Ruth lamented. “This [amendment] is an opportunity to get it [genocide] named. You can’t stop something that doesn’t have a name.”
Dorit added, “People often say to me, well what about Tibet and other such cases? That is true. Even if it is only 10 people it is wrong. We must stand up not just for the masses but for the individual. There is nothing more important than fighting for people’s rights. They [politicians] give all sorts of excuses, such as Brexit and COVID to avoid dealing with such issues, but it is up to them to do something. They must have a human side to them and use it. We cannot be blasé about these things.”
On the question of complacency in regards to global persecution Ruth expressed her thoughts that “People do care but are easily enticed into denial. They think, ‘Well that’s none of my business.’ We have created a responsibility averse society, and it is destroying the better part of being human. People like to tick boxes and think that they have done their bit. But genocide can only happen if enough people turn a blind eye and a deaf ear. We need to take notice and take action.”
When asked about what people can do to draw attention to contemporary genocides, Ruth stated, “I challenge them not to think that they have no power, every individual has the power of their voice. Our petition is doing this. We hope that Boris Johnson will hear about it and realize people do not want preferential trade with countries that inflict genocide on their people.”
In response to the regular retort that it is somehow strange for two women with hitherto no connection to the Uyghur community to come out so passionately for this cause, Dorit affirmed, “It doesn’t matter what race or religion we are, it is wrong, and we owe it to other human beings to say so. Other countries have acknowledged genocide in China, what is stopping us? Why should we award those who are gaining from torturing others? Now is time to stand up for human beings. No one is ever that busy that they cannot do so.”
Ruth added, “Boris persuaded the country to leave the European Union and promised that this would mean Britain would once again be a leader on the world stage. Boris had a chance to lead by calling out genocide. The Uyghur genocide is already in full action and there are other genocides currently emerging earlier on in the stages. He could take those seriously and calling out genocide[s] so effective action can be taken.”
When asked about the challenge posed by those who deny the validity of the Uyghur persecution, often by accusing Uyghur rights campaigners of Sinophobia or of facilitating US-led conspiracies to damage China’s international credibility, Dorit stated, “This is similar to the slander Holocaust survivors are faced with, that we are making up stories for the sake of money or attention. People are in denial because that is easier. I stayed in England because I enjoyed the freedom, and I believe this freedom should be spread out. We should be the beacon of freedom, justice and giving people what they deserve. We both have very close connections with the Chinese people. This is not about hating Chinese individuals. Genocide is genocide. We must do something now because tomorrow is too late.”
Ruth added “I would be willing to speak with anybody putting forward an argument against the evidence of a genocide against the Uyghurs. I would encourage them to give me their evidence. Very soon I can realize whether this person is a fundamentalist who cannot be argued with, but very few people are unreachable. I will reach out to anyone and try to engage them in a thinking discussion.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity