American journalist Edwin Black is one of millions around the world who uses an IBM computer. You might find that ‘strange and ironic’ to put it mildly, after you read this.
Black has just issued an expanded version of his 2001 book IBM and the Holocaust. He is continuing an extensive speaking tour, and Regina was one of his few Canadian stops.
At the invitation of Beth Jacob Synagogue and the Saskatchewan Jewish Council, chaired by local art dealer Helene Kesten, Black spent several days in Regina and spoke to a variety of student groups at both the high school and university level.
He also spoke to a major gathering at the synagogue on Yom Hashoah, the annual Holocaust Remembrance.
Black’s message, which he says has now been strengthened with the addition of more documentation than was available a decade ago, is that “without the organizational and technical resources of IBM, the slaughter of millions of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals might not have happened to same horrifying extent.”
Under the leadership of American Thomas J. Watson, the German division of the multi-national business giant grew and prospered.
From 1933 onward they supplied the punch cards, Hollerith machines and other tools needed to keep track of holocaust victims. It led to them being confined to ghettos and then to the camps where they were eventually exterminated, after being forced to work as slave labourers.
“Because of IBM’s involvement, the Nazi regime knew where every Jew was located, where they worked and what their habits were” said Black.
The investigative journalist is the child of Holocaust survivors.
He researched the original book for five years, and current IBM officials have been almost completely silent when asked to respond.
Black says he has heard from a number of IBM retirees. He says “The company’s involvement was well known within their ranks for many years, and they were grateful that someone finally told the story.”
The IBM story is one of many tales that have emerged since World War Two of industrial giants who built at least part of their vast empires on the efforts of slave labour, both in Germany and in countries which were occupied by Hitler’s forces.
Among those who were shocked and appalled to hear the story was Rabbi Jeremy Parnes of Beth Jacob Synagogue.
“I was horrified to learn of this kind of criminal behavior by respected business leaders”.
60 year old Parnes was officially installed as spiritual leader of 70 Jewish families in Regina in early February after what amounted to a 13 year apprenticeship for the position. Originally from England, he was working in a sales job in eastern Canada in the early 1980’s.
His employer transferred him to Alberta but asked him to “spend a few months in Regina before moving further west.” That was 27 years ago. He has lived in Regina ever since.
The Rabbi sees Edwin Black’s visit as a landmark event in his efforts to get youth in particular to ask many questions.
“With their wondrous handheld devices, the answers to so many basic questions can be found in seconds. But what questions of their own are they asking, and what kind of values are they learning?”
He says the IBM story is a classic illustration of what can happen when the most important priority for business is return on investment.
“In the case of IBM and others who did business with the Nazis, it was clearly their only priority”.
Helene Kesten of the Saskatchewan Jewish Council was delighted at how the week went.
“We felt it was important to focus attention on how corporations can become blinded by the quest for higher profits, sometimes with tragic results.”
Black’s visit occurred as I was ending my six year sojourn as a working journalist in Regina. He appeared as a guest on Talk of the Town , the TV show which I hosted on Access Communications.
I was somewhat surprised by how little attention the story has received from other media, both in Saskatchewan and elsewhere.
The Regina Leader Post ran a brief story the day before Black arrived mentioning some of his scheduled events and directing readers to his website.
The newspaper did not send either a reporter or a photographer to any of the events where he spoke.
Since returning to live in Winnipeg I have been reviewing books for the Winnipeg Free Press. I was surprised to learn that when IBM and the Holocaust was first published in 2001, the Free Press was one of a number of major papers who did not run a review of it.
Finally, why after all that he researched and wrote, does Edwin Black still use an IBM computer, and not a Mac?
He says quite simply “I like it, and I see no reason to change”.
Such is life, and the power of branding.
Roger Currie is a writer, broadcaster and blogger.
For the past seven months he was host Talk of the Town on Access channel 7.
He now lives in Winnipeg, but intends to visit Regina more often than just on Labour Day weekend.
He also intends to visit Beth Jacob Synagogue, and take part in the dialogue led by Rabbi Jeremy.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org