By Abby Schrader
Six million Jewish men, women and children were killed in the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. They were dehumanized by a government policy that called for the extermination of the untermenshchen—of whom Jews were among the lowliest of the low.
But should any group claim the exclusive right of suffering in the Holocaust? Is using the term “Holocaust” to describe the suffering of other groups an appropriation of the genocide against the Jews?
While not new, these questions resurfaced recently in a June 18 letter from the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York to a fellow New Yorker: Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The JCRC recently took issue with Ocasio-Cortez calling the U.S. government’s detention centers for migrants and asylum seekers “concentration camps,” and her passionate invocation of the phrase “Never Again.”
In its condemnation of Ocasio-Cortez’s formulation, the JCRC implicitly asserts that, as survivors of the Nazi regime, the Jewish community has inherited sole right to invoke those terms and monopolize the suffering and victimhood associated with “concentration camps.”
As a historian of modern Europe and Russia who comes from a Jewish family largely wiped out by Hitler and his forces, I beg to differ.
It is through both of these lenses that I look critically upon the claims made by the JCRC and question their motives for attacking Ocasio-Cortez for standing up for another persecuted group.
Half of my relatives perished at Auschwitz II, as part of the Nazis’ 1944 deportation of Hungarian Jews to the death chambers and crematoria. The other half (we believe likely, since we have no surviving records) were shot into mass graves at Babi Yar after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
The JCRC’s letter claims that “[t]he terms ‘Concentration Camp’ and ‘Never Again’ are synonymous with and evocative of the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany” and that her use of “never again” somehow cheapens the experience of Jews who survived the Holocaust.
But concentration camps were not an invention of the Third Reich—their origins date back to the Cuban War for Independence and the Second Boer War.
Moreover, equating the entire system of concentration camps with the single function of extermination, let alone the extermination of only the Jewish race, is reductive and factually incorrect.
Indeed, as University of London History Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann points out in his comprehensive 2015 study of the Nazi system of concentration camps, Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka, which were reserved exclusively for the purpose to extermination, were not even called concentration camps in Nazi parlance.
The only reason the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp acquired this association is because it was part of a broader complex of three camps. Auschwitz I was a labor camp reserved for political prisoners; Auschwitz III at Buna-Monowicz was a slave labor camp.
The Nazis intended to disrupt all semblance of regular life for concentration camp inmates. They rigorously pursued family separation policies. At Ravensbrück, pregnant women and young mothers were forced to give up their children, who were wrested from their arms and thrown into children’s rooms.
Horrendous overcrowding, malnutrition, and disease prevailed at camps that featured separate children’s facilities, like Terezin. They were supervised not by the regular police force or army but a special unit—the Schutzschtaffel (SS)—that operated as a paramilitary security and surveillance agency within the Reich.
The SS ensured all camp inmates were dehumanized: prisoners sat for days in their own excrement, were denied adequate food, medicine, and clothing and were forced to sleep standing up in spaces far too small to lie down.
If these features of the Nazi concentration camps sound familiar, they should. These are precisely the sorts of things that are happening in the camps on our southern border for migrants.
The camps Ocasio-Cortez has called “concentration camps” bear a great deal of resemblance to their German prototype. And, like the German concentration camps, these are not run by regular military or police but by Border Patrol, ICE, and often by private security companies that these entities contract.
Another attribute that both of these systems have in common are their white supremacist underpinnings. According to Hitler’s ideology, the allegedly Nordic, Aryan people constituted a master race to which all other peoples were biologically inferior.
While Jews occupied the bottom of this racial hierarchy, the Nazis relegated many other peoples to inferior positions, including the Romany, ethnic Poles, Slavs, Asians, Blacks, etc.
The JCRC is rightly concerned with the rise of antisemitism today. In a March 8 posting, “Condemning Anti-Semitism in the Halls of Power,” they noted the FBI had recently documented an unprecedented increase in anti-Jewish hate crimes such as the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
That horrific act – like so many we have witnessed the last two years against not only Jews but Muslims, Latin Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, immigrants, and others – was motivated by white supremacist ideology.
But protecting and supporting one persecuted group needn’t come at the cost of other persecuted groups. By asserting that “concentration camp” may only apply to the specific context of the Holocaust, the JCRC does history a disservice and moves to morally shaky ground.
It implicitly prioritizes the pain of Jews who suffered in the Nazi concentration and death camps over the pain experienced by migrants whose families are being systematically torn apart and subjected to subhuman conditions and torture in the contemporary United States.
When an ostensibly civilized people distinguishes between the quality and legitimacy of one group’s suffering versus another’s, we are traveling the same road that naturalized a hierarchy of peoples. Ironically, that looks frighteningly similar to the Nazi system to me.
Rather than bickering over false equivalencies and vying for the title of most persecuted, we should recognize the hardships faced by other groups and work to right the wrongs regardless of form or severity.
Abby Schrader is a professor of Russian and European history at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa., where she has taught since 1996.