I do no speak or read French. Many years ago, however, in undergraduate school, I had a professor of English literature who was inordinately fond of the French phrase épater les bourgeoise—as he would translate it on a regular basis, “to shock the ordinary human being out of his [or her] lethargy.” That is, there are those works, persons, events to which ordinary human beings, most of us, can only react in shock, sometimes in dismay; other times in paralysis. One such event historically is the Holocaust (Hebrew, Shoah), the systematic, organized and planned murders of more than six million Jews—children, women, and men—and others: Sinti/Roma; homosexuals, primarily males; the physically and mentally challenged; and, lastly, so-called “asocials”, those whom the Nazis deemed unworthy of place in their present and future society. Even today, more than seventy-five years after the end of World War II, its power to shock, dismay, frighten, disorient shows no signs of abating. Concomitantly, those most associated with this “crime of crimes”, this paradigmatic genocide—Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Rudolf Hoess, Alfred Rosenberg, and others in the upper echelons of the Nazi hierarchy—still retain their power to amaze and disgust us as the very embodiments of evil personified.
Closely associated with them and their murderous agendas are the words which also retain their power: Auschwitz death camp (symbolic of the entire system of death); the Warsaw Ghetto, symbolic of Jewish incarceration and Jewish resistance and other unsuccessful efforts at extermination; Six Million, symbolic of the Jews murdered; and the like.
Given all this consciousness of what transpired then and remains ever-present in the minds and memories of many, the current rancorous debate both within and outside the Jewish community in response to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s labeling of US detention centers at our southwest US border as “concentration camps” should come as no surprise. Scholars—historians and others—rabbis, communal leaders and professionals, as well as congressional representatives have all weighed in, both in support and in condemnation. To be sure, her use of the term was classic épater les bougeoise, designed to further shock and incense many to the tragic plight of children and families separated from each other, forced into accommodations in cages and other enclosed environments which are no place for human beings in this 21st century.
Scholars, committed to accurate understandings and assessments of the past, have critiqued her use of the term, primarily because these current centers do not meet and cannot be parallelingly compared to those which existed both inside Nazi Germany and German-occupied Poland. Others have expressed concern that her too-easily labelling them as such demeans the many who were brutalized, suffered, and died in those places in the years 1939-1945. Still others have critiqued her too-easy use of such Holocaust tropes and comparisons as inflammatory language which has no place in our current debate. The latest critique, interestingly enough, is the public letter by more than one hundred acknowledged scholars of the Holocaust and genocide calling for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, to retract its “Statement Regarding the Museum’s Position on Holocaust Analogies,” and containing the operative statement “unequivocally rejecting efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” Those scholars regard such a statement as “ahistorical,” and, further, state that “the very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering, pointing to similarities across time and space” as “essential to this task”. Perhaps somewhat convolutionally, they have thus supported Ocasio-Cortez’s analogy, not in so many words, but arguing that her labeling may very well be legitimate.
Among her supporters, as well, are those scholars who have argued that there are similarities, at least preliminarily, to those places which the Nazis constructed as unwelcome settings for those deemed unworthy of life (in Nazi parlance, “Lebensunwertes Leben”) in Das Dritte Reich/the Third Reich and its vision of a Greater Germany.
As one for whom this issue is both professional–teaching, researching, writing and speaking about both the Holocaust and historical and contemporary genocides—and personal as the son of a refugee-survivor-escapee from the carnage of Nazi Germany and all of Europe, I do see similarities to places of horror then in which my own extended family was incarcerated and murdered. The pain of those presently imprisoned in those centers of detention by apparently compassionless enforcement officials not only assaults my mind but continues to call forth uncomfortable and worse memories of the stories shared with me by my late father and others in the German-Jewish community of Baltimore, MD, after the war: stories of pain, stories of loss, and stories of traumas which they carried with them all their lives.
This present moment in American political life continues to reflect badly on all engaged in this debate, showing far more heat across various aisles and allowing very little light to reveal itself. Debaters on all sides provoke and shock their opponents to apparently score points with their constituencies rather than addressing the tragic plight of human beings fleeing from countries determine to reduce them and their families into subservience and worse. What is needed, now more than ever, is calm, rational give-and-take on how best to address immigration-related issues and how best to address the human needs of those already here or almost here. Language which provokes does little to further these conversations regardless of their accuracy or lack thereof.