Who “owns” the Holocaust? – The delicate nature of genocide

Sometimes it’s probably best to not lead with a picture, and today is one of those days in the Neighborhood.

Few subjects have as many landmines in the popular discussion as the Holocaust.   It is often extremely difficult to think about this horror in an objective way, and with good reason.  Many people today–Jews and non-Jews, friends, relatives and acquaintances–still have primary knowledge of those horrific years.  My own great-uncle was sent to a concentration camp in Austria during the war.  Another relative was sent to the Russian front, never to be seen again. 

My mind returned to those dark times through a recent Daily News article.  Apparently, the Holocaust Memorial Park in Brooklyn is about to get a facelift by the city Parks Department–adding five new markers to commemorate the non-Jewish victims of Nazi Germany, such as Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals.  The local Jewish community is in an uproar over this, stating that the city acted unilaterally and that the additions undermine the Jewish nature of the memorial.  The city is defending the addition as a way to “reinforce its educational purpose to remind us of the historical circumstances of the Holocaust.”

What struck me the most was Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s remark.  Hikind (D-Brooklyn) is an orthodox Jew, represents a heavily Jewish district and is descended from Holocaust survivors.  At a news conference to draw attention to the memorial, Hikind mentioned that “The Holocaust is a uniquely Jewish event.”

The fact that the Holocaust is a major, if not the major, even in modern Jewish history is beyond dispute.  Yet to label it as “uniquely” Jewish seemed rather off-putting.  After all, how much should an ethnic group–even one with such a tumultuous history as the Jews–take ownership of a tragedy that imperiled their very existence?

To be fair, in terms of sheer numbers, Jews can easily claim the Holocaust as a tragedy that specifically targeted Jews.  6 million Jews–roughly 60% of the Jewish population of Europe–perished in the slaughter, slashing the worldwide Jewish population by a third. 

Yet other groups also suffered at the hands of the Nazis.  2 million non-Jewish Poles also succumbed to the tragedy.  13.7 million Russians cannot be discounted, either.  There were also 1-1.5 million Gypsies who died, 250,000 physically or mentally challenged people, 50,000 homosexuals, 200,000 Freemasons, 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and thousands of Communists, trade unionists, pacifists, dissenters, and Christian clergy of every denomination.

Most of the actual planning of the “Final Solution” had the Jews in mind as a “storage problem,” as borne out in the transcripts of the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Berlin.  Other groups, however, also sustained persecution in a systematic manner.  Homosexuals had been targeted even before the Nazi period, through imperial Germany’s anti-sodomy law, Paragraph 175.   The T-4 euthanasia program, which targeted the mentally and physically handicapped, became the basis for the methods used in the death camps of the east. 

None of this is meant to belittle the experience of Jews in the Holocaust.  Rather, it is meant to place the suffering of the Holocaust in a broader context, especially in showing the universal nature of Nazi hatred.  It wasn’t just Jews that stoked their fire–ANYONE who wasn’t the Aryan ideal had to be out of the picture, else they ruin the facade.  This is probably the rationale of the city in placing the five new markers.

There is also this problem of “owning” the Holocaust, making it strictly a Jewish experience.  The problem with placing ownership–even if it is deserved–is that it sometimes places an implicit value judgement on another person’s experience.  Yet this is not always the case.  Often, I have found that actual Holocaust survivors are the most empathetic to others who have suffered the horrors of genocide, such as Bosnians, Armenians, and Tutsis.  It is those generations that succeed the survivors that sometimes grips to ownership, that often compare every event to the Holocaust such that no other group could have suffered like they did.

It’s amazing that the more removed we become from the experience, the less objective we can become about it.  In most instances, it’s the other way around.  Much the same problem happens with another sticking point–policies toward Israel.  My Israeli friends tend to take a fairly open-minded, balanced approach to the problems of their country.  Yet many who have, at best, a remote connection to Israel are ready to defend it against any real or perceived slight, often while distorting or ignoring factual information.

As bad as genocidal situations can be, we must often take a step back to look at the facts from a different perspective.  Believe me, looking at any lens, the suffering of Jews and other oppressed minorities in the 1930s and 1940s is a catastrophe beyond compare.  It is a shame that we often have to use rhethoric to drown out the loud, clear voice of fact. 

So if I had to counter Assemblyman Hikind, this is what I would say:

“Assemblyman, I understand your pain and ardor at an arbitrary and unilateral change to a monument in your community.  The fact that community leaders were not consulted is truly reprehensible.  However, your claim that the Holocaust is a ‘uniquely Jewish’ event belittles the suffering your ancestors endured, as well as the suffering of so many more.

Let me be clear: your mother was a hero.  I feel all survivors of the Holocaust are heroes.  Yet you speak as if you were there with them.  You were not, nor was I.  Let us not claim a heroism that doesn’t exist.

As much as the pain of the Holocaust still dwells in Jews across the world, we are now at a point where we can–and should–see these events through a different lens.  Those lenses are the eyes and ears of the millions of other victims who were persecuted simply for who they were.  To label the Holocaust as ‘uniquely’ Jewish diminishes their suffering and demeans the memory of Jewish survivors and victims–survivors like your mother.

The Holocaust–by spirit, and by numbers–is a tragedy shared by many people, Jew and non-Jew alike.  Nothing can diminish its evil; the numbers are simply too staggering to even contemplate.  Yet keeping ownership of this catastrophe does diminish the good that the Holocaust can teach to others.  Future generations have to learn that prejudice and bigotry, in ANY form and against ANYONE, is immoral, unjust and against the tenets of every major religion.  Don’t diminish the suffering of others in glorifying your own.”

Mr. Hikind is more than free to post a response on this blog, if he so chooses.  I’m looking forward to his, any other, responses.

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