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AOC is right — never again!

The Holocaust obliges us to speak up, as Wiesel said, 'whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation'
UNITED STATES - JUNE 12: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., attend a House Oversight and Reform Committee markup in Rayburn Building on a resolution on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 12: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., attend a House Oversight and Reform Committee markup in Rayburn Building on a resolution on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Of course, I get why Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” offends many Jews who feel that she is comparing the internment camps on the US Southern border to death camps in which the Nazis murdered 12,000 Jews a day. I am the daughter of survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen (my mom) and Theresienstadt and Mauthausen (my dad). And of course, comparing atrocities is unwise and insensitive to all concerned. Each person’s pain is individual – as is their ability to withstand it and find meaning in their suffering.

But as a child of survivors, I find it hard to stomach the swift attack on AOC to make political hay while the sun shines on her unfortunate use of language.

Merriam-Webster defines “concentration camps” as “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard —used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.”

Yes, the scope of “our” concentration camps and the unfathomable horror and loss trumps all others in modern times. But camps in which children ripped from their parents are allegedly denied medications, sexually abused, and denied livable conditions because they hail from families seeking asylum certainly comply with that definition.

It has been my great privilege to know dozens – if not hundreds – of survivors and they all describe that moment of losing their family as the worst. The remaining survivors I know are in their 90s and they still tear up in the midst of soberly recounting inconceivable atrocities, when they recall that instant in which they were ripped as children from their loved ones’ arms.

Sam Feldman’s objection to AOC’s use of “Never Again” in his TOI blog “Dear AOC, not everything is the Holocaust”put that queer half-smile shared by all survivors and their offspring on my face. (And as a 2G, I am allowed that half-smile when Playing the Holocaust Card.)

Feldman describes AOC’s use of what is undeniably our Jewish watchword as follows: “invoking the Holocaust sitting on the floor in pajamas via twitter livestream is at best tasteless, at worst, what Ocasio-Cortez has done is dangerous, and the trivialization of a genocide.”

Unfortunately, I and many like me had no choice but to sit in our pajamas on the floor as children invoking the Holocaust. My cousins’ plastic soldiers liberated Auschwitz on our yellowed linoleum, while my Barbie wannabes parachuted behind enemy lines to rescue Jews hiding in the forests of Europe. But it wasn’t Feldman’s depiction of AOC’s similar tweeting attire that made me smile and squirm at the same time.

In referring to US border camps as a mere “failure of our government” and “a shameful humanitarian situation,” Feldman does exactly what he accuses AOC of doing – cheapening events that we may not yet comprehend and never fully understand.

Moreover, AOC or anyone else in a position of power has the right and in fact the obligation to invoke “Never again” to spare children from a fate like that unfolding on the US border – whether or not their pain falls short of that experienced by our parents or others.

Elie Wiesel said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Whether awkwardly implemented or not, didn’t AOC’s warning fulfill Wiesel’s oath? Didn’t we pray in Auschwitz and Mauthausen and all the death camps in Europe that someone would do just that?

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I am a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.
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