(Note = This article was coauthored by Rabbi Tom Alpert and Rabbi Fred Guttman)
In his book The Destruction of the European Jews, the eminent Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg refers to the Nazi concentration camps as part of an overall “Destruction Process” of the six million. They were places of harsh labor, torture, and death.
One such camp was Mauthausen. In The 186 Steps, Christian Bernadac describes its Stairs of Death, upon which prisoners were forced to carry heavy stones up from the quarry to a road above. He quotes a survivor as saying that the quarry had “186 slippery, rocky, tilting steps…. The work consisted of carrying up a stone of considerable size and weight, along the 186 steps, after which there was still a considerable distance to cover. The man who chose a stone found to be too small was out of luck. And all of this went on at the rate of eight to ten trips per day. The pace was infernal, without a second’s rest.” Among the prisoners at Mauthausen, only the Jews were to be exterminated. The Nazis referred to this as the “extermination through work” plan.
We think about this in light of the controversy over Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s use of “concentration camps” to describe what the Trump Administration has set up near our southern borders. Republicans quickly took issue with her, but they were not alone. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D., N.J.), who is Jewish, found the comparison to be cruel and disrespectful. “Concentration camps were places where Jews and others were enslaved, tortured, and then sent to gas chambers to be murdered.” Holocaust scholar Dr. Deborah Lipstadt wrote a year ago: “People are being concentrated in camps, but the contemporary camps bear little resemblance to the camps in Nazi Germany in which people were beaten, tortured, starved, and often killed. However well-intentioned its use, the comparison is misleading…. Using historically invalid analogies gives those responsible for these outrages a chance to wriggle out from the avalanche of justified attacks on their policies.”
It is certainly true that the undocumented immigrant detention centers are not the same as Nazi concentration camps. And yet, is it really incorrect to mention concentration camps in reference to the horrible and seemingly worsening situation in in these detention centers?
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg thinks that it is desirable to do so and wrote as much in a recent article in the Washington Post. “The Holocaust didn’t begin with gas chambers,” she writes, “and it’s not business as usual in America right now. We already know that the path to atrocity can be a process, and that the Holocaust began with dehumanizing propaganda, with discriminatory laws, with roundups and deportations, and with internment. Those things are happening in our country now…. Every situation is different. But thinking about the Holocaust now can remind us of the urgency of the situation, fuel us to protest, to donate money to organizations on the front lines, to call our members of Congress and demand that they slash the budget for ICE and CBP, to center this as the human rights emergency that it is.”
We think she is right, but it is important to remember why, and then remember what we really should be discussing. As Jews, we should be reaffirming the mandate of our tradition to deal justly and compassionately with the stranger. As Jews, we should reaffirm the value that our history and tradition puts on the education of children. As Jews, we should be raising our voices against those would treat others unjustly and do so because that is what Torah teaches.
This is so very important at the present time. We are living in a time when our government seems to routinely separate parents from children during the asylum process.
In one case a four-month-old bay named Constantin Mutu was separated from his parents at the border. The New York Times reports that his caseworker was a woman named Alma Acevedo. “Ms. Acevedo was just settling into the role when things suddenly became more chaotic in the late summer of 2017. Unlike the teenagers she was used to working with, who had intentionally crossed the border alone, the separated children who began to arrive were inconsolable when they reached her. Each new one seemed to traumatize the rest all over again. ‘It was horrible,’ she said. ‘We could not do work. It was just a classroom full of crying kids all day.’”
Is this really the America that we want? The more we learn about this situation, the more that we feel that it will be viewed with shame in terms of the history of this great country. Let us not be outraged by Rep. Octavio-Cortez’s words but by the facts they reflect. Let us be outraged because of what is happening and let us be outraged because of what might happen next in our name. Let us learn from the past and the present and let us act.
This is quickly becoming the moral issue of our time. We are convinced that our heritage as Jews calls upon us to be just, compassionate and involved!
That is the task to which we commit ourselves!
Rabbi Thomas M. Alpert is the rabbi of Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA. Rabbi Fred Guttman is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC