Misappropriation of Sacred Holocaust Terminology Profanes Its Memory

The memory of the Holocaust and the care of the few who survived is a sacred trust.

We, who are blessed to be the children of survivors, embrace this duty. Our commitment to the survivors, who continue to grace this world with their presence, is unfailing. We also honor the legacy of those, of blessed memory, who have since passed on, by keeping their memory alive through the goods deeds we do in their name.

Terms like survivor, concentration camp or Nazi, yemach shemam v’zichrom, have a profound meaning. These words are set aside to communicate the tragedy of the mass murder of six million Jews, of blessed memory, in the Holocaust and the excruciating pain and suffering endured by the few who survived inhuman treatment at the hands of the Nazis and their cohorts.

Misappropriating these terms to serve some political agenda is tantamount to sacrilege. There are other ways to describe the plight of refugees. Why violate the memory of the Jews who were targeted for so-called special treatment by the Nazis, a euphemism for genocide? Why insult the dignity of the survivors? Is scoring some perceived political advantage by invoking the provocative imagery of the Holocaust worth trivializing the horror of their suffering?

My father, Morris Grunstein, of blessed memory, was a survivor. His formative teenage years were not spent at school or in sports activities. He was a slave laborer in Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where he was indelibly marked with a tattooed number on his arm. He was one of the few who weren’t immediately killed in the gas chambers and reduced to ashes in the crematoriums. Let’s be clear; men, women and children were not separated so that they could conveniently be temporarily housed in less than ideal conditions, until their cases could be sorted out. They had no right voluntarily to leave and go back to their country of origin. The separations were for the sole purpose of identifying a few hardy souls who might be forced into slavery and the rest were summarily executed.

My dad was one of the select few who were not killed immediately. Instead, he was designated to be starved and worked to death, under inhuman conditions. The daily rations consisted of a morsel of bread with little nutritional value and well below the minimum standard needed for survival. He suffered constantly from what was intended to be unendurable hunger and thirst. There were no bathrooms with flowing water from which to drink. He would have considered that an unimaginable luxury.

The concentration camp regime was intended to cause a slow agonizing death, as he and his fellow slave laborers were worked beyond all endurance. He was also subjected to regular torture and the cruel games the Nazi guards played, designed to purge those who defied all odds and somehow managed to live a few more days. He told us of a particularly sadistic Ukrainian guard, with a limp, who viciously and mercilessly beat him and the other young boys in his charge.

Those who survived each day were subjected to the notorious selections, where anyone sick or unable to work was sent to the gas chambers and death. Any visible weakness or infraction of the rules meant death. There was no medical care for the plagues of typhus or other illnesses that ravaged the malnourished slave laborers; a visit to the infirmary meant death. As a result, like many concentration camp survivors, my dad had an understandable reticence when it came to seeing a doctor.

My dad never gave up. He had an iron will and unshakeable belief in G-d. Somehow, he miraculously survived. When he emerged from the camps, he weighed barely fifty pounds. His experience was shared by many of the survivors.

It is appalling to hear sacred terms like survivor, concentration camp or Nazi misused. Who among us was not shocked at the episode on Curb Your Enthusiasm, when Larry David depicted a mythical encounter between a Holocaust survivor and a participant on the Survivor TV show? The real survivor was aghast, when he heard the other so-called survivor complain about suffering because he did not have a candy bar to eat. His painful response was how could the person call himself a survivor; in the concentration camps they didn’t have anything to eat. While it’s upsetting even to recount this episode, it does emphasize the absurdity of analogizing almost any form of suffering to the Holocaust. Terms like survivor and concentration camp evoke images of the utterly evil Nazi genocidal program against the Jewish people.

It is shocking that a Congressperson can casually demean the Holocaust and survivors by inappropriately invoking the term concentration camp and fail to appreciate why it’s so hurtful. An internment camp, even with appalling ‘living’ conditions, is not a concentration camp. I emphasize the word living because a concentration camp was designed to kill people, not preserve life. There are also those who misguidedly defend her, employing all manner of sophistry. Indeed, only just the other day, on the solemn fast of Tisha B’Av, mourning the destruction of the Temple and other tragedies through the ages, there were protests in New York and elsewhere, where Holocaust terminology was gracelessly exploited.

Don’t they understand that the Nazis, who carefully crafted this and other euphemistic terms, calculatingly intended for them to be misunderstood and misapplied? That was how they meant to hide their crimes. I urge everyone to learn about the Holocaust and the true meaning of these awful terms. Ignorance should not be an excuse for callously and insensitively invoking the sacred imagery of the Holocaust.

Bandying about these terms as a metaphor for some social justice issue of the day is repulsive. I don’t mean to trivialize any human suffering. However, equating less than ideal living conditions, for those entering the United States without complying with law, to the deliberate and systematic mass murder of Jews makes a mockery of the Holocaust. Indeed, survivors would have treasured having a refuge of any kind, let alone one where they were housed, fed, provided medical care, had a source of any water and were not murdered or worked to death. The provocative misuse of Holocaust analogies serves no useful purpose. It does not help those in need of humanitarian aid; it merely inflames an already volatile situation.

Let’s commit not to profane these sacred terms. Words do have meaning and they can inflict pain, even if the speaker doesn’t intend to do so. Don’t sacrifice Holocaust survivors to a cause by trivializing their experience or allow misuse of language to divide us. Instead, let’s join together to develop real solutions to help people in need.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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