Obscuring the Boundaries: Universalizing the Holocaust

Once again, Nazis successfully got out their vile and malicious messages of hate and zealous mission to exterminate the Jews. This time the attack was on December 15, 2020.  The target: a wholly unsuspecting and seemingly secure group of teenagers enrolled in North Shore Academy, a Hebrew high school in an upper middle-class neighborhood in Great Neck, NY.  On the homepage of North Shore Hebrew Academy, the hackers placed an image of marching Nazi S.S .officers.  The school’s name was changed to “Northshore Hebrew Concentration Camp.”  Topped off with swastika and metal spiked fencing, a new address read Auschwitz/Birkenau.

Experiencing anti-semitism is not easily shaken off, given the reality of the Holocaust. Some of the students’ grandparents are Holocaust survivors.  Although thankfully no one was physically hurt in this incident, the high school students who saw the Nazi imagery in the form of video, pictures, songs and sayings may never be quite the same.   Many of the students who viewed the hate message on their school’s homepage and website emerged visibly shaken. The shocking and horrifying message that these kids received, only because they were Jewish teens, was that they were “rats,” and should no longer continue living.  They would, therefore, need to be not merely “deported but erased off the earth.”

Relevant to this incident, I will share a story that happened long ago to another Jewish teenager, Tess Wise. Tess is the founder and former executive director of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Maitland, Florida.  Shortly after I was hired to assist her in 2000, Tess told me the story of what happened to her in 1944.  Tess felt that it was important that I understand her background and why she had chosen to dedicate her life to commemorating the Holocaust.  What happened to her is relevant not only to the recent cyberspace hate crime at North Shore Academy, but also to the controversy over her museum’s current exhibit.  The featured exhibit, entitled “Uprooting Prejudice: Faces of Change,” opened in late November and portrays the responses to the death of George Floyd.

Eighty-one years ago when the Nazis occupied Poland, Tess was a teen living in an upper middle-class neighborhood. Although she never imagined the horrors that awaited her, Tess knew that because she was a Jew, she was highly vulnerable.

In what started as a normal day, members of the S.S. dragged Tess and her parents out of her comfortable home.  First, they shoved the family into a ghetto where a dark, dank, rat-infested dump would become their new home.  With very little food and water, overcrowded and surrounded by filth, conditions in the Radom Ghetto were among the worst anywhere in Nazi-occupied Poland.  But, at least, as Tess stated, “while her family was together there was still hope.”

Shortly after, that hope was severely diminished.  Tess and her parents were separated upon deportation to the nearby concentration camp, also in Radom.  Tess said later that “the worst thing was being separated.”   The horrors she experienced as an 18-year-old in that camp, were heart-wrenching. No person should ever have to go through the humiliation and degradation that she and the other inmates faced every day.  Yet, Tess realized both then and years later in telling her story over and over again to young visitors of the museum, that all the unspeakable horrors that were cast upon her were due to one reason only:  She had the audacity to be born Jewish.

Tess’s parents and grandparents were murdered in that camp. Tess, younger and stronger, was sent to work.  One day, a Christian friend named Maria managed to smuggle an extra dress of hers into the camp office where she worked. Shortly before quitting time, Maria abruptly shoved the dress into Tess’s hands,  pushed her into the office bathroom, and asked her to change clothes.  The plan was simple.  Tess would walk out of the camp at the end of the workday with Maria and the other girls employed as secretaries. Tess quickly threw her rags (that served as an inmate uniform) into the sealed garbage container and fastened the smart-looking dress.  She, along with her friend, walked past the guards out of the camp’s front gate.  In one seemingly uneventful yet fateful moment, Tess was free.  She survived the war and the Holocaust!  Many years later, she and her husband built the Holocaust Center in Maitland to commemorate her experience and to ensure “Never Again.”

Given Tess’s personal story and those of millions of other Jews and the fact that we live in an era where there still exists a sentiment that Jews should be “erased off the earth,” it appears highly inappropriate for Holocaust Centers like the one in Maitland to divert attention from their dedicated cause – commemorating the Holocaust and combating anti-semitism – in favor of embracing the universal brotherhood of victimization and righting all the wrongs in the world.  The most recent cyberattack was specific in its deadly goals for the Jewish race. The museum is wrong in using its energy and resources to fight other causes that involve the abuse of power at the hands of an unjust system.  This is not the time to turn away from fighting antisemitism and move on to other causes.

Both Tess in that tiny village of Poland long ago, and the Jewish teens of Great Neck, were targets of persecution just because they were Jews. Every day since liberation Tess was haunted by that fact.  That is why, in 1986, Tess and her husband Abe, along with a handful of dedicated supporters founded the museum.  Learning the lessons of the Holocaust means, above all, fighting the brushfires of antisemitism before they reach its full-blown “Final Solution stage.”   Focus on that task is what is needed now.

The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama knows their task.  It commemorates Rosa Parks’ brave determination to sit at the front of the bus in segregated Alabama. It does not try to teach about how the elderly or physically challenged people should also receive seats in the front of the bus, or how Jews should be treated without prejudice.  Nor does the curriculum on Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railway attempt to teach about freeing girls forced into the white slavery of that era, although that too is a subject that requires attention and fixing.

No doubt, embracing others who suffer unjustly was behind the Center’s sponsoring of the exhibit.  In the words of Pam Bachman, Assistant Director, “We are living in a time of unprecedented isolation and division.  We can be drivers for change and inspire our community.”  However, “Uprooting Prejudice: Facing Change” has nothing to do with the Holocaust and little to do with the lessons stemming from that tragic event.  But rather, it has to do with an unrelated, unfortunate event with a very different set of causes, circumstances and lessons.   The photos of individuals expressing their emotions in the wake of the death of George Floyd’s death are definitely poignant and powerful but not in the same setting as the main exhibit, the Holocaust.

The exhibit has drawn a barrage of negative feedback from Jews all over the country.  As Thane Rosenbaum, Distinguished Professor at Touro College and University System (and my colleague) and son of Holocaust survivors put it, the exhibit is simply not appropriate.  “The museum is blurring moral boundaries and showing a profound disrespect for the dead; and I mean not just Jewish dead but African dead.”  For me, while I worked at the Holocaust Center and now as a university professor, I have found that false equivalencies ultimately divide the very people they seek to bring together.

We have only to look at the unrequited love affair between Jews and Germans to see what accommodation got the Jews of Germany. The anti-semitic incident last week and the deadly events of the past two years do not negate the need to study the unjust suffering of others; but, it is not the role of Holocaust Centers to do so.  For that reason, along with several African-American professors at Touro College, I took our students both Jewish and non-Jewish, to visit the Rosa Parks Museum, The Robert Pettis Bridge, and The Museum of Slavery and Middle Passage in 2009.  If the Holocaust Center in Maitland  aims to forge multi-religious and multi-racial alliances  at this time, they should do so by exhibiting photos of the 5 million non-Jewish others who were murdered during the Nazi Era because they were deemed unworthy of life.  Relate real instances from the Shoah to build connections, such as the forced sterilization of the racially mixed so-called Rhineland Bastards (children of African fathers and German mothers).  Explain the differences and the commonalities that persecuted people of color share with Jews both then and now.

Unfortunately, the attempt at universalizing suffering from injustice only leaves all the specific injustices ill-addressed.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College, in New York City.
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