Why are Nazi camps different than other camps? Part VI

Part VI of a Six-Day Series: Conclusion.


If the British invented concentration camps, the Nazis redefined them as the epitome of pure evil. Unfortunately, current encyclopedias and organizations fall short of making the distinction between Nazi and other camps. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) defines concentration camps as a place in which “people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.” This description may be applicable to generic camps but does not begin to define the Jewish experience under Nazi concentration camps. The United Nations provides a more rounded description of Nazi camps by outlining two points: “Unlike other groups, Nazis sought to murder every Jew everywhere, regardless of age, gender, beliefs, or actions, and they invoked a modern government bureaucracy to accomplish their goal; and 2) the Nazi leadership held that ridding the world of Jewish presence would be beneficial to the German people and all mankind, although in reality, the Jews posed no threat.” Other dictionaries’ definitions may include the camps’ inhumane treatment and conditions, random imprisonment, and tortuous labor of Nazi camps which is true, but still not enough when they omit the word genocide. A truer definition of Nazi concentration camps requires an encyclopedia larger than life. After all, it was the Nazis that perpetrated a crime against the Jews and humanity with a “macabre era in which evil and irrationality would reign for twelve endless years.”

This devastating event in which Nazi Germany targeted the Jews with systematic and breath-taking cruelty killed 6 million of them had no parallel in history. A new vocabulary had to be invented to describe the horrors seen by rescuers and survivors at the concentration camps with thousands of skeletons-like bodies piled up in ditches they were forced to dig for their own graves. The word “Genocide” was coined to describe it. Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish-Polish lawyer who escaped Nazi Germany to the U.S., and worked for the government as an analyst of war coined the word Genocide in 1944 when he published his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The word has two components in two different languages: Genos — Greek for race — and Cide —Latin for killing. Then, in the years after WWII, Yiddish-speaking survivors started using the word Hurban, a word used by Jews in Antiquity to refer to the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. Other Jews derived the word Holocaust from the Greek Holokauston, a translation of the Hebrew word “Olah” or burnt sacrifice offered to G-d at the ancient Temples. Jews deemed it appropriate to express their sorrowful experience in the Nazi concentration camps where the bodies of Jews were consumed in the crematoria. One more term that the Holocaust Museum in Israel, Yad Vashem currently advocates is “Shoah” — Hebrew for catastrophe — which has a more secular connotation and is used in Israel, referring to the near destruction of European Jewry in Nazi concentration camps. “Shoah” was first used by director Claude Lanzmann in his influential nine and a half hour 1985 documentary of the same name.

This essay has argued that Nazi concentration camps were the last step in a systematic process of extermination that was preceded by a racial ideology, a deep hatred of Jews, anti-Jewish libels, conspiracy theories, propaganda; legalized and institutionalized anti-semitism, mass-hysteria against Jews; international overreach to mass murder Jews beyond German borders, willing participation of soldiers and ordinary Aryans in the killing of Jews, and global apathy for the fate of German Jews. In this framework based on precedents that led to the establishment of Nazi concentration camps, I presented scholarly evidence that such camps did not emerge in a vacuum, but they were the result of a broader European millennia-old hatred fueled by the common anti-semitic tropes of Jews as killers of Jesus (ancient Rome); host desecrators, blood consumers, poisoners of wells, plagues creators, ritual murderers, devils, usurers, Shylocks (Middle Ages Europe); economy manipulators, political conspirators, capitalists, Bolsheviks, elders of Zion (18th, 19th c. Russia), warmongers, backstabbers, the Eternal Jew, rulers of the world by proxy, plotters of world domination, polluters of Aryan blood, parasites, swine, vermin, sub-human, alien race, race mixers (20th c. Germany).

Therefore, the Nazis’ concentration camps would forever become a heavily loaded term that embodies the unbearable and indescribable suffering of people who were murdered by Nazis because they did not have Aryan blood, blond hair, and blue eyes. There is much more to Nazi camps that cannot be encompassed in definitions, nomenclatures, and terminologies. Words are useless when confronted with the devastation imposed on the Jews by the fantasy of an evil mind. Jewish survivors found their own lexicon — Genocide, Hurban, Holocaust, and Shoah — to describe their horrendous experience as I had already described above. While finding a definition for the evil perpetrated by Nazis on Jews in concentration camps will forever be a quest, the Jewish experience can be best honored and remembered in the lives, memories, and narratives of survivors and their offspring all of which have been memorialized in museums, literature, movies, books, and all kinds of media. Today, the world is forgetting and even denying the Holocaust, but it is our duty as Jews to remember, write, narrate, and educate new generations to prevent another one from ever happening again.

With current politicians and the media making unequal comparisons between Nazi concentration camps with border camps, the Jewish lexicon has been cheapened and diminished. These pundits’ comparison is not even original. The same controversy arose in April 1998 when a New York City museum compared the Japanese internment camps with Nazi camps. The opening of an exhibit titled “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese-American Experience” opened at Ellis Island, created a heated debate between the Museum and Jewish groups. The topic of the exhibit was the American internment of some 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II (WWII). “The exhibit caused an uproar in the Jewish and larger communities for using the Nazi camps as equivalent to the American internment camps.” Jewish groups that protested the exhibit met with the organizers and reached a solution by adding an amendment to the sign announcing the exhibit and a footnote to the title in the exhibit brochure.”

Two decades later, this same trope is unoriginally utilized by some members of the U.S. Congress to depict conditions on border camps as equal to the genocidal Nazi camps with total disregard to Jewish history and Jewish identity. Such stratagem not only opens old wounds of the victims of the Holocaust, but it also depicts the United States as a Nazi-like regime and its leader as Hitler. This mentality is based on this axiom: If the U.S. leader is Hitler, it follows that his regime is a dictatorship, his policies are evil, his speeches are propaganda, and his border camps are Nazi-like. Regardless of the current political climate of progressives versus conservatives, this mental state does not help the discourse on injustices to minorities, nor does it minimize the pain of inmates in the US border. Americans can do better for the migrants, such as revising immigration laws in Congress rather than making such analogies on Twitter for shock value. So far, there is no evidence that constant comparisons of border and Nazi camps have changed policy or make people care about the immigrants’ plight. In addition, this unfair juxtaposition between border centers and Nazi concentration camps which has become identified with the tremendous suffering of the Jewish people only highlights the pundits’ ignorance of the Holocaust and their inability to create a lexicon fit for the conditions at the border.

Today’s controversy is old news for Jewish scholars who have been writing about the rise of parallelisms with Nazi camps as soon as WWII ended. In 1985, Lucy S. Dawidowicz lamented the failure to understand that universalizing Auschwitz by comparisons with other forms of evil is denying the historical reality of the evilest regime in history and the sacrificial experience of the Jews in Nazi Germany. “When people equate Nazi Germany with the United States, they be-speak a vicious anti-Americanism. Their purpose is to depict America as AmeriKa, a Nazified United States, heir as it were to the unredeemed evil which the Nazis represented.” Dawidowicz warns against equating any commonplace disaster or atrocity committed in the U.S., with the genocide of Jews by abusing the words Auschwitz, Holocaust, concentration camps, or Genocide because “if the U.S. committed crimes as evil as those of Nazi Germany, then Nazi Germany committed no worse crimes than other states and was not unique among nations as a perpetrator of evil deeds. Thus all states and all forms of government are reduced to a simplistic uniformity; differences between democracy and totalitarianism become unimportant.”

For this essay, I find it fitting to conclude with linguist Deborah Shiffrin’s definition of Nazi concentration camps: “The term ‘concentration camps’ has gained a more general meaning that includes the meaning of extermination camps along with the Nazi atrocities perpetrated on Jews which has imbedded an all-inclusive meaning, not just of internment, relocation, or persecution, but Genocide. Once the term ‘concentration camps’ is used for government centers of concentration, the question emerges: is there anything Jewish left about the Holocaust?”

*For footnotes and bibliography, visit my page at: www.yeshiva.academia.edu/hadassahlevinson.

About the Author
Hadassah Levinson is a Judaic Studies teacher at Jewish Day Schools and instructor for young adults at Jewish centers in Manhattan. She is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University's M.A. in Modern Jewish History and she is currently enrolled in graduate studies in American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Touro College. She is an iFellows at the iCenter for Israel Education. She has prior graduate degrees in Communications (NYU '95); and Journalism and International Affairs (Columbia University 2000).
Related Topics
Related Posts