It’s a sign of how politicized our national discourse has become that nothing is out of bounds—not even the Holocaust. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) used the charged term “concentration camp” last week to describe migrant detention centers, maybe she didn’t realize that the term, semantics aside, uniquely reverberates with the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.
If she still has any doubt, she ought to walk over to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and check out “The Evidence Room.” The exhibit, which opened June 12, reproduces the expert architecture that turned the Auschwitz concentration camp into a systematic factory for murder.
Reporting from the museum, Jewish Journal writer Jordan Schachtel describes some of the haunting details that facilitated the efficient killing of Jews. First, the doors:
“Nazi architects designed this door, an entrance to the gas chamber, with two ideas in mind—maximum ‘security’ and maximum killing speed and efficiency. The door to the gas chambers acts simultaneously as an impenetrable jail cell and as a key component of a rapid extermination machine.
“The gas-tight door is modified so that it opens out, rather than in, so that more corpses could be retrieved from the gas chamber more efficiently. A latch is installed to further reinforce the door. The door has a peephole so the guards can observe the swift murder of everyone inside. The victims’ side of the door was fitted with a mesh wiring surrounding the peephole to prevent prisoners from attempting to break the glass.”
Then, the wall hatches and ladders:
“This system was designed so that guards could lob Zyklon-B, the human-killing pesticide, into above-ground gas chambers. Nazi troops would climb a ladder and toss the Zyklon-B gas canisters into an open hatch, leaving locked-in victims with nowhere to go. This type of killing machine could take out an estimated 1,000 innocent lives per day.”
And then, the gas column:
“The floor-to-ceiling column was designed to double the killing speed of the ladder system. The column system allowed Nazis to lower the Zyklon-B through an airtight hatch and then remove the gas canisters in an expedited manner, freeing up the gas chambers for more rounds of total extermination. The gas column was utilized to murder as many as 2,000 people at once.”
Yes, these details are chilling and difficult to read, but they remind us how careful we must be when we dare tread on one of humanity’s worst atrocities.
Allowing our anger at current events to justify weaponizing this atrocity is not just wrong, it’s counterproductive. As we saw last week, Ocasio-Cortez’s justified rage at the conditions in our migrant detention centers got obliterated by the controversy over her use of “concentration camp.” So, instead of talking about what we can do to improve conditions, we argued over her use of the charged term.
That term may be useful to bash a political opponent, but it does little to further either the cause of migrants or the cause of Holocaust remembrance.
As the head of the USC Shoah Foundation, Stephen Smith, writes in the Journal:
“The rule of thumb is never to appropriate the Holocaust to explain, compare or contrast contemporary issues, whether we are Jews, Christian or Muslims; Republicans or Democrats.
“Families on the southern border of the USA, the rights of Palestinians, the existence of the State of Israel, do not need the Holocaust to have legitimacy as pressing issues in their own right. We do not need to invoke the deaths of Jewish children 75 years ago, who have no voice of their own, to make our voice sound more legitimate.”
Maybe we can’t help ourselves. Maybe we need those dramatic, incendiary tweets to bludgeon our political rivals. But this is having a corrosive effect on our national conversation. Loosely appropriating Holocaust imagery is just an extreme example of this widespread phenomenon.
As Smith reminds us, the memory of the millions who perished in the Holocaust “should always provoke us to be more humane in every situation.” And, as “The Evidence Room” makes clear, there is something so unspeakable about the calculated murder of millions of Jews that it behooves us not to taint the memory of the victims with the ugliness of today’s politics.
By all means, let’s never forget the Holocaust and let’s always fight for the rights of migrants. But for the sake of both, let’s not mix them up.
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column first appeared in the Jewish Journal.