How has it come to this? Having to explain the Holocaust and having to argue that undeniably anti-Semitism was at the heart of it.
I get the feeling, when talking to various groups of people, that people simply can’t quite comprehend what it was that exactly happened. It’s also easier for many to try and forget or simply not think about it, but we must not forget and must challenge the lack of thought. It’s almost as if people don’t understand and have the absence of being able to be empathetic. Think for just a moment about how the Holocaust would have affected you, your family, your friends, and even neighbours, all of you going from nice, warm and comfortable homes to what is essentially a stable or a brick outhouse. Dinner, I’m sure you all come home from school or work and eat dinner with your family, well, what dinner? In a concentration or death camp you would be lucky to get a potato or cabbage broth that was 95% diluted, you’d be lucky if you got this twice a day with some bread. That’s about 200 calories for a whole day (that’s the equivalent of 28g of butter, or 3 eggs, or 1l of Coca-Cola), a day where you would be subject to back-breaking labour and if you dared stop then you would be beaten by a guard.
I am aware that this is not a pleasant subject by any means, nor is it easy to imagine. I, for one, find it easier than most. This is a subject that I have studied for half of my life (about 10 years), I have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as Sachsenhausen. Going to such places, that I have dedicated so much time to, is actually quite sickening to think about, but there is not a single day goes past where I do not think about some of the videos or pictures that I have seen.
Today, Jewish people still reel from this grief and loss. To be clear, Jews were not the only group deemed inferior to the Aryan race. The Nazis targeted Roma and Sinti gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, political dissidents and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But we simply cannot combine all of these groups under the umbrella of “The Holocaust”, it would be doing them a disservice. The persecution of these groups was distinct from one another and should be learnt separately. What you may know about one group doesn’t necessarily apply to others.
The biblical word “Shoah” (been used to mean destruction since the middle ages) became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of the European Jewry as early as the start of the 1940s. The word “Holocaust” came into use in the 1950s as the corresponding term (The true definition of Holocaust is a Jewish sacrificial offering which was burnt completely at an alter). The selection of these two words with religious origins reflects recognition of the unprecedented nature and magnitude of the events.
So, is it OK if, out of ignorance, someone says something offensive or anti-Semitic? It may not be OK outright, but this doesn’t mean that there is a need to flame and abuse that person, instead we shall educate. However, if they have been told why they have caused offence, and rather than seeking to understand, they claim foul play on the part of the accuser and continue with calculated intent to provoke, we must call this out for what it is; Anti-Semitism.
When people ask “But what about all the other Holocausts and their victims?” it could be a mistake but often it is not. We must be careful not to trivialise other historical or current events by attempting to weld them onto another tragedy. Each genocide since the Holocaust has its own history and legacy and deserves to be remembered as such.
Beyond this, though, why can’t we simply remember the murder of six million Jews as a tragedy in its own right? Why can’t we move away from thinking that commemoration of one is to the detriment of another? We shouldn’t have to explain that there is only one Holocaust and it had Anti-Semitism at its heart.
This risks depriving the Jewish community of owning the pain that is still viscerally felt more than 70 years since the liberation of the camps. Unbelievably, it could even deprive them of the very word that describes the tragedy that befell their ancestors. How on Earth has it come to this?