KL Auschwitz. Oświęcim, Poland

Exactly How Big Is Auschwitz?

In a brilliant 1964 Commentary Magazine article analyzing contemporary Holocaust literature, the British critic A. Alvarez says, “The concentration camps are a dangerous topic to handle. They stir mud from the bottom, clouding the mind, rousing dormant self-destructiveness.” While accompanying President Trump on a visit to Poland ahead of the 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, Rep. Clay Higgins recorded a video of himself inside the Auschwitz-Berkenau Memorial & Museum stirring Alvarez’s historical mud. Throughout his five-minute video the Congressman intersperses descriptions of Nazi crimes committed at Auschwitz with editorializations seeming to justify American military and anti-terror policies as a precaution against such crimes happening to Americans. At one point, perched in front of the crematorium retorts where the bodies of hundreds of thousands of victims were incinerated, Higgins says “This is why our homeland security must be squared away and why our military must be invincible.” Later he goes on to say “This is why we must remember these things — man’s inhumanity to man.”

Higgins ends his video standing on a grassy hill outside of the lager, the theme to Schlinder’s List playing in the background, with this admonition: “The world is a smaller place now than it was in World War II…The United States is more accessible to terror like this.”

Setting aside the obvious bad taste of filming a five-minute selfie in a crematorium (bad taste acknowledged by the Congressman in a thoughtful apology accompanied by him removing the video from his official feed), and the lack of historical evidence to support his assertions, Congressman Higgins’ narrated tour of Auschwitz reflects a common reaction to the crimes of the Holocaust, namely to see the Holocaust as a justification for…everything.

Being the largest mass-murder in human history, happening over the largest crime scene, the scale alone seems to invite every reaction possible. I’ve often said the Holocaust is the ultimate Rorschach Test; you can see anything you want in the crimes of the Nazis. Congressman Higgins is far from the first politician who has justified his position by citing the Holocaust. I’ve heard people use the Holocaust as a justification for everything from limiting gun-control measures to both an increased and diminished surveillance-state.

Rather than analyzing his suggestion that the crimes committed at Auschwitz could be prevented in modern-day America though increased anti-terrorism policies, this video forces us to ask other questions, namely: 1) why are so many compelled to find their own lessons in the Holocaust? and 2) why, in this five-minute video about Auschwitz, filmed at Auschwitz, does the Congressman neglect to say the words “Holocaust,” “Shoah,” or “Jew?”

When members of the general public ask me questions about the Holocaust they generally fall into one of two categories: mechanisms and motivation. Or, how and why? Essentially how did the gas chambers work, and why did people push their neighbors into them? Both of these categories of questions strike me as reasonable from the layperson, but I’ve taken to responding to the second by saying “I can tell you how the Holocaust happened, but not why.” There is no satisfying, complete, answer to why people do evil to one another, so I’ve stopped speculating as to motives.

When I find myself at places where the Holocaust occurred, or at memorials or museums commemorating the event, I often hear parents and teachers telling the youngsters around them, in somber tones, variations on “this is important… pay attention… but you know, it’s so much bigger than just that.” The same way Congressman Higgins saw a justification for American military spending in the blockhouses of Auschwitz, people have told me that a visit to Dachau or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has inspired them to campaign against bullying, volunteer at an animal rescue, or become more/less religious. Sometimes teachers or chaperones ask me to validate this point for their students, that this museum or that memorial is “so much bigger” than just the Holocaust. Frequently this request is couched in the form of a compliment, congratulating me that “my genocide” is actually more meaningful because it’s “bigger than the Holocaust.” In response to this “compliment” I usually find myself saying “actually it’s exactly that big, no more, no less.” What I want to add is “is the largest mass-murder in human history not big enough for you?” Why must this crime be somehow bigger to have meaning? Or, more to the point, why must this crime have any meaning at all?

Holocaust professionals have many internal debates: why did the Nazi’s shift from shooting operations to gas chamber operations to kill their victims? How many people actually died during the Holocaust? When was the plan to murder Europe’s 11 million Jews codified, if it was codified at all? All of these questions are legitimate and important topics, worthy of thoughtful analysis and much scholarship. A more fundamental question often seeps into more informal conversations among these same professionals: does the Holocaust have anything to teach us? Are there any lessons to be learned from this event, and if so, what?

I firmly fall into the camp which states that the Holocaust has nothing to teach us; moreover, it mustn’t have anything to teach us. The Holocaust is the black hole of human history; everything which enters is destroyed by its force, no light can emerge. There are no lessons to be learned at Auschwitz. There mustn’t be any lessons learned at Auschwitz.

At the age of 14 Fischel Reitman was deported from the Pruzhany Ghetto to Auschwitz. After being crammed inside a cattlecar with 100 other Jewish deportees for seven days he finally arrived at the ramp. When the door to his cattlecar was opened he was herded out onto the platform where he was greeted by the sight of a Nazi guard grabbing an infant from the arms of its ~20-year old mother. Taking the child by its ankles the guard smashed its head onto the ground. As the hysterical women lunged for her lifeless child the guard plunged a bayonet into her abdomen. Before he could see what next happened to her Reitman was selected for forced labor, saving him from the fate which befell thousands of his former neighbors who were marched directly to the gas chambers and their own deaths.

To find a lesson in the Holocaust, for the Holocaust to teach us something, anything, is to say that something good came out of it. But how can that possibly be? How could anyone say that anything good could come from the brutal murder of that child?

While it is highly unlikely, we do not know if that woman survived her stabbing. But if she did, I could not look her in the eyes and say “I’m sorry for your loss, but something good came from your child’s brains being bashed against the pavement.” I couldn’t do that once, and I couldn’t imagine doing that six million more times. I certainly couldn’t imagine saying, as Congressman Higgins intimated, that the pain of her child’s murder should be blunted because we’ve invested in more servers at NSA Headquarters which may help prevent terrorism.

The human brain is designed to find patterns, even when none are present; this scientific phenomena is called apophenia. The more ineffable the concept, the grander the pattern must be. The instinct to find a lesson in the Holocaust is a very human reaction. The theory of apophenia tells us that human beings constantly seek to find purpose and meaning in the ordinary and the extraordinary, but when it comes to the Holocaust that search for a light-switch in a darkened room only leads to more darkness…more testimony from victims like Reitman, more murdered children.

What possible lesson could come out of the Holocaust? Don’t murder people? Did any of the perpetrators really not know that bashing an infant against pavement was wrong? Would reading The Diary of Anne Frank have stopped a machete-wielding Hutu from hacking at the neck of a Tutsi child in Rwanda? Would increasing the Pentagon’s arsenal of Predator drones from 259 to 260 or 2,600 somehow make the Holocaust less awful? Could anything make it less awful?

The Holocaust and its victims should be remembered for what it was, and not become a tabula rasa for politicians or pundits. Auschwitz is big enough already.

While Congressman Higgins guided his audience through the various buildings at Auschwitz, he somehow managed to describe the crimes of the Nazis without actually identifying the victims. Never in his five minutes did he say the words “Holocaust,” “Shoah,” or “Jew.”* In his apology the Congressman does say that he has “always stood with Israel and all Jewish people, and… always will.” However, while wandering through the site of the largest mass-murder in human history, the victims seem to become a footnote in their own murder (a topic I have previously discussed in this essay).

Of the approximately 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, at least 1.1 million would die there, around 90% of whom were Jewish. The fact these details didn’t make it into the Congressman’s final cut reflects a disturbing trend in the way the public remembers the Holocaust: de-Jewificaion and generalization.

The tendency to generalize and de-Jewify the Holocaust is nothing new. When Meyer Levin first wrote a draft play dramatizing The Diary of Anne Frank it was rejected by the producers, including Anne’s father Otto, for being “too Jewish.” A new playwriting team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett was hired and explicitly created a de-Jewified, more “universal” Anne. They justified this by saying her Jewishness

would set the characters in the play apart from the people watching them…for the majority of our audience is not Jewish. And the thing that we have striven for, toiled for, fought for throughout the whole play is to make the audience understand and identify themselves…to make them one with them…to make them feel ‘that, but for the grace of God, might have been I.’

Are human beings so fundamentally lacking in natural empathy that a Jewish catastrophe must be universalized in order to generate feeling?

Anne was hiding because she was Jewish, denounced because she was Jewish, and murdered because she was Jewish. If she wasn’t Jewish there’s a good chance she’d be alive today (aged 88, younger than my living grandmother).

Anne Frank’s de-Jewified character in the play reflected a 1950’s understanding of the Holocaust, but with the 1960’s came the publication of Elie Wiesel’s Night and Hannah Arendt’s writings on Adolf Eichmann and the public at large began to know the crimes of the Nazi’s in a fuller sense. Following NBC’s 1978 miniseries Holocaust, 1982’s Sophie’s Choice, and 1993’s Schindler’s List, the starker history of the Holocaust was no longer hidden behind the giddy smile of a beaming Anne Frank who would defy the Nazis into immortality. Now the crimes of the Holocaust seem to live in the vernacular, but as the crimes become more public, their victims disappear.

When Goodrich and Hackett said that they had to de-Jewify Anne to make her story more palatable they were following in a long tradition of de-identifying and emasculating minorities in art. Stepin Fetchit could dance alongside a six-year old Shirley Temple, but it was clear that Shirley was in charge. Other black actors could occasionally get roles, but they had to be bumbling, benign, and powerless characters, subservient to their white counterparts. Obviously gay characters appear in many films and TV shows from the last century, but only as punchlines and celibate best-friends, winked at as “confirmed bachelors” and…you know…light in the loafers. Women, racial minorities, people with disabilities, all managed to somehow exist in real life, but could never be reflected in mainstream art except as subservient characters, people to be pitied, or dire warnings of what happens if you stray from the prescribed path.

Robbing victims of the Holocaust of their identities causes what Yaffa Eliach called “a double dying.” All of us want to have our full identities acknowledged, counted, and celebrated. Don’t believe me? The next time you find yourself on an interstate highway start counting the bumper stickers or license plate frames celebrating countries the driver has never been closer to than an atlas, political affiliations, vacation spots, hobbies, and religions. Those many identities make us who we are.

Part of Hitler’s plan to destroy Europe’s Jews was to not just destroy them physically, but to destroy their identity and history. When we remember the Holocaust but forget the victims we are aiding the perpetrators, building additions onto Auschwitz after it ceased operations. Once again, Auschwitz is already big enough.

*While many non-Jews died at Auschwitz including people with physical or mental disabilities, homosexuals, Afro-Germans, Roma/Sinti, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, and political opponents of Nazism to name a few, Jews were the primary target of Nazi aggression, they were the only group targeted for complete destruction, they were the group who died in the largest numbers, and they were the only group targeted because of who they were as opposed to what they did. Today it is commonly accepted that homosexuals and others are not choosing that identity, but in Nazi ideology homosexuality and other characteristics which caused individuals to become targets of Nazi tyranny was thought of as a behavior and altering that behavior could save you from targeting. Judaism was considered biological or racial by the Nazi’s and converts to Christianity, along with the Christian children and grandchildren of converts were still considered Jewish for the purposes of Nazi targeting; Jews were the only victim group with an immutable characteristic according to Nazi ideology.

Samuel J. Aronson is an Assistant Dean in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. He studies the role of science and technology in the Holocaust.

Holocaust Historian and Georgetown University Associate Dean