On June 23, 1944, a delegation of Red Cross inspectors entered the Nazi ghetto/concentration camp of Theresienstadt. As a response to the reports of horrific conditions at Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe, including camps devoted to mass murder, this inspection was carried out to both dispel those “rumors” and appease Scandinavian leaders concerned about the wellbeing of Jewish citizens deported by the Nazis. The Nazis described Theresienstadt, also known as Terezin, as a “spa town” where elderly Jews went to retire under Nazi “protection.” In preparation for the Red Cross inspection, the victims held in Terezin were forced to plant gardens, paint buildings, and act out farcical scenes in front of the inspectors, including soccer games and a trial of a fellow victim found to have stolen something from another “resident.” For their part, the Nazis “assisted” in the preparation for this inspection by deporting thousands from Terezin to their deaths at Auschwitz to ease overcrowding in the ghetto. Holocaust survivors often have difficulty finding words to describe concentration camps and ghettos because life within these places was so foreign to anything experienced by anyone who was not there. If the default description of a concentration camp is hell, then Terezin during this inspection, when victims were forced to smile and pretend they were living in “a paradise,” was a cruel dystopian Potemkin village. So pleased with their deception were the Nazis they actually made a propaganda film about Therezin to counter news reports of Nazi war crimes.
Today what constitutes a concentration camp is being debated after New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed on Monday the United States government was operating “concentration camps” filled with detained migrants from Central and South America. Some have lauded her analogy while others have derided her remarks as insulting to the victims of the Holocaust and ahistorical.
Who is right? Neither, and both... it really doesn’t matter.
The Nazi concentration camp system took many forms. Terezin is a prime example of the imprecision of this term, since that facility sometimes functioned more as a ghetto, and other times more like a concentration camp. In June of 1944, during the Red Cross inspection, it was a set-piece in what can only be described as the most absurd play ever staged. At Belzec, a Nazi killing center where as many as 600,000 were murdered, the life expectancy for an inmate was about 90-minutes, since that facility existed for the exclusive purpose of being a factory of death. Only seven victims were believed to have survived the camp because they were Sonderkommandos, inmates forced to work in the gas chambers moving bodies and operating the crematoria. Contrast that with Auschwitz, a facility with scores of sprawling sub-camps including factories for synthetic rubber, and factories of death with gas chambers that could kill thousands at a time, and a death count which easily exceeds 1 million.
While the Nazi camps varied in size and purpose (some exclusive factories of death, others factories of rockets or synthetic rubber… and death), individually and collectively they are all larger than the sum of their parts, and always were. These facilities were the distillation of Nazi ideology. Some of the camps may have been emblazoned with Arbeit Macht Frei (“work makes one free”) over their entrance, but that was a cynical message; no matter how hard anyone worked, no one victimized by the Nazi security state was ever supposed to be set free. For some victims, extermination would happen quickly upon arrival, for others it was after weeks or months of forced labor. These facilities were the physical incarnation of Nazi ideology: ridding the world of who the Nazis called “inferior people.” When boiled down to its essence, Naziism was Auschwitz.
It is accurate to say that the end goal of every Nazi facility, whether or not it contained gas chambers capable of killing thousands, was genocide. Killing every Jew on continental Europe, and beyond, was clearly Nazi priority. The same cannot, and must not, be said for ICE Detention Centers. While conditions in some facilities may be horrific, it is clear they are not designed to be factories of death. However, just like their eponymous ancestors, they also exist as the physical incarnation of the priorities of their national leaders.
Before she was cashiered as Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen was repeatedly berated by President Trump for not preventing more asylum-seekers from reaching American shores. How did the President want her to accomplish this? In a word: cruelty.
The President has publicly advocated for increased police brutality, murdering the innocent family members of suspected terrorists, and separating the children of asylum-seekers from their parents to deter those parents from seeking refuge in America. Simply put, these are policies of cruelty. Filthy, ice cold buildings where children are kept from their parents in chain-linked fence cages, forced to sleep on a concrete floor with nothing but an oversized sheet of aluminum foil as a blanket is the physical incarnation of a government whose espoused policies are that of cruelty.
The structures governments build, and the systems they create, reflect the policies of the administration.
What is perhaps more worthy of comparison is not Nazi Concentration Camp vs ICE Detention Center, but the American polity of 1942 and 2019. On November 25, 1942, nearly two years before the Terezin Red Cross inspection, The New York Times published an article detailing the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis in Poland, specifically referencing Auschwitz (referring to it by its Polish name, Oswiecim). The story appeared on page A10. The systematic murder of millions of civilians wasn’t deemed worthy of a page number in the single-digits. The Nazis had a policy of inhumanity and cruelty manifested in their system of ghettos, transit camps, concentration camps, and killing centers (to say nothing of the thousands of places where millions were murdered by mobile killing squads and buried in anonymous mass graves). In 1942, the murder of millions was only deemed worthy of page A10 because the American public was at best distracted by the economic depression and World War. At worst, the public was simply indifferent to the plight of foreigners.
Today we have no world war or global economic calamity to distract us, but the indifference remains. While well-intentioned people argue over the accuracy of the comparison between Detention Centers and Concentration Camps, an administration with only two priorities, venal self-enrichment and cruelty, continues to erode the promise of America. An ICE Detention Center is not Auschwitz, but both facilities reflect the priorities of the government that built them.
After World War II ended, many German civilians claimed ignorance of the concentration camp system and the crimes committed in their name. It is true that the Holocaust was intended to be a secret operation, and the Nazis did not print press releases with regular body counts. It is equally true that the Nazis never shied away from calling for the extermination of Jews and other minorities. The rhetoric was vile, vitriolic, and unambiguous. In 1920, point four of the Nazi party platform said, “No Jew can be a member of the nation.” In January of 1939, Hitler made a speech warning that if there were another world war it would result in “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!” The Nazi concentration camps created by the government which espoused these policies were not inevitable, but when a government promises cruelty, it usually seems to follow through.
It doesn’t matter what we call these places, what we do about them is what’s important. Today we’re appalled to discover Auschwitz didn’t make it past page A10; will our grandchildren feel the same way about us?
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.