Are We Ever Allowed to Make Holocaust Comparisons?

Wherever you stand on today’s hysteria about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the phrases “concentration camps” and “Never Again” in regard to the mass detentions of immigrant children on the U.S. border probably has been predetermined by your politics.

That is to say, liberals will come to her defense, saying that we face a horrible moral situation and we need language that sparks people to action. Conservatives will decry her, saying her rhetoric cheapens the legacy of the Holocaust. Everyone will retreat to their previously drawn lines.

I don’t want to be guilty of that, so before making one or two points, I want to come clean: I am generally on the political left, but I think it is possible and necessary to be critical of leaders with whom you are sympathetic. The antisemitic blindspot of the left is an outrage, and people who care about the climate change, racism, LGBTQ issues, economic justice, and reining in unfettered corporations had better wake up quickly before the Democratic party slides into full-blown Corbynism. Which would be a disaster for everyone.

So let’s try to back off of how we feel about the messenger, and soberly ask: Was AOC wrong to use those terms? I would make a few points:

First: Being specific in our language is very important, especially when it comes to the Shoah. “Concentration camps” are not the same as “death camps”—and during the Shoah there were both. To quote Deborah Dwork, a preeminent contemporary scholar of the Shoah:

Initially, the Nazis established concentration camps to incarcerated Communists, Socialists, asocials, or other who did not fit into the national community. Their primary purpose was to “teach” these Germans what they needed to know to return to society. Jews, by definition, could never belong to the national community… The many Jews among these political prisoners were therefore treated worse and assigned to the most difficult and dangerous labor details.[1]

These concentration camps were limitless in their brutality, and of course enormous numbers of Jews died there. But they are not identical with the death camps—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno; each name seared into our consciousness—where the singular goal was to use all the technology available to annihilate enormous numbers of Jews as efficiently, and as brutally, as possible.

There have been concentration camps before and since the Shoah. Totalitarian regimes have “concentrated” groups of people into “camps” many times in our awful history. Auschwitz, however, is something different. (See the map below.)

Second:  Is the Shoah a singular event? I believe it is. That’s why I prefer the Hebrew shoah, “cataclysm”, to the English holocaust. This language preserves the Jewish ownership of our history, and it reminds us that while others were persecuted by the Nazis, the Jews were uniquely targeted. Furthermore, there’s something unsettling about the origins of the word holocaust, with its connections to biblical burnt-offerings. As if to say: there was something “sacrificial” about the murders, which of course there wasn’t.

Likewise for genocide, a word that needed to be coined because no linguistic precedent existed for the crimes that the Nazis committed against the Jews. “Genocide” is not a synonym for “murder,” even “mass murder,” and it should not be used as such. But still: There have been other genocides, some attempted and some fulfilled, in the past three-quarters of a century, and we need to identify them as such.

Third:  So, are we ever allowed to make comparisons to the Shoah? We’ve become so accustomed to calling our enemies “Nazis.” (I’ve done it.) Perhaps there is solace in knowing that the nastiest word we can come up with for the scummiest people is “Nazi”—isn’t it an acknowledgment of the evil of the Shoah if that’s the most extreme word we can think of?

But we should usually avoid using that language. Thoughtful people with diametrically different points of view from our own are not “worse than Hitler.”  But still…

Do we really believe that we should never make Shoah analogies? If so, what was the point of all that education, all those Holocaust Museums, all those Yom HaShoah commemorations? I thought the point was: Learn from history. Recognize the signs of creeping fascism in order to cut it off. Don’t let another human being be dehumanized to the point where they are treated like vermin.

I thought that’s what “Never again” meant: “Never again” to us—that’s why we needed Zionism; “Never again” to anyone—that’s why we needed a human rights movement.

Through our Shoah education, Jewish strength has become a Mitzvah (here in the sense of “commandment”). So, too, has Jewish empathy for others’ victimization.

We’ve properly used the Einsatzgruppen analogy when considering the annihilation of the Darfuris. We’ve correctly called the Rwandan devastation a “genocide.” When Arabic textbooks in Palestine and elsewhere show caricatures of hook-nosed Jews grubbing money and drinking blood, we say, We know where we’ve seen this before, and we call it out.

And I, for one, make the connection between those faces on the U.S. border—concentrated as they are into camps—and the faces of Jewish children in Germany during World War II.

So my take on AOC’s comments?    

The humanitarian disaster taking place on the U.S. border is a stain on our country. The Trump administration’s family separation policies diminish our moral authority everywhere. The failure of the other parts of the government to react is a disgrace, although we should appreciate the moral voices on both the right and the left that have spoken out.

If AOC had called it “Auschwitz,” she should be condemned. If she had called it “genocide,” it would be an abhorrent abuse of language. But she didn’t. She called it a “concentration camp” and she said “Never again.” I agree with her on both counts.

[1] Deborah Dwork & Robert Jan van Pelt, Holocaust: A History, 2002, p.356.

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

פידלער אויפן דאך—Fidler Afn Dakh: The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof

We all know the well-worn critiques of Fiddler on the Roof: it’s sentimental, full of caricatures, and frontloads all of its most memorable songs in Act One. More significantly, it romanticizes a world that in reality knew more than its share of misery. Suffering belies the Jews’ dancing on tables with Cossack “brothers” during the song “To Life!”  

Still I love it, and always have felt that the critics protested too much. After all, an antisemitic cloud hovers over the plot, and the population of Anatevka does end up being expelled from the Pale. This musical was never simply one long hora.

Joel Grey’s Yiddish-language production, just closing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and making aliyah to the Theatre District, makes that point clearer than it’s ever been.

Since (the English-language) Fiddler is now more than a half-century old, we can better appreciate the context in which it appeared. Historian Rachel Kranston sees Fiddler as an expression of the “ambivalent embrace” of post-WW2 American Jewry’s flight to the suburbs. While many Jewish families found comfort and economic success, thoughtful Jews of that generation understood that big sacrifices were being made when they left the cities. Jewish leaders worried that with prosperity there would be a spiritual descent, a loss of multigenerational intimacies, and a turn towards political conservatism that comes with not seeing the daily struggles of your neighbors. Fiddler—along with the photo-essays of Roman Vishniac and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Earth is the Lord’s—were romanticizations of the past, signs of a generation sensing that something precious was being lost.

Celebrating Yiddish, too, carries the same risks. The language of the daily life of Ashkenazi Jews for centuries, Yiddish was the primary vehicle of their spirituality, their wit, and their literary character. Unfortunately, Yiddish for many people connotes lazy nostalgia or borsht-belt vulgarity. The author and scholar Dovid Katz upends most of this conventional wisdom in an entertaining history of Yiddish, including the mistaken notion that Yiddish is in decline. The truth is that Yiddish is alive and well and embraces more speakers every year. It’s just that almost all of them are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jews)—not the sort of mamaloshen that most nostalgists have in mind.

Fiddler on the Roof being performed in Yiddish is a great experience, and aims to restore some of those losses. One thing that always rang hollow was its clunky use of Jewish language. Take, for instance, the “Sabbath Prayer.” No Jew says “Sabbath”, of course; that’s Jewish-in-translation for outsiders peering in through a window. But would any audience have been confused because of the word “Shabbos”? Surely not. Even if Fiddler were being performed by a public high school in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the audience would have understood. So why the coyness?

Same goes with “Torah”—or, better, the Yiddish Toyre—instead of Tevye’s constantly invoking the “Good Book” like a frum John Calvin. In the minimalist set of this Yiddish production, a backdrop with the word תורה shadows the set. At first I thought it was a hokey device—until the culmination of the first act. During Tzeitl’s and Motl’s wedding, Russian thugs vandalize the town and beat up the Jews and, at the scene’s climax, rip the tableau “Torah” in half. It’s an unexpectedly visceral and powerful moment.

Similarly, there’s something restorative about reading the spellings of the names in the playbill—“Motl”, “Hodl”, “Khave”, “Leyzer-Volf”, “Anatevke”—rather than their more familiar, ever-so-slightly Americanized versions.

My grandmother never called the Yiddish language “Yiddish”—she just called it “Jewish.” Which is, of course, what it means. And she had a point. Just as Robert Frost once defined “poetry” as “that which is lost in translation”, so too does Judaism in translation lose some of its Jewishness.

Language means everything in Judaism. “The Sabbath” is not “Shabbos”, “the Good Book” is not “Torah”, “charity” is not “Tzedakah”, and a “house of worship” is not a “shul.” The Yiddish Fiddler restores so much of this to the rhythms and cadences of songs and dialogue that have entered our vernacular.

Despite a half-century of rabbis’ and scholars’ gripes about Fiddler, I’ll keep going to see it forever. It is a Jewish-American landmark, and deservedly so: There is just so much memory of Jewish pain coursing though its veins. But Yiddish is the most effective vessel of that pain and that memory, and having seen Fiddler in Yiddish, I don’t think I’ll ever again enjoy English versions of the play quite as much.

Fiddler Yiddish.jpeg