I write this letter in despair and sadness as I witness the discussion about calling the detention centers at our southern border “concentration camps.” I believe I have some legitimacy entering this conversation as I am the child of concentration camp survivors. I was born just outside the refugee camps housing thousands of Jewish survivors. This subject should not be controversial, but it is because an American politician has used this painful history as a rhetorical device in a most cynical way. I’m not commenting on the plight of Central American immigrants at our borders and the deplorable circumstances they endure in their countries of origin that drive them here. What distresses me is the deliberate degradation of the “concentration camp” reality as those who know the history understand it.
The historical context for the term “concentration camp” has a specific meaning rooted in the Holocaust. It references the attempted extermination of my people by Germans and supported by the countries in which these places were located. In the simple, broad definition, yes, the term describes a place where people are housed against their will. Yes, people were concentrated in camps before the Holocaust, during WWII as was cruelly done to Japanese Americans, and after the Holocaust as now at our borders. It’s apparently necessary to reiterate that Jews were not willingly immigrating; they were forcibly removed from their homes, their rights taken away, their babies thrown from windows, their women raped and their children made guinea pigs for “medical experimentation.” There are many differences, too many to mention here. And they matter.
We should be clear: “Concentration camp” looms large because it signifies only one thing in its historical context: a place to intern, starve and murder Jews by the Germans to achieve genocide. That specificity should be defended unapologetically to honor those who were killed in those concentration camps not to mention those who survived, traumatized by the experiences. What is happening now is not that.
I believe historical accuracy is critical, especially now when in the United States and in Europe, a mere 70 years after these crimes were committed, there is an astonishingly minimal awareness among young generations of Auschwitz let alone the true dimensions of the Holocaust. For this same politician to reinforce her assertions with the phrase, “Never again” is a further diminution of my family’s suffering not to mention all of the other perished family members who have no voice.