WHAT THE HOLOCAUST TOOK FROM US
The Holocaust is the most industrial genocide in human history. This means that the Nazis used factory-like methods to exterminate Jews and Roma and Sinti to a degree that has never been seen before or since.
The Holocaust decimated the Jewish community physically, culturally, and emotionally, and to this day, our population hasn’t recovered. Prior to the Holocaust, there were some 16.6 million Jews in the world. Today — 78 years later — the Jewish worldwide population stands at about 15 million. 66 percent of the Jewish population in Europe was exterminated in a matter of under six years. In some countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, over 90 percent of Jews were murdered. The largest single extermination took place during the Babi Yar Massacre, when 34,000 Jews were murdered in 48 hours.
Culturally, we also lost so much. Yiddish and Ladino, for example, were nearly exterminated completely. Though the Yiddish-speaking population has recovered slightly, to this day, Ladino is still endangered. 85 percent of Holocaust victims were Yiddish speakers.
Then comes the issue of trauma. The Holocaust obviously created long life trauma for survivors, but it goes even beyond that. Studies have found that second and third generation Holocaust survivors have altered stress hormones, making us more susceptible to certain mental health conditions.
All this to say: for Jews, the Holocaust is not merely a historical event, a universal lesson on how humanity should or should not behave, or an aesthetic artists can use to make a political point. To us, the Holocaust is not only a tragedy and a devastation, but a long-lasting trauma.
THE EXPLOITATION OF HOLOCAUST MEMORY IS TRAUMATIC FOR JEWS
In the 78 years since the Holocaust, the non-Jewish world has widely used our very own genocide as a cautionary tale on human behavior. And while it’s true that the Holocaust can teach people many things, such as the manner in which a society can quickly descend into fascism, if the world actually genuinely cared about Holocaust victims, their main priority would be to tend to the destruction that the Holocaust left behind. For example: the world could prioritize learning about and eradicating antisemitism or helping Holocaust survivors, as about a third of Holocaust survivors live in poverty today.
Instead, the Holocaust is used as a tool to convey a message — a message that generally has nothing to do with actual Holocaust victims. Anti-choice protestors march with images of Holocaust corpses, comparing abortion to the Holocaust. Social media posts see side by side images of children behind barbed wire in death camps and Palestinians crossing checkpoints in the West Bank, even though crossing a checkpoint to get to work is not remotely comparable to being imprisoned in a death camp awaiting death by gas chamber. Anti-vaxxers wear yellow Stars of David on their chests, comparing the treatment of Jews in the Holocaust to vaccines. At pro-Palestine marches, the Star of David in the Israeli flag is replaced with the Nazi Hakenkreuz (swastika).
But these comparisons are not harmless. Beyond being laughably inaccurate, they are also exploitative. Think about the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to you. Now imagine that trauma being depicted everywhere, all the time. How would you feel?
Studies have found that increased Holocaust exposure for second and third generation survivors correlates with higher incidences of mental illnesses or behaviors, such as disordered eating. In other words, when you so carelessly plaster Holocaust imagery everywhere, you are actively harming second and third generation Holocaust survivors.
EXPLOITATION: USING THE HOLOCAUST AS A POINT OF COMPARISON OR A RHETORICAL TOOL
As mentioned in the prior slide, people care more about using the Holocaust as a rhetorical tool or a point of comparison than about actual Holocaust victims. It’s absolutely evident that in today’s climate people seem to only bring up the Holocaust when they wish to compare it to something else, be it abortion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, vaccines, or whatever else.
To Jews in general and survivors in particular, this is super, super dehumanizing.
People should care about the Holocaust because its victims were human beings, not because it is an easy thing to compare to something else. Again: think of the worst thing that has ever happened to you, and then imagine people bringing up that thing every single day to make comparisons. Hurtful, isn’t it? Traumatic, too.
For us, the Holocaust isn’t merely an abstract concept. It’s a very real thing that happened, and we still haven’t fully been able to pick up the pieces, 78 years later.
Imagine being a Holocaust survivor, going to a concert, and seeing this, all because Roger Waters, a white man with a history of antisemitism, wants to compare Anne Frank’s death to Shireen Abu Akleh (a comparison that’s absurd to begin with, because Anne Frank was a child murdered for being Jewish; Shireen Abu Akleh was a journalist covering a war zone). Think of the horrific trauma this would bring up.
EXPLOITATION: THE HOLOCAUST “AESTHETIC”
When people think of fascism, the image that comes to mind is usually that of Nazi Germany. There are many reasons for this, but a big one is Allied propaganda during and after the war. The Nazis became the big bad enemy of everyone. While that’s all well and good, in universalizing Nazi oppression, the understanding of what actually drove the Nazis — antisemitism — always falls by the wayside. But nearly everything the Nazis did was driven by their antisemitism. Their persecution of homosexuals was rooted in antisemitism, because they believed homosexuality was a “perversion of the Jews.” Their persecution of communists was rooted in antisemitism, because they believed “no communism or Bolshevism existed outside Jewry.” Even Roma and Sinti were associated with antisemitism, as an old theory in Germany was that they came from “Jewish roots.”
The image of the Nazi is not just the image of fascism. It’s the image of the worst genocide in Jewish history. When Jews see Nazi imagery, we don’t see a fascist archetype. We see the people that exterminated our very own families. We see the people that nearly brought 3000 years of Jewishness to an end.
Unfortunately, it seems that to the non-Jewish world, this doesn’t matter. When an artist wants to depict fascism, for whatever reason, such as “satire” or something else, it’s the image of the Nazi that they choose, as was recently the case with Roger Waters. Why? Why is this necessary? Out of all the examples of fascism and totalitarianism in the world, why is it the image of Jewish trauma that is consistently exploited for provocation or artistic effect?
It’s a privilege to be able to consider Nazi imagery “art.” What is a provocative art piece to you is a reminder of our biggest trauma, our open wound.
Roger Waters uses Nazi-like imagery to depict “fascism,” such as the red armband and the Nazi colors, red and black. How would you feel if you went to a concert and the artist dressed as your abuser or the person who murdered your family?
Anti-vaxxers using the yellow star reminiscent of the Holocaust as a symbol of their supposed oppression.
NAVIGATING HOLOCAUST CONVERSATIONS RESPECTFULLY AND RESPONSIBLY
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t talk about the Holocaust, or that you should view it as a taboo topic. You should talk about the Holocaust! It’s important for people to know. Rather, what we ask is that you discuss the Holocaust with the respect and care that such a topic deserves. Discussions of the Holocaust shouldn’t cause more harm than good, but unfortunately, in many cases, this is exactly what happens.
The first thing you must do when discussing the Holocaust is to actually center Holocaust survivors, or, in their absence, second and third generation survivors. It’s their story to tell, not yours. Pass the mic.
Second, gratuitous Holocaust “trauma porn” is extremely harmful and dehumanizing. Very, very rarely do I share images of evacuated Jews during the Holocaust on social media, because what purpose does this serve? Holocaust victims were real people, with full lives. Plastering the worst moments of their lives all over the internet for shock value is not education. It’s retraumatizing.
I do think it’s imperative for non-Jewish and non-Roma or Sinti people to consume primary sources from the Holocaust, including photographs, to grasp the magnitude of this horror. However, a brief, highly edited, “aesthetically pleasing” social media post is no place to do it, especially if the post is exploiting these people’s memories to make a point unrelated to the Holocaust. Holocaust imagery shouldn’t be decontextualized. If you share a photo, you should provide its context (who — if known — is in the photo? Where is it? What is happening? What year is it? Etc.) instead of merely using the image for shock value or to make an unrelated point.
The Holocaust can provide important context for other conversations, such as understanding how fascism or genocides work, but the Holocaust was not a “lesson” for Jews to learn; it was our most devastating genocide. The main lesson the non-Jewish world should take from the Holocaust is the desire to eradicate antisemitism, and yet, it seems that very few actually do this.
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.