On June 24, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a public statement announcing that it “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.”
But the museum wasn’t really weighing in on analogies in the abstract. It was weighing in on a debate — triggered by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent claim that the U.S. government is “running concentration camps on our southern border” — ostensibly about whether a historical analogy can be made between U.S. camps on the border and Nazi concentration camps.
That debate about analogies, however, disguises the issue at the heart of the concentration camp question. The real issue, as Masha Gessen has argued, is about “how we perceive history, ourselves, and ourselves in history.” In other words, it is about whether our historical imagination can accommodate the unsettling notion that our comfortable lives coexist in the same reality with government camps funded by our tax dollars, in which children separated from their families live in filthy and unsafe conditions that can turn deadly.
To many of us, the possibility of this coexistence seems too outlandish to ponder. If we were in a period as intense as the genocidal years of World War II or as morally clear as the era of chattel slavery, surely our lives would be charged with high-stakes action. Thus we dismiss this possibility as improbable, perhaps even slightly offensive.
Yet historians know that even in the darkest historical periods, radically different experiences coexist in the same reality, despite the fact that collective memory tends to strip these periods of their complexity.
The history of the Holocaust shows this. I have spent years reading Jewish diaries, letters and writings of all kinds, in several languages, from the 1930s and 1940s. The five-volume book series “Jewish Responses to Persecution, 1933-1946,” on which I worked for several years, featured more than 800 contemporary Jewish writings, translated into English from more than 20 languages. The volumes illustrate the diversity of the Jewish experiences of persecution. They recover the voices of the victims and restore human agency to a disparate group of people that Nazi policy construed as a faceless “Jew.” And they reveal a persistent and profound disconnect between the lives of those outside the camp and those confined in them.
Consider, for example, the letters Hilda Dajc wrote to her friends over the course of several months in late 1941 and early 1942. Hilda was a young Jewish woman from Belgrade, barely out of her late teens in the spring of 1941, when the German army and its allies — Bulgaria, Hungary and Italy — invaded and dismembered Yugoslavia.
Serbia was occupied by the German army and was ruled by a German military commander. Because of the anti-German insurrection that had taken root in Serbia by the summer of 1941, the German authorities instituted a harsh reprisal policy, shooting thousands of hostages across the country, most of them civilians. Most Jewish men, who had been registered shortly after the occupation in accordance with German anti-Semitic policies, were executed in mass shootings. The German authorities then faced the question of what to do with the remaining Jewish women and children.
In December 1941, Hilda, along with several thousand remaining Jews, was deported to the camp at Sajmiste, just outside Belgrade. In letters she managed to smuggle out to her non-Jewish friends, Hilda wrote about the unsanitary conditions, inadequate food and callousness of the German camp guards.
But in her last preserved letter, she addressed the problem of the seeming abyss between her reality and the reality of those outside the camp. “All philosophizing ends at the barbed-wire fence,” she wrote, “and reality, which, far away on the other side you can’t even imagine or else you would howl with pain, faces one in its totality.” She went on: “We are so close to the outside world, yet so far from everyone. We have no contact with anyone; the life of every individual out there carries on as usual, as if half a kilometer away a slaughterhouse containing six thousand innocent people didn’t exist.”
Hilda and her fellow inmates were a demonized population stripped of legal protections and detained indefinitely, against their will, by a bureaucracy that did not care about their lives. They were detained in a facility that was inadequate on many levels, from heating and food to space and conditions for hygiene. It was a reality that Hilda found impossible to convey to her close friends, who continued to live their “normal” lives outside in the city of Belgrade, even as it found itself under barbaric German occupation.
Good Holocaust scholarship has helped us understand that gap better. It alerts us to the conditions of human life outside our common field of vision, and reminds us to keep looking for them and bringing them to light.
This is why comparison, or analogy, is key. As a historian of the Holocaust, I was trained to pursue well-grounded historical comparison as the only way in which we can truly advance historical knowledge. Analogies humanize experiences ostensibly different from our own.
Analogies and historical comparisons also help us make sense of our present. They don’t offer an exact parallel between Belgrade and Clint, Tex. But reading about Hilda’s life in the camp in her own words can compel us to ask difficult questions about the suffering of detainees in our government camps on the border, and about the disconnect between “normalcy” and horror. Careful historical comparison does not imply sameness or necessity; it is about grasping the full range of possibility in the open-ended present, with the broad knowledge that the worst outcomes are possible here as well, because we have, as humans, been there.
Hilda Dajc was murdered in a gas van, which the German authorities in Belgrade requested from Berlin to “solve the Jewish question,” in the spring of 1942.
We do not know what will happen to the children in the camps at our southern border, and we have certainly heard very little about how the children are to be reunited with their parents or allowed to return to any semblance of ordinary life. Holocaust scholarship can help us understand how injustice and dehumanization can coexist with our seemingly normal reality today, and inform our moral and political choices based on what we know about the traumatic past.