“How could we have known?”

Note: This year is the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of the German Extermination camps in Europe

Several weeks ago when caught in a traffic tie-up stuck behind one of those truck transports carrying live chickens to the processing center my thoughts flickered between it, and another episode in modern life.

One was related to the citizens of the towns around  BelzecSobibór, and Treblinka, sites of the extermination camps, (Vernichtungslager), and citizens in other towns such as Bergen-BelsenOranienburgRavensbrück, and Sachsenhausen, MauthausenDachau, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald which were claimed to be forced labor camps. The banner inscription over the gate at Auschwitz read: “Arbeit macht frei”, or ‘work sets you free’, which seems to be an effort to claim it was a labor camp. Holocaust scholars draw a distinction between concentration camps  and extermination camps, which were established by Nazi Germany for the industrial-scale mass murder of Jews in the ghettos by way of gas chambers. There were at least eight different classifications of these camps, ranging from the 1934-35 police camps set up in Germany, to the 1942 extermination camps set up in Poland.

A simple grouping of the better-known sites devoted to the systematic killings of “undesirables” include: Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Belzec, Dachau, Kulmhof, Majdanek, Mauthausen, Oranienburg, Ravensbruck, Sobibor, Sachsenhausen, and Treblinka, The lead editors of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945 of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, operating from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites.

My thoughts, of the chickens being transported echo the images of the detainees being put into the trains heading to the camps; but we easily make the argument they are not at all related, for one is a food-stock animal, the others are humans. But there was no such distinction made by the SS-Totenkopfverbände , nor for that matter by millions upon millions of people throughout Europe in the period, the Spanish in SA during the 18th Century, nor the Americans in the 19th Century.

All it takes is for a target to be classified by the State as an “undesirable”, an “animal”, a “not-us”.  Himmler’s “final solution” is different only in particulars from the immigrant detention centers on the US Southern border, or the atrocities in Rwanda, Srebrenica,  and Sudan. Even one of our nation’s better President’s, Theodore Roosevelt had this to say about American Indians: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

Our current president has targeted immigrants. In a USA TODAY survey the analysis showed that Trump has used the words “predator,” “invasion,” “alien,” “killer,” “criminal” and “animal” at his rallies while discussing immigration more than 500 times. More than half of those utterances came in the two months prior to the 2018 midterm election, underscoring that Trump views immigration as a central issue for his core supporters. But it is not just the immigrants at the Southern border, it also is directed at Muslims: “There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, [the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers], a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down”. It even extended to those who disagree with his policies and actions: he said: “These are people that in my opinion hate our country,” “It does not concern me [that many people see his tweets as racist and jingoistic] because many people agree with me,” Trump said. “And all I’m saying, they wanna leave, they can leave. It doesn’t say leave forever. It says leave.”

Clearly he is echoing the central motif of the authoritarians, the white nationalists, the majorities intolerant of the minorities. Seldom do these attempts to de-humanize others end without major conflict. And yet, just as the citizens who lived around the extermination camps, many US citizens cannot detect any serious problems. They do not question the hatred that is brewing beneath the social surface, just as the Polish citizens seem not to have asked what was happening to all those being transported into the camps. As one German citizen said in 1946: “How could we have known?”

How indeed.



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