The Holocaust Did Not Begin with Killing; it Began with Words

by Warren J. Blumenfeld

St. Louis surrounded by smaller vessels in the port of Havana

The St. Louis surrounded by smaller vessels in the port of Havana. Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Among the numerous Facebook group pages to which I subscribe, some focus exclusively on issues of concern to members of Jewish communities throughout the world. A few of the Facebook pages serve as forums for specifically children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. On these pages, very contentious debates (more like arguments with some people lodging insults) are centering on reactions to U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric as they apply specifically to his administration’s immigration dictums.

Some people strongly support Trump for his outspoken support for the nation of Israel and for his “bold and decisive action” in moving the U.S. embassy to the eternal city of Jerusalem. While others declare that this action puts a final nail in the coffin of an already stalled and dying peace process and places Israel in greater danger.

Discussion has more recently erupted regarding Trump’s immigration tactics, and specifically his policy of locking up refugees seeking a better life and separating them from their children for weeks and months at a time. Several people on Facebook write such things as “they are breaking the law and they should be locked up and deported back to their own countries.”

Others, though, understand their plight and are pleading compassion. As descendants of Holocaust survivors, they (we) can see clear parallels between the trauma of our relatives and that of this generation’s refugee populations. When we, though, discuss what we understand as these parallels, others on Facebook attack us for “trivializing the Holocaust,” as “feeding into the hands of the Holocaust deniers,” or of “jeopardizing Trump’s support for Israel” the more we speak out against his policies.

Someone wrote: "Don’t you DARE compare temporary separation of children from their parents for illegal activity with the MURDER of people for nothing more than their beliefs or color or intellectual ability. The parents of these children are doing ILLEGAL activities. They are arrested. The children have food and shelter.”

I feel I need to speak out to the larger Jewish community in the clearest of terms.

We are seeing many people suffering under the Trump administration (regime). This is not a game of my pain or my people's pain is so much worse than your or your people's pain. This is not a zero-sum game. People who are fleeing their countries in fear of being raped, murdered, enslaved, enlisted against their will as drug runners, when they are trying to improve their lives and the lives of their children, many of whom are attempting to go through legal channels seeking refugee status, are still locked up, their children are being taken away from them, they are deported while their children are lost in the system deep within the U.S.

People on these Facebook pages know only too well the terrors of genocide, of being targeted based solely on our identities, of being admitted and of being denied admittance into another country as they attempt to flee oppression.

In the year 1939, for example, just before the breakout of war in Europe and prior to our country’s entry, for some refugees, primarily those within Europe’s Jewish communities, the exit door slammed tightly shut.

During that year, two legislators in the U.S. Congress, Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-MA) proposed an emergency bill, which, if passed, would have increased the immigration quoted by allowing an additional 20,000 Jewish children under the age of 14 (10,000 in 1939, and another 10,000 in 1940) from Nazi Germany to come to the United States. Though the bill was roundly supported by religious and labor organizations, conservative and isolationist groups mounted wide scale campaigns to prevent its passage. Public opinion polls at the time showed that 83% of U.S. residents opposed any increases in immigration. Though First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, implored her husband to advance the bill, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt failed to publicly support it.

In fact, Laura Delano Houghteling, the president’s cousin and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, James L. Houghteling, sternly warned: “20,000 charming children would all too soon, grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

The bill never came up for a full vote in Congress, and it died, like the children it could have saved.

Also in 1939, on May 13, 1937 Germans and other citizens from Eastern European nations, mostly all Jews fleeing Nazis brutality, booked passage on the German transatlantic ocean liner, St. Louis, from the port of Hamburg bound for Havana, Cuba. Most passengers had applied for U.S. visas, and they planned to wait in Cuba on their previously-approved landing permits and temporary transit visas until U.S. officials accepted them into the U.S.

Even before embarking from Germany, the passengers’ became the source of bitter political cross-partisan rivalries in Cuba as a number of conservative politicians and newspapers demanded the immediate cessation of its policy of admitting Jewish refugees on its land. The Cuban government, therefore, reneged on its offer to honor the passengers’ landing permits when the St. Louis entered Cuban waters.

Faced with this unforeseen development, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, turned the St. Louis toward the Florida coast of the United States in hopes that U.S. government officials would allow passengers entry on refugee status by processing their visa applications. Unfortunately, though, the political wars transpiring in Cuba on the plight of Jewish refugees were even more intense in the United States. Within the United States, President Roosevelt succumbed to conservative political pressure by following his immigration officials’ decision to deny haven to the ship’s passengers.

The captain had no other choice than to turn his ship around back toward Europe. On route, knowing that returning to Germany meant certain death for his passengers, he negotiated with several governments, whereby Great Britain allowed entry of 288, the Netherlands admitted 181, Belgium took 214, and France took 224. By the end of the war, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that all but one in Great Britain survived, approximately half of the remainder on the continent, 278, survived the Holocaust, and 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.

NO, the conditions were not identical then and today.

NO, Donald Trump is not Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin.

NO, people trying to escape their Central American homelands are not all targeted for genocide because of a certain social identity.

NO and NO and NO!!!!

But, why can we not understand as Jews the similarities in the themes of oppression, of scapegoating, of demonizing, of dehumanizing, of marginalizing people who are only asking for a better life for themselves and their children? We cannot only concern ourselves with the lives of Jews?!

Throughout U.S. history, rather than characterizing refugees and refugee issues in humanitarian terms, many conservative and nationalist activists use narratives representing refugees as invading hoards, as barbarians at the gates who, if allowed to enter, will destroy the glorious civilization we have established among the “lesser” nations of the Earth. On a more basic and personal level, the rhetoric of invasion taps into our psychological fears, or more accurately, terrors of infection: our country, our workplaces, and more basically, our private places in which “aliens” forcefully penetrate our bodies, into our orifices, and down to the smallest cellular level.

In both Nazi Germany and in U.S.-style alt-right fascism, strong leaders whipped up dehumanizing stereotypes resulting in the scapegoating of already-marginalized groups of people to blame for causing past problems and posing clear and present dangers to the state.

On the right-wing side of the dictatorial strongmen’s political spectrum, we find the philosophy and practice of “fascism.” While also deployed as an epithet by some, fascism developed as a form of radical authoritarian nationalism in early-20th century Europe in response to liberalism and Marxism on the left.

Political scientist, Lawrence Britt, enumerates 14 tenets of fascism:

1.  Powerful and continuing nationalism,

2.  Disdain for the recognition of human rights,

3.  Identification of enemies/scapegoats [of the country’s problems] as a unifying cause,

4.  Rampant sexism,

5.  Supremacy of the military,

6.  Controlled mass media,

7.  Obsession with national security,

8.  Religion and government are intertwined,

9.  Corporate power is protected,

10. Labor power is suppressed,

11. Disdain for intellectuals and the arts,

12. Obsession with crime and punishment,

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption, and

14. Fraudulent elections

While many governmental leaders and candidates for public office may push for a number of these tactics while remaining outside the definition of “fascist,” the cumulative effect increases depending on the severity of and the degree to which they initiate these measures.

Donald Trump clearly acts and reacts in words and policy initiatives directly within the parameters of fascism. Using Britt’s taxonomy, Trump’s positions and actions include:

1. Appeals to “nationalism” (with isolationism, building walls, and talk of "shithole countries") presented in the guise of “popularism,” feeding on people’s fears and prejudices, which has resulted in the segregation of people and nations from one another, and threats and dangers of violence. He attacks and attempts to separate from long-established allies, while having obsessive admiration for tyrannical dictators.

2. Threats to and roll backs of many of the rights and protections minoritized peoples have tirelessly fought for over the past decades: reproductive rights, voting rights, citizenship rights, human rights, anti-torture guarantees, immigrant rights, rights of unreasonable search and seizure, rights of assembly, disability rights, freedom of religion, transgender rights, marriage equality and equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

3. Scapegoating of already disenfranchised identity categories as the internal and external enemies of the United States: Muslims and anyone from Muslim-majority countries, Mexicans and all Latinx people, urban “thugs,” the press, Somalis, President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Democrats, the ACLU, liberals, immigrants, anyone who disagrees with the President, Robert Mueller and his panel of investigators.

4. Toxic misogynistic utterances and allegations of sexual harassment by numerous women reaching historic proportions.

5. Promises to enlarge and improve our “failing” military and fire generals whom Trump “knows more than about ISIS,” and his apparent lack of knowledge about or fear of nuclear weapons.

6. Threats to employ libel laws to sue the “crooked and lying” media (Lügenpresse, “lying press” popularized by the German Nazis to silence opposition) and anyone accusing him of a crime.

7. Continual cries against “Islamic jihadist terrorists” and immigrants as the major threats to our nation thereby exposing U.S. Muslims and Latinx people to increased calls for a “national registry,” arrests, separation from their children, and surveillance to track their movements.

8. Attendance at several Christian prayer vigils and appearances at conservative right Christians conferences and universities like Liberty University, with calls “Make America Great Again” giving the subliminal dog-whistle message of making America white and Protestant again. Misuse of scripture to justify oppressive policies.

9. Increased deregulated of the energy and corporate business sectors with massive tax cuts and other financial incentives. “I will formulate a rule, which says that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.”

10. Reduction in the rights of workers to organize and negotiate collective bargaining agreements, privatization of entitlements, advocacy for the abolition of a national minimum wage (while relenting somewhat to a minimum wage for the present time at least).

11. Resentment and attacks on the political, media, and intellectual “elites” to the point of instigating scorn and harassment at the “elite media” covering Trump and demanding an apology from the cast of the Broadway show, “Hamilton: An American Musical” for voicing concerns over a Trump presidency with VP Mike Pence in attendance.

12. Near obsessive calls for “law and order” involving draconian (and possibly unconstitutional) measures of surveillance, torture, and arrest.

13. Increasing deployment of his adult children and son-in-law as close trusted political operatives, who meet with visiting diplomats and travel to foreign capitals to negotiate political and business deals, plus continuously unresolved conflict-of-interest issues and “emoluments” breeches between his position as President and his worldwide business interests, with so many probes into corruption it has become a common occurrence.

14. Assisted by the larger Republican Party and the Supreme Court, gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights law, which has resulted in voter suppression campaigns effectively reducing the number of polling stations in primarily minoritized racial communities, and limiting days and times for pre-election-day voting, and help by foreign government to impact elections in Trump’s favor.

According to U.S. National Holocaust Museum and Memorial, “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.”

The time has long-since past that we can compare the fascist direction the world took during the 1920s and 1930s before the Holocaust with the direction the United States and many other countries are taking today. Have we learned anything from history?

The difference between the great initial successes of the Nazis and the ultimate defeat of the Trump regime in the not-too-distant future, though, is that while relatively few individuals and national leaders stood up early to the Nazis by forcefully calling them out and intervening, the unprecedented outpouring of resistance, protest, and intervention -- including in the streets of Charlottesville -- by individuals and entire nations will and must shift the balance of power back to “we the people.”


Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld  is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press), co-editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense Publications), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge), editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon).


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