On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, remember the non-Jewish Holocaust victims too
I work as a guide at Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, a former concentration camp in Germany. When I tell people what I do for a living, I tell them that I am a Holocaust educator, but that it’s complicated.
In North American Jewish educational settings, National Socialist (or Nazi) persecution is synonymous with the Holocaust. The primacy of the Jewish experience — stories of the ghettos, camps and resistance fighters — stems in part from family histories. For many American Jews, these are not just facts from a textbook, but the personal experiences of parents or grandparents, transmitted as living memory.
A major idea in Holocaust remembrance is that we honor survivors and victims by telling their stories and remembering their names. This is even more visceral in Jewish settings, where many have personal connections to the Holocaust. Why then, do we rarely do the same for other groups targeted by Nazi ideologies?
The stories of these non-Jewish victims make up much of my work at Sachsenhausen.
A blind spot
Growing up in the northeastern United States, I received a Holocaust education both in school and in the many encounters I had with friends with survivor grandparents. For much of my life, observing either International Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27 or Yom Hashoah in the spring was a given.
I entered the field of Holocaust education in the fall of 2019 with a fellowship at Sachsenhausen. Like other concentration camps in Germany, Sachsenhausen was a labor camp rather than an extermination camp. Jewish prisoners were in the minority at Sachsenhausen due, in part, to its distance from Eastern Europe’s larger Jewish communities and the 1942 decision to deport Jews from Germany and Nazi-controlled Austria to extermination camps in Poland.
I quickly realized that while I knew much about the Holocaust as the genocide of Jews, I knew little about the other persecuted groups who made up the majority of prisoners at Sachsenhausen, including Sinti and Roma, individuals with mental and physical disabilities, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay men and political prisoners.
Learning about the persecution of these other groups transformed not only my understanding of Nazi ideology, but the societal context that enabled genocidal antisemitism. I believe that Holocaust education in the United States should be expanded to teach about other groups persecuted by the Nazis.
Other targets of the Nazis
Often derogatorily called “gypsies,” Sinti and Roma are related ethnic groups that have lived in Europe since the 1400s. In many ways, their treatment by the Nazis parallels the treatment of Jews. Both groups were targeted for their supposed “racial inferiority.” Sinti and Roma who were German citizens were eventually excluded from German society, just like German Jews. In 1942, the Nazis began deporting Sinti and Roma to extermination camps.
Yet the genocide of Sinti and Roma, or as it has been dubbed in Romani, the Porajmos (meaning destruction), is often a footnote or completely absent from Holocaust curriculums.
Learning about the experiences of other persecuted groups gives us a better understanding of the comprehensive horrors of Nazi Germany and the milieu that enabled the Holocaust. By studying the treatment of other groups, we can learn how the early anti-Jewish edicts of 1933 led within a decade to the creation of extermination camps.
It also helps us understand how a totalitarian party establishes itself. The first groups sent to the concentration camps, which were established within two months of the Nazis coming to power in January 1933, were imprisoned because they belonged to opposing political parties. The first imprisonment of Jews targeted for their Judaism, rather than for their political affiliations, was five years later during Kristallnacht.
Lastly, this curriculum change would illustrate how Nazi ideology impacted different groups in different ways. Although some groups, like Jews, Sinti and Roma, were targeted for the ethnicities they were born into, anyone could become disabled or deemed “asocial.” Likewise, any man could be accused of being queer if they were seen as effeminate.
Many of these marginalized groups not only lack representation in historical accounts but still face discrimination today. Homophobia persists and the Nazis’ gay victims only received official recognition from the German government as “persecuted homosexuals” in the 1990s.
Another overlooked group is the men and women with mental and/or physical disabilities targeted by the T-4 euthanasia program. They were killed because Nazi ideology viewed them as unworthy burdens on the state.
‘Why add information from outside the Jewish experience?’
In contrast to this ideology, Judaism considers all human lives to be b’tzelem Elohim, or “in the image of God.” In a day school or Hebrew school setting, this philosophy could be taught alongside the history of the T-4 program, giving students a powerful example of how their own faith considers each human life to be precious.
There are, for sure, practical limits to how much can be covered on any subject in a classroom, along with other questions of Holocaust pedagogy — how much is too much, how early is too early? I empathize with Jewish educators already struggling to teach a broad swath of Holocaust history as well as living Judaism. Why add more information from outside the Jewish experience?
I heard an answer to this question at the ceremony marking the 75th liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, on Jan. 27, 2020. There, survivor Marion Turski implored the crowd to remember that “Auschwitz didn’t fall from the sky.” In other words, we must understand the world that made Auschwitz possible, and not just focus on the history of the place itself.
Recognizing other groups persecuted by the Nazis does not diminish the singularity of Jewish persecution, but gives necessary context to recognizing the world that made such horrors possible, and making sure it never happens again.
Another aspect of Holocaust history with contemporary relevance is that various ideologies of hate existed, and were politicized, at the same time: antisemitism alongside anti-Romani sentiment, xenophobia alongside ableism, homophobia alongside misogyny. The Nazis intersected these different ideologies in pursuit of their white supremacist Aryan world.
This International Holocaust Memorial Day, we can choose to honor the lives of all those persecuted by Nazis: Jewish, Sinti, Roma, the disabled and so many more marginalized people. We honor them by telling all of their stories and embracing the fullness of history, no matter how dark it is.
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