WESTBROOK — I write as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, as a historian and as a Holocaust studies educator. U.S. Rep. Alexandria 
Ocasio-Cortez is essentially correct: U.S. Customs and Border Protection is creating a type of concentration camp. By a neutral definition of the term, these migrant detention centers are encampments where human masses, categorized as rejected persons, are concentrated.

Ocasio-Cortez was careful to state she was not drawing an analogy to the Holocaust or to the Nazi policy of extermination. To do so would have been as wrong as some presumed her to be. She was naming a reality that originated decades before the Nazi Party came to power. Concentration camps existed in European history as a way of containing people seen as enemy or surplus populations, and the Nazis took this cruel invention to its farthest reaches.

The Holocaust is defined not only by death factories, but also by all steps and stages, from A to Z, that unfolded brutally from 1933 to 1938 (the prewar years), then most lethally from 1939 to 1945 (the war years). The Holocaust ranges from the Nuremberg laws of exclusion, segregation and loss of citizenship, to concentration camps (initially for political dissidents), to Jewish roundups, starvation ghettos, slave labor, mass executions and the final stage: extermination camps, utilizing vast resources and employing highly skilled professionals and specialists.

Holocaust scholars draw upon comparative analyses regarding racial segregation, legal discrimination, slavery, ghettoization, stereotypes, scapegoating, incitement of local populations, etc. We study how variant historical and contemporary cases are similar and different, learning a great deal from examining both. The work is to comprehend how events transpired in the past, and how we may use this awful knowledge to think about our own times and places. Decades of Holocaust studies are at the heart of genocide prevention, as it should be.

Cheap and easy analogies to Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, etc., are hurtful, unproductive and false. But Ocasio-Cortez did not draw such analogies when she turned our attention to the horrid conditions of human beings held in fenced areas most people would not kennel their dogs in. Synonyms exist for these establishments, but “a rose by any other name,” in this case, does not smell sweet at all.

In Holocaust education and genocide prevention, we emphasize swift response to events well before genocide is on the horizon. Students learn, as they imagine the impact of Nazi edicts on their own young lives – being thrown out of schools and clubs, relinquishing pets on pain of death, not being allowed to buy milk, being hauled off to hard labor – there is no such thing as milder forms of discrimination. Responses must occur at early stages. And at our nation’s southern border, we are past early stages, with family separation, toxic conditions, numerous deaths in federal custody and counting. So much for the proffered fiction of these being protective centers.

Lincoln’s anecdote about the calf with five legs works well here. In paraphrase, he asked how many legs a calf would have if we called the tail a leg. The answer given was that the calf would have five legs. No, responded Lincoln, the calf would have four legs, because “calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg.”

Whatever the defining term, we need to focus on the degradation and destruction being funded by our tax dollars. We need to redouble our efforts on reasonably derived immigration reform that absolutely rejects the concentration of our sisters and brothers in conditions that undermine health and engender immense and enduring trauma. Anything less would be un-American.

And let us look honestly at the role U.S. policy and corporate greed have played for decades
 in Latin American societies. Think of how billions for a wall might be deployed to invest
 in sustainable economic development in Central America, and in eradication of the violence and criminal corruption that have been too long tolerated or upheld. Families less endangered and less desperate would find reason to remain in their familiar homes and communities, which is what most people actually prefer.


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.