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The Politics of Words | Auschwitz, Rhetoric, and Language

A couple of weeks ago I visited Auschwitz, one of the most iconic locations of mass murder in the world. 

Before my visit, I possessed a rudimentary understanding of the Holocaust like any student who paid a moderate amount of attention in history class. However, there is something about visualization that takes knowledge beyond the rudimentary and history beyond a textbook. Auschwitz is a very real and painful visualization of the horrors of the Holocaust.

I’m not inclined to repeat what you can find on Wikipedia, so I’ll leave out most of the history (besides what is needed to provide context) and stick to a brief description and analytical discussion of my observations. 

To give some context, six million Jews and 11 million “others” were murdered in the Holocaust. In total, historians estimate 17 million people were slaughtered between 1941-1945. Auschwitz welcomed at least 1.3 million people and at least 1.1 million of them died.

Dates and numbers are excellent at establishing a point of reference or graphing statistics, but when it comes to fostering an understanding of atrocity, large numbers fail miserably. This is what I call the Paradox of Numbers (you can read more about that here).

When I arrived in Auschwitz, I was determined to look beyond numerics and feel the pain and suffering of my surroundings. Every piece of architecture, method of torture, and historical artifact radiated the inexplicable atrocity that is the Holocaust.

Here are a few things I saw:

  • Barracks lined with pictures of political prisoners with the date of their arrival and subsequent death. I could not find a prisoner who survived longer than two months.
  • Two tons of hair in a large display case. The victims murdered in gas chambers were shaved and their hair sent to Germany. The hair on display at Auschwitz is only a tiny fraction of the hair that was collected there.
  • 100,000 shoes from those who were gassed.
  • Thousands of suitcases from the Auschwitz prisoners who truly believed they would be settling into a new life.
  • Gas chamber walls decorated with scratches from the hundreds of thousands who clawed at the walls before they suffocated to death.

As I stood on the grounds of Auschwitz, I choked back tears. I was standing on a mass grave of inexplicable proportions and seeing, in real life, a piece of history that was too incomprehensible to fathom.

I could talk more about the atrocities of Auschwitz and leave you feeling depressed about the extent of human degradation. But I’m not going to do that. Historical reflection and emotional appeals have their place, but today, I prefer to direct your mind to current issues facing our country and world and how we may learn from our past to protect ourselves against repeating the same egregious errors. This article has two objectives.

Objective One: To call out those abusing historical tragedies to further their own political agendas.

I realize I’m a bit late when it comes to calling out those who use aspects of the Holocaust as political rhetoric and repugnant vernacular to make a point—but better late than never, I suppose. Even a remote comparison of questionable American policies to a regime that mindlessly slaughtered millions of men, women, and children is shockingly abhorrent and absolutely useless. Such comparisons are meant to create a “shock factor” and rile the populous. This not only diminishes the sacred history of the Holocaust and undermines the death of the millions mindlessly murdered, but offers no real solutions to the problems America currently faces.

I’m calling bull on the rhetoric and demanding real solutions. I’m also calling out this nauseating abuse of history.

To those calling American detention facilities “concentration camps,” take a moment to consider this comparison. Seventeen million people were slaughtered between 1941 and 1945. THIS TRAGEDY IS NOT YOUR RHETORIC to use to further your agenda. This is the most despicable abuse of history I can imagine. Calling ICE agents the “Gestapo?” Stop this nonsense. It is disgusting.

Objective Two: To highlight the power of words.

In 1933 when Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany, no one was erecting extermination camps or forcing thousands of innocent victims into gas chambers. But only a few short years of rhetoric and propaganda promulgated by Hitler and the Nazi regime led to such atrocities. Men and women no different than you and me became so desensitized to the value of human life they willingly castrated, sterilized, flogged, hung, starved, gassed, shot, experimented on, and otherwise tortured men, women, and children in unfathomable ways.

This graphic image is to illustrate the power of words. A few short years of humiliation and degradation of a race led to genocide and ethnic cleansing of unfathomable proportions. By the time the extermination camps were erected and people were being slaughtered, a momentum had been built that was nearly impossible to curb.

Words have power. Never ever stand for the humiliation or degradation of another human being. Speak up for your fellow man and call out injustice in the world. Words have power.

So there you have it.

I strongly encourage anyone who gets the chance to visit Auschwitz or similar camps. Take time to reflect on the past and feel pain, hurt, and sadness—but most importantly, apply what you see to today. Learn, grow, and become a problem solver who defends the defenseless, encourages the hopeless, and always speaks truth, justice, and mercy. Use your circle of influence to make a positive difference. Let your legacy be one of goodness.

Thoughts? Comments? Let's discuss...