We Should Talk About Concentration Camps on the U.S. Border
The Holocaust started with normal people in uniform rounding up people because of who they were
My grandfather was a doctor in the British army. In April 1945, he was in the group that liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He wrote an essay about what he found. It was a very practical description, a doctor’s view of what they encountered: “Typhoid was raging; there were 13,000 dead bodies lying around.”
He observed how the emaciated inmates who had survived gradually recovered their strength, and over time reemerged as professors, artists, lawyers — real people with pasts and identities. He also declared in his essay that we must never forget this, and it must never happen again.
My grandfather was lucky. His Jewish family had fled the Baltics in the 1890s, running away from pogroms and settling in the U.K. where, a generation later, his experience of the Holocaust was as a British officer. While he and his immediate family were not interred or killed in the camps, his personal experience of Belsen scarred him for the rest of his life in ways we are only now beginning to understand.
My grandmother’s family was different. Her parents left Poland around 1900, as economic migrants. I wrote about their journey, and how luck prevented them from getting back to Poland in the 1930s. Everyone they left behind was killed in the concentration camps. Recently, the online family tree websites have given me an insight into this that I never had before. I can now see my great-grandfather’s extended family tree, listing people by name, with photos, and the date and location of their murder. Almost his entire family was killed by the Nazis — his three brothers, their wives, their children, his cousins, aunts, uncles.
There is plenty of debate about whether it is appropriate to talk about President Donald Trump, and other right-wing populists, in the context of Nazism and fascism, in particular referring to the immigrant prison camps on the U.S.-Mexican border as concentration camps. Some people say it is a simplistic comparison, a weak fallback argument for liberals with no better case against Trump. Others say it demeans the memory of those who died in the Holocaust to…