On Monday, June 17, and again on Tuesday, June 18, freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated that the “authoritarian and fascist” Trump administration “has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.” “Concentration camps are an institutionalized practice in the home of the free … a presidency that creates concentration camps is fascist.”
I was a teenager the first time I visited Auschwitz. I grew up with one foot in New Jersey, and with one foot, through my parents’ heartfelt stories, songs, recipes and reminiscences, in Poland and Slovakia. I met anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet resisters, victims of torture and rape, all members of my own family, when I was fifteen. I sat around the table and watched my strong, resilient, subsistence farmer aunts’ and uncles’ faces melt with shame and terror as they recounted Nazi, and then Soviet, occupation. I watched my mother, a monument to strength and stoicism, cry when she heard, firsthand, of the fate of her beloved Jewish neighbor who had saved her from drowning in the River Nitra. She had long known he was among the millions. She had read of his fate in letters. Now back in her village for the first time since her departure as a child, she just couldn’t take it when they told her to her face, as she stood in front of what used to be his home.
After the visit to Auschwitz, I met both survivors of the camp and Polish citizens who had hidden Jews in their homes. These rescuers radiated a quality I can’t quite capture in words but I can say that sitting in front of them and listening to them speak was comparable, for me, to sitting in front of Yosemite’s Half Dome. These Poles, senior citizens in Soviet-era rumpled clothing, who spoke few and humble words, not lush vocabulary out of any epic saga but rather monosyllabic words focused on how to dispose of human waste without detection or how to manage to cadge enough calories while living under a genocidal occupation, conveyed the aura of massive natural wonders. These rescuers’ souls seemed to have outgrown their human flesh and have already transcended to the ageless, the mythic.
It’s the hardest country I’ve ever visited, but I kept going back to Poland, both in the flesh and in my publications. Several people whose parents had been in concentration camps became part of my day-to-day life. Some of these children of camp survivors are Jews, some are Poles, and some are Ukrainian. Another close friend is the son of a Nazi soldier who fought in North Africa with Rommel as well as on the Eastern Front, winning two Iron Crosses. Please forgive what I am about to say. People whose parents were in concentration camps are not easy. There is a raft of symptoms that all these friends, including the son of the Nazi, display. Touchiness. Paranoia. Outrage. Tilting at windmills. Self-sabotage. A terrible loneliness that can never be slaked. I love these people, I owe them much, and my life would not be the same without them. But they are not easy people.
All the survivors, rescuers, witnesses and children of survivors I know care about the suffering of immigrants. They care because they were all immigrants, of one kind or another, themselves. They all know hunger, bruises, humiliations, frustrations, and exclusion. They all, also, know hope and working hard toward a better future for the next generation.
I grew up a child of immigrants, and, inevitably, I went on to be an immigrant myself, living and working in Africa, Asia, and Europe. I held my mother’s hand as she died, seventy-two years after her forced migration to America, and I can say that she never got over the trauma of that passage. She told me about walking to school along railroad ties because the ties hurt her bare feet less than the gravel between the tracks. She was barefoot so the “cardboard” shoes she received from the “Poor Board” would not disintegrate in her walk to school. She told me about being beaten by a nun who spoke Slovak but wouldn’t speak it to her because it was her job, as a child immigrant, to sink or swim. She told me about the first time she ate that most American of foods, peanut butter, out of a half empty jar encountered while foraging in a garbage dump.
“Get me a Hunky; I need a donkey,” was the refrain my father heard when showing up to be selected to tunnel his child’s body into the narrowest passages of coal mines. “Hunky” was the word for immigrants like him. Beatings? Discrimination? Abuse? Tuberculosis? Unjust incarceration? Yes, all of those were part of my father’s life, before he turned fifteen. Death? He witnessed death. His own father’s death. I won’t tell that story here; it’s too hard, and it belongs to my cousins as well as to me, and I don’t want to violate their memories. Let’s just say that things were so bad, and his family was so hungry, that he joined the Army under someone else’s papers when he was still underage. He fought in the Philippines and New Guinea and insisted that America was “the greatest country in the world.”
So, yes, those of us familiar, even though handed-down stories from our elders about the Nazis, are also familiar with the burdens of immigration. This much we know. A decent person does not steal the vocabulary of one horror to discuss the discomforts and inconveniences, or even the heartbreaks and tragedies, of the other. As horrific as the black lung, the police chases, the incarceration, and the death all were, they were not those horrors as lived in Auschwitz, which was an experience so cursed you don’t use the same vocabulary when speaking of the one about the other. You just do not do that.
The term “concentration camp” existed before the Holocaust, and pre-Holocaust governments have set up what were called, at the time, concentration camps. During the 1899-1902 Boer War between Boers, or Dutch-speaking South Africans and the British Empire, the Empire drove Boers into concentration camps. Approximately 28,000 Boers, that is 25%, of Boers in these camps, and 10% of the overall Boer population, died of hunger and disease. Twenty thousand black South Africans also died.
No one objects to the use of the term “concentration camp” for discussion of the Boer War, or other pre-Holocaust atrocities. Why, then, do we express such revulsion when Ocasio-Cortez claims “concentration camp” to discuss facilities to house illegal immigrants?
The answer is obvious. The answer is history. In the same way that the word “apple” is heard differently in the post-Steve-Jobs world, the term “concentration camp” is heard differently in the post-Auschwitz world. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous. And to pretend otherwise is to camouflage a very real leftist agenda.
The left itself has a doctrine that should, if followed, obviate this lie. It’s the doctrine of cultural appropriation. You do not take the cultural inheritance of another group and claim it as your own. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez knows about this doctrine. She was blasted for violating it on April 5, 2019, when giving a speech to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Ocasio-Cortez, in an attempt to curry favor with her mostly African American audience, adopted a faux Ebonics rhythm and syntax. All leftist cultural appropriation stories are ridiculous; it’s difficult to pick which is most exemplary of the trend. Perhaps Lena Dunham fretting over Oberlin college students’ sushi consumption. Perhaps the height, or depth of cultural appropriation sermonizing took place after Keziah Daum, a Utah high school student, wore a Chinese-style dress to her prom and posted the photo on social media. In a frequently retweeted twitter post, Jeremy Lam accused 18-year-old Keziah Daum of colonizing Asians.
Since leftists preach against cultural appropriation, why are leftists now trying to appropriate the term “concentration camp” to talk about immigration? One of the most disturbing, and obvious, trends in today’s Democratic Party is anti-Semitism. Not all Democrats are anti-Semites, but Congressional Democrats surrendered to the anti-Semites in their midst when, on March 7, 2019, they failed to sanction freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her frequent and egregious expressions of anti-Semitism. Ocasio-Cortez made it a point to support Omar in the midst of that controversy. Ocasio-Cortez was also happy to mouth anti-Semitic tropes, tropes she clearly did not understand and could not support when exposed to questioning. In a July 17, 2018 appearance on PBS’s Firing Line, Ocasio-Cortez said she objects to “the occupation of Palestine” and a “humanitarian crisis.” When questioned what she meant by these terms, she collapsed, laughing, acknowledging, “I am not the expert on geopolitics … Middle Eastern politics was not exactly at my kitchen table every night.” Why the Democratic Party is currying favor with anti-Semites is a topic for another piece, but that toadying is on display for all to see. Ocasio-Cortez’s attempt to claim the term “concentration camp” for her very own is part of that agenda.
And there’s more. Leftists have always lied about the Holocaust. I saw those lies firsthand, during my visit to Auschwitz. In those Soviet days, visitors were shown a film. I watched the Polish language version of the film. I listened for the word “Jew” – “Zyd.” I never heard it. What I do remember hearing, over and over, was the term “victims of fascism.” I recognized that I was being propagandized. I wondered how many viewing this film would not recognize that. “After the war internal politics led the Soviet leadership to erase the Holocaust from historical memory,” writes historian John Klier in “The Holocaust and the Soviet Union.” Soviet Russia and its satellite states systematically lied about the Holocaust from the end of the war till its toppling in 1989. Communists inflated the numbers of those killed at Auschwitz. They did so in order to minimize the number of Jews murdered there. Soviet Russians called Auschwitz “the ultimate capitalist factory where the workers were dispensable.” “One of the least appealing aspects of the Soviet analysis of Auschwitz, now and later, was the downplaying of the scale of suffering endured by Jews.” This downplaying constituted “a rift in historical interpretation between East and West concerning the operation of the camps that would not be resolved until the fall of Communism,” writes Laurence Rees in Auschwitz: A New History. This downplaying of Jewish suffering occurred throughout the Soviet Empire. Thomas Haury writes that East Germany, “emphasized the workers, the party, and the Soviet population as having suffered most from National Socialism. The genocide of the European Jews was only one crime among many, to which the GDR hardly paid attention.” Jews were also accused of crimes said to be “just as bad as the Holocaust.” “Not only Holocaust deniers but also communists used Holocaust Equivalence early, aiming at Jews. In 1953, the Soviet Union’s daily Pravda published alleged information about a conspiracy of mainly Jewish doctors to kill communist leaders through wrong diagnoses and sabotage in treatment,” writes Georg von Rauch. Romanian textbooks emphasized Romanian suffering and downplayed Jewish deaths. People often criticize Poles for their apparent lack of awareness of Holocaust history. After all, Poland was the site of many concentration and death camps. But Poles, too, were taught a Holocaust history consciously distorted by Communism, and it is only post-1989 that Polish historians have been able to tell their own country’s story without that distortion dominating their work. When perusing a Soviet-era history book about WW II, or watching a Soviet-era film about the liberation of Auschwitz, or listening to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s justifications for using the term “concentration camp,” one must remember this core principle: “The truth is that which serves the party.”
Czeslawa (ches WAV ah) Kwoka was a 14 year old Polish Catholic girl. She was murdered in Auschwitz. Wilhelm Brasse, as his name suggests, had some Germanic ancestry. But he was born in Poland and he self-identified as Polish. After the Nazis invaded, the SS “invited” Brasse to identify as German. He declined, and he was sent to Auschwitz, where he was forced to photograph prisoners. Later he was ordered to destroy those photos. Through subterfuge, he saved many of the photos.
Brasse took the photograph we have of Czeslawa Kwoka. He described the process to an interviewer, who said that Brasse trembled while speaking. “She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn’t understand why she was there and she couldn’t understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me. You could never say anything.”
I do not begrudge anyone the compassion they feel for immigrants. I do not begrudge anyone for actually extending aid to immigrants. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her leftist allies are not expression compassion, and they are not helping anyone, by appropriating the term “concentration camp.” Rather, they are appropriating cultural material that does not belong to them, and that no decent person would want. They are doing this as part of the left’s current and growing anti-Semitic program. Stalin, we are told, said that one death was a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. If the deaths of the eleven million leave Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies cold, I ask them to look into the face of Czeslawa Kwoka, who was murdered at 14 because she was the wrong ethnicity.