Sometimes I forget that most people only have a very basic idea of what happened during the Holocaust.
I don’t entirely remember what came first, me coming across a book that took place during the holocaust, or finding out that family members of mine had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. At some point, however, the combination of both of these events sparked a sort obsession in me. I began reading everything I could find on the subject including quite a few different diaries, personal accounts, and well researched fiction, in addition to histories, articles, and non-fiction books.
So often, we have a tendency to see genocide as very specific things – gas chambers, firing squads, mass graves. We think of specific acts of murder. But so often, genocide doesn’t look like obvious acts of murder.
It looks like isolation.
In many ways the Holocaust began with Jewish people being further and further isolated from the general public. To some extent this work had already been started for them. Many Jewish families lived in communities together, both for protection and convenience. Since Anti-Semitism had existed for long historical periods prior to the rise of the Nazis, there was safety in numbers. It also makes sense that people with a similar culture or religion would live closer to where the expressions and duties of those religions would be closer or easier to access.
What the Nazis did was force this isolation further.
The badges and registration of Jewish people marked them publicly as other. Paired with the propaganda about how they were stealing German jobs and money, and lies about violent tendencies and propensity towards crime, it meant that many people avoided being seen associating with those whose armbands said Juden or who wore a yellow star upon their breast.
Jews were denied access to certain businesses, certain public places and events, to restaurants and other public spaces.
People became afraid to be seen associating with Jews lest they too be subjected to the same stigma or be viewed with suspicion by the police and SS. This meant long time customers would stop frequenting businesses owned by Jewish people, and even those that simply had Jews as employees – encouraging many to fire or let go these employees to preserve their business. Those that didn’t and supported their Jewish neighbours could be targeted for vandalism, theft, or other forms of violet repercussions.
Eventually, Jews were encouraged to move to the ghettos were they could be around other Jewish people, and finally those that didn’t go there voluntarily were forced to relocate.
The ghettos in turn were finally walled and sealed off, making them essentially prison neighbourhoods, away from the public eye.
By isolating a people, it is easier to lie about them and to make people fear them further. It is easier to get people to forget about them enough to not pay attention to the fact that many seem to be suffering, and dying. It makes it harder for these same people to tell their stories, to reach out for help, and to show exactly what they are being subjected to. By isolating people, it is easier to pretend that any seen events are just isolated incidents rather than systemic and targeted actions.
It looks like being forced to live in conditions that are unsafe and insufficient. It looked like dying of diseases associated with those same living conditions.
During the Holocaust, Jewish families were forced to live in ghettos. There were less homes than there were people, often with several families crowded into one apartment. People froze to death. Lice were so numerous, that an evening activity was finding and killing as many of them as was possible, to try and end the endless barrage. The bugs spread diseases, and those who got sick had no access to medicine and many died from completely preventable ailments. Still many others died from starvation.
Many prisoners were forced onto train cars where there was not enough space to sit down let alone move. People were packed in worse than cattle, with one bucket of water that was never refilled, and one bucket for waste that was never emptied. Many suffocated to death from having so many bodies pressed against them. Still others burned to death pressed against the hot metal of the train car roasting in the sun. Those that died stayed standing, pressed against the living until the cars were emptied.
In the camps themselves, disease was rampant. Bodies ravaged by unsanitary conditions, starvation, overwork, didn’t have the strength to fight off infections.
The diseases weren’t introduced by the Nazis, but were an expected result of being forced into close quarters. Of being exposed to unsanitary conditions that would attract rats, bugs, and other disease spreading vectors.
Many were denied access to necessary medicine and medical care, so that otherwise controllable conditions were allowed to become fatal instead. Think of this like say denying a diabetic needed insulin.
It looks like severe punishments for relatively small infractions, or laws meant to criminalize specific demographics.
The deaths in the ghettos weren’t fast enough for those that wanted to be rid of those they hated, so they began rounding up people on the smallest plausible basis. People would be stopped on the streets or in the midst of performing tasks and asked to show documentation or proof of who they were. Those that couldn’t prove they belonged where they were or didn’t have identification on them were jailed and shipped off to the camps.
Relatively minor infractions, relatively similar to say jaywalking, could be used as an excuse to arrest and ship you off to the camps. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if you had good reason to be there and it hadn’t previously been off limits, could be enough of a justification to shoot someone, or arrest and send them to the camps.
Not handing over any property the Nazis wanted or demanded. Helping a neighbour. Being seen doing work you were not authorized to do, like say try and offer medical care as a former doctor banned from practicing medicine all of these were excuses for arrest and jail.
On the death marches, tripping was a capital offense that got you shot. This on marches lasting several days, with no food, no water, in freezing or boiling conditions.
In the camps themselves, you were forced to stand in lines in the freezing cold or boiling hot while the guards counted everyone. If anyone was missing they could be forced to stand for hours while they were found. If you fell, you were shot. If you flinched too obviously when someone was shot or beaten, you were too. This was all before being forced to work gruelling conditions which were often enough busywork meant to exhaust and further strain bodies beyond endurance. Jobs like moving rocks from one side of a field and back again. Prisoners played sadistic games with prisoners by offering them rotten food or food forbidden by their religion.
In many cases the laws themselves were only applied to certain demographics, since they were only a pretext for imprisoning people they already planned on imprisoning.
It looks like your children being kidnapped.
In the Ghettos, they would make announcements that all children of a certain age were expected to report to the schools or offices. Those that came were shipped off to the camps. Those that didn’t and were found were killed. Sometimes schools would be randomly raided and imprisoned.
But it wasn’t just these children who were kidnapped.
Many young children, toddlers and babies, in particular those who fit the Aryan aesthetic were taken from their families and given to what were deemed good German homes. Some were orphans to begin with, but many were stolen from their parents arms. They were to be raised German, with no indication of having ever come from a different culture or religion. It is estimated as many as 100,000 children were taken from their parents in Poland alone.
By taking children away and making sure they don’t learn their language, that they don’t learn the specifics of their culture, by making them ashamed of where they come from and who they are, you can systemically destroy a people and a culture without ever firing a single shot.
Those that refused to be “Germanized” were beaten and punished. Eventually many were sent to camps and exterminated.
It looks like the destruction of literature, research, and written history.
Thousands of books were destroyed by the Nazis. Books that described or spoke of any groups the Nazis deemed unacceptable, like Jewish people, like gay and trans people. Written histories of peoples and their different traditions and cultural beliefs were destroyed. By eliminating as much written information about certain peoples, you can seemingly erase them from history.
This happened, for example to trans folk, who now struggle against the incorrect belief that they’re a new phenomenon, since their historical records were so thoroughly purged by Nazis who refused to accept their existence and reality. This has in turn empowered bigots who use this as proof that they’re not real or are actually mentally ill, who try and justify their hatred by claiming that they are unnatural since they haven’t occurred historically. All of these beliefs are false, and yet, combatting them is made more difficult by this lack of records.
It looks like something unseen.
While we tend to assume that genocide is obvious, and that while it is happening there are hoards of supporters standing off to the sides cheering along as armed men do their insidious deeds, but the truth is that many people never see the genocide that is going on right in front of them.
Even during the Holocaust, many of the Camps were hidden away from the eyes of most people. Even those camps that were in or near cities, were often considered as being spaces of restricted access, with severe punishments for anyone who entered the area unauthorized. Getting the details about the Camps during the war involved people getting intentionally imprisoned in order to be able to witness what was happening first hand. Even then, the difficulty lay in breaking back out and getting the evidence and documentation to the necessary authorities.
Even during the Holocaust, many people who knew that Jewish people were being imprisoned by the millions, didn’t realize the extent to which they were being tortured and killed. Many thought the camps to be just prisons, where the incarcerated people were criminals who would have been fine if they hadn’t broken the laws. In some cases the Ghettos were spun as “for their own protection.”
That’s not to say that information wasn’t out there, but without physically witnessing what people were being put through, it was a lot easier for people who themselves felt overwhelmed, tired, or like they were struggling, to ignore the extent of the problem. To make excuses about why those ringing the warning bells were overreacting or just being dramatic.
Understanding that genocide isn’t just the obvious violent imagery we expect is essential for helping prevent them when they occur but also in responding appropriately when they are already occurring. In Canada and the US right now, we have vivid examples of genocides taking place, without our apparent objection. In times like these we have to ask ourselves, how will we want to be viewed in the eyes of history? As one of the heroes who did their best to stop the atrocities, who hid those they could, and supported those they could in whatever ways are possible, or as the neighbour who turned them in? And remember, that in this technological age, where you stood will be recorded for the sake of posterity.