Why the White House is wrong about the Holocaust: Q-and-A with Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum

February 3, 2017
Survivors attend a prayer and tribute ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27Photo by Agency Gazeta/Kuba Ociepa/Reuters

In seeking to create a teachable moment following the White House’s decision to withhold the mention of Jews from President Donald J. Trump’s statement honoring International Holocaust Memorial Day, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust asked noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum to describe not only his response to the statement, but also the reasons why it generated such strong opposition.

Berenbaum served as Deputy Director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust (1979–1980), Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) (1988–1993), and Director of the USHMM’s Holocaust Research Institute (1993–1997). He played a leading role in the creation of the USHMM and the content of its permanent exhibition.

“The failure of the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day to mention the Jews is troubling because it fails to grasp the full nature of the Holocaust,” Berenbaum said. “The statement of the President’s Press Secretary defending that statement misrepresents history and invents a new category of victims.”

Who were the victims of the Nazis?

Some were victimized for what they did: trade unionists, political dissidents, social democrats even Free Masons.

Some were victimized for what they refused to do. Jehovah’s Witnesses would not register for the draft, swear allegiance to the state or utter the words “Heil Hitler.”

Some were victimized for what they were. Roma and Sinti, pejoratively labeled as Gypsies, were considered asocials. Germans of special needs – mentally retarded, physically infirm, congenitally ill, mentally retarded or emotionally distraught German – Aryans non-Jews – were sent to their death, defined as “life unworthy of living” and “useless eaters.”

Jews were victimized for the fact that they were. It was sufficient to have Jewish grandparents irrespective of one’s faith or identity for the Nazi state and their collaborators to murder one as a Jew.

Why the emphasis on Six Million Jews?

It was the German state and the Nazi regime that decided upon the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” a euphemistic way of declaring the annihilation of the Jews – all Jews, everywhere, men, women and children. Four death camps – Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Chelmno were dedicated also exclusively toward what the Nazis referred to as the extermination of the Jews. Millions of Jews were murdered in these camps, so were some 20,000 Roma and Sinti. It was the German state policy to rid the world of Jews, a policy that had no parallel in the Nazi universe.

Why are Jews sensitive – so sensitive or overly sensitive – to the omission of a specific mention to the Jews?

Three reasons:

1. During the Communist era, authorities throughout the communist world deliberately omitted all mention of the Jews, referring instead to the murder of their citizens without specifying that they were Jews. This decision obscured the nature of the crime and its reasons. It also let many collaborators, including collaborating government distort, their participation in the crime because Jews were not treated as citizens but as Jews, outsiders and no entitled to the protection of the state.

2. Jews were killed as Jews. They have every right to be remembered as Jews.

3. It gives Hitler and all who participated in the murder of the Jews a posthumous victory because they not only wanted to murder all the Jews but also to eradicate the memory of the crime. By erasing the memory of Jews, one assists in distorting the crime.

Should not all victims of Nazism be remembered?

Of course, all contemporary museums to the Holocaust include the memory of non-Jews murdered by the Nazis; because their inclusion is required to remained faithful to history and also because only be including the memory of all Nazi victims can we understand what was singular about the murder of the Jews.

So what was singular about the murder of the Jews?

– Scope
– Scale
– Duration
– Totality
– Methodology
– Purpose

The Holocaust engulfed 22 countries throughout Europe from France to Central Russia, from Norway in the North to North Africa in the South.

It was the intended policy of the Nazi German government to be rid of the Jews from German lands for 12 years, from the time that Hitler came to power to his dying day, indeed to the last hours of the war. First their intention was to be rid of the Jews by making it impossible for them to live in Germany. Therefore they would first be forced to leave, and then, after June 1941, they would be murdered, first by sending mobile killers to murder the Jews, and when that proved difficult and burdensome, by making the Jews mobile and sending them to stationary killing centers, factories of death, where assembly line procedures make for an efficient murder mechanism.

Why kill the Jews?

The murder of the Jews served no territorial purpose, was economically disruptive and burdensome to the war effort. The Jews were murdered because in the Nazi universe they were regarded as “cancerous” on German Society and their elimination first by evacuation and later by murder essential to the health of that society. Yale historian Timothy Snyder has recently written that Hitler lived in a world of dominance, the strong would either dominate or be destroyed. Thus, Jews were opposed for the values they brought into the world. Compassionate justice and assistance to the weak stood in the way of the natural order as perceived by Hitler; in nature, the powerful exercise their power without restraint. Hitler practiced social Darwinism at it most extreme. Jewish values were not only held by Jews but spread widely by Christians who revered Jesus.

The murder of the Jews was considered by the Macarthur Prize winning UCLA historian, Saul Friedlander, ”redemptive antisemitism.” The elimination of Jews would “save Germany.”

What was wrong with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s defense of the Statement?

The newly appointed Press Secretary invented a new category of victims. Had he asked – as any White House Press Secretary should ask — any knowledgeable historian would have told him German and Austrian male homosexuals were victimized by the Nazis. There is no evidence for the victimization of Lesbians, though undoubtedly so lesbians were victimized because they were Jew or fell into the other categories of victim groups.

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