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Alan Berkenwald, MD: On the meaning of ‘concentration camp’

Published: 9/9/2019 9:58:39 AM

Both my parents survived Auschwitz. My mother twice. When my parents, who were young teens at the time, arrived there in cattle cars, they were immediately separated from their parents and youngest siblings. They were marched to the right, to barracks. The rest of their families were marched to the left, straight to the gas chambers and were never seen again.

My mother told me each morning the women of her barracks were lined up outside. A Polish woman, a guard, quietly told my mother, each morning, to line up on the left or the right. Each morning, half of that barrack was sent to the gas chambers. My mother, every day, had to decide whether to trust that Polish guard and line up on the left or the right. My father told me for an extra ration of bread, men would volunteer to load the crematorium ovens with dead bodies and then unload the bones and ashes. And after one week of such labor, they knew they would be murdered next because the Nazis did not want them to become strong enough, ambitious enough, to sabotage the ovens.

For those of you who did not grow up with the living presence of a concentration camp in your family, it was that and much, much more. It was the horror of violent loss and separation and the tortured starvation of slave labor for the survivors. I do not support our present administration’s handling of immigrants at our border. It is a national shame. It is a crime against humanity. Those internment camps are horrific in their own right. They are, emphatically, not concentration camps. My neighbors may condemn me for what I am about to say — I only wish my parents, and all the loved ones they lost, could have been treated like those refugees, in those camps, on our border.

Why raise the image of the Holocaust and the Nazi genocide by using a word loaded with such evil, still living memories? A concentration camp is a horror above all others — the efficient, industrialized, systematic, organized genocide of a people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, sexual identity or mental illness. Why do some people insist on rewriting the meaning of this horrific word? Why do they need to feed their outrage over our nation’s mistreatment of asylum-seeking immigrants by deliberately using a word that carries such a unique history, that shocks and dismays?

Concentration camps are dead bodies piled high in open pits, children in their mother’s arms choking on poisonous gas, men and women chased naked to the edges of open pits to be shot in the head, ovens burning bodies day and night, and all the remaining “lucky” survivors starved into skeletal submission.

Alan Berkenwald, MD


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