By chance my senior seminar on global ethnic conflict ended our class discussion on Alan Rosenblum’s book Is the Holocaust Unique? a day before Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, which was commemorated world wide last Wednesday (April 18). Concluding the debate on that book we moved along with our syllabus to discuss Peter Univ’s book on the 1994 Rwanda genocide Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda.
I usually schedule one or two seminar meetings to discuss an assigned book. But Rosenblum’s reader, which compares the Holocaust to other genocides and mass killings of ethnic or racial groups, generally provokes an arousing debate, and this time was not different. It took nearly three sessions, and it could have been potentially longer. I usually begin the discussion on the book by asking my students whether we need to know that the Holocaust was unique. If so, why do we need to know that?
I have been teaching this seminar for sometime. Usually my students agree that each genocide we study was unique, and that each was distinctive to the ethnic group that had endured it. Still, the Holocaust was different on a number of levels, including its magnitude, the creation of a sophisticated killing technology, the level of participation of ordinary Germans, or the fact that the Jews had been completely assimilated into the German society and having made no threatening nationalistic claims against the Germans.
The nature of the debates in this multiethnic, multicultural seminar often depends on the makeup and chemistry of the students, making each semester different from one another even though the subject matter is the same. But this semester I heard statements from some of my students I had rarely heard in my classroom.
It began with the question some students posed, why the Holocaust is commemorated while other genocides are not. I reminded them that the Armenian, Greek, and Rwandan genocides have been commemorated as well.
Why then is the Holocaust talked about more than any other genocide, a student wanted to know. “Because the Jews control America!” another student exclaimed. “What do you base this statement on?” I asked. “The Jewish Lobby,” the student replied.
I responded that while no one can dispute the strength of the pro-Israeli or Jewish lobby in Washington, it was still a myth to believe that the Jews control American politics. I then offered students extra credits to write an extra research paper, comparing the influence of the Jewish Lobby to that of the Cuban Lobby, the Big Pharma Lobby, the Big Oil Lobby, the Financial Lobby, the National Rifle Association, or the mining and defense industries lobbies.
“What are you talking about,” another student lashed at me with visible anger. “You even have a kosher cafeteria here in Queens College. Why don’t we have a vegetarian cafeteria?” “It’s a business decision,” a Jewish student answered excitedly before I had a chance to answer. “We have a Sushi place and a Chinese place, and you can get vegetarian food in every cafeteria,” yet another responded to the remark that seemed to have anti-Semitic undertones.
At the end of our debate over the Holocaust I fulfilled my promise to share with my students my experience when I had visiting the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in the summer of 2010, an experience I wrote about in my essay “A Knock at the Door in the Darkness of Night,” published in Lilith (Volume 35 No. 3, Fall 2010) and extracted from my memoir War Widow.
“Nothing I have studied, read, seen, not Yad Vashem, not even my previous visit to Terezienstadt, prepared me for Birkenau and Auschwitz-for their enormity and for the efficiency with which the Nazis ran their death-oiled industry.
What shocked me was that not even the minutest detail was left to chance: not the place where the trains would first stop, where victims would initially be "selected," where they first undressed, where they were first disinfected and shaved, their hair used by the Nazis to manufacture fabric; not where they were disinfected for the second time, where their clothing was first fumigated, where their clothing was fumigated for the second time, where their clothing and belongings were collected, sorted and stored, where they would die by Zyclon B poisoning gas, where their corpses would be burned. It took merely twenty-five minutes from the time the human cargo arrived to Birkenau, selected to die and turned into ash.”