My grandmother — a Hungarian Holocaust survivor — passed away on Nov. 18, 2011. Both of my paternal grandparents went through Auschwitz. Growing up, I was painfully aware that if it weren’t for the unspeakable torment they experienced, I never would have been born. These stories were a personal family matter, consequences of a mad history of genocidal extermination and an ethical lesson that no human being ought to suffer such atrocities in any place or time.
My grandmother’s struggle, however, was not only the Holocaust. She was born into a poor family of 10 siblings in rural Hungary, and as an immigrant in the United States, she raised seven children. My grandmother taught me lessons that fueled my progressive political ethics. Her suffering was not primarily about Jewish collective memory, but about class oppression coupled with a specific history of genocide in which Jews happened to be the primary victims.
For this reason, last week, on April 2, I was appalled to see the manner in which American Jews were commemorating the Holocaust on the Diag. I have always felt alienated from the idea of a “Jewish collective memory of victimization.” American Jews should learn about the Holocaust, but my impression from the youngest age has been that too many assume this “collective memory” as a badge of their own victimization. As a grandson of Holocaust survivors, at an early age I learned that the victims were my grandparents, ancestors and father, rather than me as a Jew. Focusing on Jews’ subjection to oppression throughout history flies in the face of the affluence and racial privilege most of us American Jews currently enjoy at the expense of others.
One of the signs at the event displayed the obliviousness of American Jewish students to this privilege. Dick Cheney shared his supposed wisdom on the Holocaust: “We are reminded that such immense cruelty did not happen in a far-away, uncivilized corner of the world, but rather in the very heart of the civilized world.” I approached the young woman at the booth and pointed out the racism of dividing the world into rungs of civilization. As a Latino Jew with South American heritage, I was all too aware of this naturalization of the genocide of black and brown peoples as if it formed part of a more generalized barbarism.
This dehumanization of non-European peoples is at the heart of a global racist colonial project which in turn, is situated in the heart of what Cheney calls “the civilized world.” The ideological barbarism of this project existed prior to and after the Holocaust, and even served as a justification for colonial genocides: Germany almost wiped out the Herero and Namaqua peoples between 1904 and 1907 in modern-day Namibia, and King Leopold II’s slave labor in the Congo obliterated an enormous portion of the local population. Yet the victims of these genocides were black; the influence of colonialism on Germany’s perpetration of the Holocaust in Europe has not entered into public discourse on the matter. The idyllic myth of German civilization — one in which Gentile and Jewish Germans alike participated in the early 20th century — was blemished from the start. While the director of Hillel graciously responded with interest to my e-mail complaint about the sign, students showed considerably less engagement.
For me, there are several questions to think about when commemorating the Holocaust: Why go through the motions each year if no new lessons are to be learned? Why hold fast to a sense of victimization that flies in the face of socioeconomic and racial realities in our country and ignore the oppression of others? Why uphold racism and colonial discourse when speaking of the Holocaust? These are not the lessons that one Holocaust survivor, my grandmother Adel Stern, taught me throughout her life.
Ramon Stern is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature.