The big universality question

As I mentioned previously, I cannot get into the contemporary movement to try to universalize the Shoah. There are actually two debates, as regards its overall uniqueness and its self-contained universality. When it comes to the first question, I absolutely agree it was far from the only genocide in history. Genocide can take many forms. To say the Shoah was the most horrible genocide ever, a completely unique event, is rather unfair to those who went through the Armenian Genocide, the genocide against the Native Americans, the Holodomor, the Nanjing Massacre, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Khmer Rouge massacres.

However, when it comes to the second question, it’s pretty obvious, based on historical evidence and demographics, that the Shoah was a uniquely Jewish tragedy. With the one exception of the Romani people, the other groups who came in for persecution and murder weren’t the primary targets. They weren’t specifically marked for extermination. They weren’t the ones whose populations have never recovered, in over 70 years. They weren’t the ones who lost entire communities and families. They weren’t the ones the Nazi authorities spent all their resources on tracking down, ghettoizing, deporting, torturing, and murdering.

Just FYI re: the Romani genocide during WWII, I’d highly advise you NOT to use the word Porajmos, which Wikipedia insists on keeping for that article. That word is considered extremely offensive and taboo by many Romani, since it means “rape.” It’s definitely not the term most Romani themselves use.

That’s not to say many other groups didn’t suffer as well. Besides the Romani, other persecuted groups were the mentally disabled, gay men (Paragraph 175 didn’t prosecute lesbians as well), Communists, Socialists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet POWs, Polish Gentiles (who particularly suffered a great deal), Freemasons, Spanish Republicans, and anti-Nazi activists.

However, those other groups weren’t the targets of actual genocide. Only the Jewish and Romani people were specifically singled out for genocide by the Nazis. There was never a policy of exterminating every single Communist, Jehovah’s Witness, gay man, trade unionist, Polish Gentile, or Freemason. Their communities have also more than recovered since, and their losses during WWII didn’t put a giant hole in their respective populations.

These pictures of the tall stone pillars with engraved city names are from Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Destroyed Communities. Since I wasn’t on my own timetable, I was unable to go through the entire exhibit, so I only got to see the pillars representing Poland and certain areas of the former Soviet Union. Further on in the exhibit, there are pillars bearing the names of communities from other countries.

These names represent towns, villages, and cities whose Jewish communities were either destroyed or reduced to almost nothing. Yet there are still plenty of Gentiles in places like Slonim, Sanok, Ropczyce, Czudec, Postawy (now Pastavy, Belarus), and Olkieniki (now Valkininkai, Lithuania). They suffered under Nazi occupation as well, but they didn’t lose their entire communities almost overnight, centuries of history and culture severed as though they never were.

I know many people trying to universalize the Shoah are well-meaning and trying to show off what awesome, accepting, progressive activists they are, but it particularly makes me uncomfortable because a lot of Shoah deniers do exactly the same thing. In one breath, they deny six million Jews were murdered, and then bleat, “Non-Jews were killed too!” or “The Germans suffered just as much after the war!” They’re trying to ignore or downplay the uniquely Jewish aspect because they’re anti-Semites who don’t want to acknowledge what truly happened, and how it was the culmination of almost two thousand years of European anti-Semitism.

Yes, it’s pointless to hold a macabre suffering contest. But no, in this case, the experiences of the Jewish and Romani people weren’t equal in scope and breadth to what the assorted other groups went through.

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6 comments on “The big universality question

  1. I still can’t believe people continue to deny that it ever happened.

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      I wrote a research paper on Holocaust denial in ninth grade (back in 1995), and recycled the paper (with some edits and additions) my sophomore year of community college. If I wrote that paper today, so many years later, I’d have so much new information to add.

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  2. Arlee Bird says:

    Holocaust denial of the Jews fits well within the current hatred of Israel by many segments of the world community. It’s an ongoing story thousands of years old and one that will continue to be recycled. Minimizing the impact on the Jewish community makes the WW2 atrocities just seem like another byproduct of war rather than a criminal movement that was one of the causes of the war.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      It’s very true that if one scratches a Holocaust denier, one is bound to find an anti-Semite and someone who doesn’t think Israel has a right to exist or defend itself against terrorism.

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  3. Chrys Fey says:

    Yes, there have been many genocides. Truly heartbreaking that certain races/religions, etc. are set apart and hurt in such horrible and cruel ways. None of these genocides are the same. Nor are the experiences the same for everyone, but we can all agree that they suffer, and suffer in much the same way.

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  4. Excellent explanation, Carrie-Anne. I’m with you; as much as people in general were put through hell by the Nazis, the level of persecution—and, especially, the fact that extermination was, from the very beginning, the actual goal of this persecution—to which Jews and Romanis were subject exceeds it all by far.
    Guilie @ Life In Dogs

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