Are US Detention Centers Concentration Camps or Not?
Allow me to tell you a little story about Jack and Bella Bajnon.
A gentle, long-married couple, Jack and Bella lived down the block from where I grew up on New York’s Upper West Side and operated a tailor shop in the neighborhood where my parents would take their clothes. One day, my mother suggested I speak to them for a seventh-grade homework assignment that entailed interviewing people who lived through World War II. I was originally going to talk to my maternal grandmother about rationing and other facets of the conflict’s impact, but Jack and Bella had a darker story to tell.
They had survived the Holocaust.
Indeed, they had been interned at the most infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz, among other sites. And here I was, about to discuss their experiences with them in their small, brightly lit shop, which was filled with shirts and jackets and other items that could not begin to describe anything similar — which could not hide the despair and horror and anger they felt at the time.
I never forgot my visit.
Two things about the interview have particularly stuck in my mind. One is Bella’s account of the humiliation they had to suffer while relieving themselves on the toilet, when the Nazis would physically and verbally abuse them in public. The other is Bella’s description of the extent of their treatment, during which they were starved so thoroughly that they could not determine what sex they were.
Reality, in this case, was even worse than imagination.
My interview with Jack and Bella is now part of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s collection. It may be found here in digital form. There’s no question that it’s some of the most harrowing, disturbing stuff I’ve ever heard.
I bring this up because we’re living in an age of linguistic evolution. Words such as “woke” and “cuck” have entered the lexicon, for better or for worse. It appears as if any “influencer” — from President Trump to the latest Instagram star — can create new meanings for elements of the English language to suit them, so long as they have an impact.
It seems like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has done just that vis-à-vis her use of the term “concentration camps” to describe the humanitarian crisis at the US border.
Here’s the thing: That crisis is untenable. Individuals seeking entry into the United States are being held in claustrophobic facilities for a seemingly interminable amount of time. They need proper food, shelter, medicine, and communication. Many are separated from their families. People have died.
Yes, people have died.
So it may seem callous to suggest that these aren’t concentration camps, as Ocasio-Cortez has called them, given the dire lack of resources provided to those who are suffering while awaiting a decision on their immigration status. Plus, a number of experts have noted the similarity, as well as the fact that concentration camps had been in existence long before the Holocaust. In that light, why would the term “concentration camps” be so offensive to me, as a member of the Jewish faith, as well as so many others who share my heritage?
I’m going to provide a couple of reasons.
The first is that the term, though it had been coined before the advent of the Third Reich, is closely associated with the Nazi era and became much more widely known at that time. Consider, for example, the use of the term in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film To Be or Not To Be, which features a Nazi officer (brilliantly played by character actor Sig Ruman) nicknamed “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” — a moniker that has an important role in the movie overall.
If that’s not enough, Merriam-Webster has a definition at this link that states the term is “used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.” These words have specific connotations, and using them lightly suggests a lack of knowledge about the period, along with a scarcity of sensitivity with regard to the feelings of those who experienced such atrocities firsthand, such as Jack and Bella. In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, I’m wondering if there’s a mixture of both.
But there’s more. The Encyclopedia Britannica offers another definition here that includes this important point: “They are also to be distinguished from refugee camps or detention and relocation centers for the temporary accommodation of large numbers of displaced persons.”
This is an important point, as it differentiates concentration camps from other facilities, including those used at the US border. As horrible as the latter may be — and they are disgracefully inadequate — they by no means approach the magnitude and villainy of the camps used by the Nazis to imprison Jews and other targeted individuals during the Holocaust. There’s just no comparison. And Ocasio-Cortez suggesting that she knows the difference between “concentration camps” and “death camps” indicates that she is applying the former label out of willful ignorance or a deliberate attempt to garner further attention.
By the way, AOC: People died in labor camps, too. And the death camps were concentration camps.
Discovering more about this frightening part of history is easy. It just takes looking at the USHMM’s website or visiting the museum in person — after all, it is, like Ocasio-Cortez, in DC. She could also consult with Yad Vashem, an Israel-based organization dedicated in part to Holocaust research. Both of these organizations, of course, reportedly communicated that the comparison of the border situation to the concentration camps operating during the Holocaust is incorrect. I think I’d lean toward listening to those experts rather than people quoted in a magazine article.
So what now? Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t apologized for her behavior, and it’s not likely she will. My feeling is that she is ignoring calls to refrain from disseminating such misleading information for political reasons — to show her dedication to the border crisis, which certainly requires immediate attention.
Jack and Bella, however, do too. They are long gone, but does that mean they are any less important? Semantics make a difference, especially in cases such as this. Language is evolving. Yet it shouldn’t venture into revisionist meanings that don’t make historical sense.
Something to think about while we remember the Bajnons.
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. During his career, he has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek. Currently, he is a columnist for The Jewish Advocate. His views and opinions are his own.