Wednesday, June 6, 2007

All Holocausted Out: What I Think of Non-Jews Using the Word Holocaust

I got an email in the comments section of this blog from the scholar Danusha Goska about something that I said in my posting about how I came to write my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.  I had mentioned that a friend said to me that I must be “all holocausted out” after writing my first book about my parents.

Dr. Goska wanted to know what I thought about using the word “Holocaust” to describe the experiences of non-Jews like my parents in World War II.

The following is my answer to her question:

My mother wasn't an educated woman. She had no college, no high school even. She couldn't read the books that argue about who was and who was not in the Holocaust.

When I was growing up, she never said she was in the Holocaust. She wasn’t a talker, but she talked little about what happened to her family. Her mother and sister and the sister's baby were killed by German Soldiers and Ukrainian neighbors. She had two aunts who died in Auschwitz with their Jewish husbands. My mother spent a couple years in a slave labor camp in Germany. There were Jews and non-Jews in her camp; people suffered and died there. She didn’t talk about any of this much, and when she did she didn’t use the word “Holocaust.”

This changed as she got older. Toward the end of the 1990s, she started talking about how she was in the Holocaust. I think part of this might have come from the fact that people in general, not historians or academics but “just plain folks,” were using the term more often. They had seen Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful and Holocaust and other films about the Holocaust. I heard her using this word and saying that she was in the Holocaust. She said this to Christians (she was Catholic) and Jews alike. Maybe it was a sort of short hand for her. She was getting older and it was harder for her, I think, to try to explain to people that Polish Catholics also were in death camps and slave labor camps like their Jewish neighbors.

Was my mother right to use this word “Holocaust”? Did she have a right to use this word?

I think she had a right. When my father tried to talk about what happened to my mother during the war, he couldn’t say much. Sometimes, he would start crying, and all he could say then was, “She suffered so much.”

I have an education, and I’ve read about the debate concerning the word “Holocaust.” I think I can lay out some of the arguments from each side in a rudimentary sort of way given the complexity of everything that happened in World War II. One side feels that the Holocaust is what happened to the Jews alone. This side feels that the Nazis and their anti-Semitic allies in all countries worked to eliminate the Jews, and that what happened to the Jews was unique. The other side of the argument has it that Non-Jews by the millions from all of Europe suffered and died alongside the Jews, and that the term Holocaust should apply to all of those who suffered and died in the camps.

So, you ask, what do I think about using the word “Holocaust.” First, I’d have to say that I would never have told my mother that she wasn’t in the Holocaust. I think she had a right to describe her experiences in any way that she saw fit. She was there, she suffered. If she felt she was in the Holocaust, I wouldn’t argue with her.

Second, let me say, that I believe that what happened to Jews was different from what happened to non-Jews. Jews were singled out for immediate destruction. They suffered, they starved, they waited, they died, they waited, they died. Non-Jews who were considered non-Aryan (the Poles, the Italians, the Russians, the Rumanians, the Czechs, and others) were not singled out for immediate destruction. They suffered, they lingered, they starved, they waited, they died, they waited. My father used to talk about the difference between the death camps that the Jews were in and the slave labor camps he was in this way: The Jews, he would say, were in the death camps; he was in the slow-death camps.

To me, it doesn’t seem necessary to spend time discussing the word “Holocaust” and whether it’s applicable to what happened to my parents and other non-Jews.

I think about the Jewish dead and I think about the non-Jewish dead. They are dead.

What I know of hell comes to me primarily from my reading of Dante’s Inferno. In his hell, no one is untouched by pain. Everyone suffers. Some suffer more. Some suffer most. What I know of pain and suffering teaches me that I cannot judge the suffering and pain another feels. I can try to ease that pain and suffering. That is pretty much all I can do.

Let me also say this, I think that all of us who talk about what happened in those dark years of Hitler’s ascendancy and power and the Holocaust and suffering he helped to bring about finally cannot fully understand what happened or what it felt like or what it was like. In this respect, all of us, despite our very best efforts, cannot know what the Holocaust was. We are finally tourists in the kingdom of the Holocaust. We look, we wonder, we cry, we look, we turn away, we look again.


D Goska said...

John, what you've written here is beautiful, profound, and powerful, and I hope that many, many people read it.

If I am in an environment where this question comes up, I will, with your permission, cite this webpage.

The first time the debate over use of the word "Holocaust" came to my immediate attention (it had been on the edges of my consciousness) was when Bozena Urbanowicz Gilbride was forbidden from her previously active speaking work as a Holocaust survivor.

I am not privy to all the details here.

As I understand it, and as I remember it, the problem was that she was not Jewish, and, therefore, it was said that she must not use the word "Holocaust" to talk about her own experiences.

Like you, John, I can understand both points of view. On the one hand, there have been efforts to "de-Judaize" the Holocaust. That's an historical fact. In Auschwitz, for example, if I remember correctly, under the Soviets, the film taken during the liberation of the camp was shown with a narration that described the camp victims as "enemies of fascism"

In other words, the communists controlling the camp tried to downplay the victimization of Jews.

And "The Holocaust in American Life" talks about how the Jewish nature of victims of Hitler was downplayed in propaganda to gain support for the war -- there was a fear that American anti-Semitism would prevent some Americans from supporting the war effort as much as they might otherwise have done.

At the same time, non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, especially Poles, for all sorts of reasons, are often discounted as victims.

I am fascinated by your account, John, of how and why your mother came to use the word "Holocaust."

There was a good feature on the NPR radio show, years ago, on how people came to use that term. How, right after the war, people were so traumatized and overwhelmed they could hardly talk at all, many of them, and when they did talk, they didn't have, of course, a name for the historical event of which they had been victims.

Thanks again, John.

Marty said...

John, this is very useful and moving. The nazis worked to "wholly burn" complete populations they identified as expendable, the Jews foremost, but also Romany and homosexuals in addition to anyone else who was perceived to be in the way. Those who allow themselves to be caught up in comparing degrees of suffering distract us from the sheer inhumanity of the nazi mindset.

Urkat said...

"He would start crying, and all he could say was, “She suffered so much.” That is so moving to me, how unbearable it must have been to see his wife suffer so and be unable to prevent it. With respect to those concerned in this discussion, the "wholesale destruction" of people and things, especially in Europe of the time, is most aptly termed a holocaust, acknowledging that more specific uses of the term are in general usage for scholarly and other purposes. Like my granddad used to say, "Everybody has an axe to grind." I have a Polish friend who was in a forced labor camp and is bitter to this day at what was taken from him, and how he was starved. Was he in the holocaust. Yes, because he was caught up in that terrible cycle of destruction that masqueraded as an idealogy.

martin stepek said...

Hi John
I thought your comments on the use of the word 'Holocaust' very deep and moving, and the postings from others have added to the quality in their turn.
In two of the major eastern philosophies, Buddhism and Taoism, we are warned of the dangers of words, especially words that become 'labels'. Words are our attempt to describe or show what is in fact unable to be perfectly described. I think this discussion is about one such deeply sensitive cultural and historical label.
The Roma are usually now included as victims of the Holocaust, sometimes gays and some types of mentally ill people are. I guess this is because they were seen in the Nazis' minds as in the same category as the Jews - unwanted sub-species to be removed as fast and effectively as possible.
Poles and other slavs were considered utterly expendable as peoples too, but weren't up there on the 'must remove first' priority list, but rather peoples on an unwritten second list to be removed or slaved to death once the huge task of the Jews, Roma and others had been complete.
Thus the word 'Holocaust' is a human label to describe the loss of those on the first list, whilst those who were on the second list have not yet been given a 'label'. This is why the wise teachers of the east 2500 years ago warned us off creating and using labels. To those not on the first list, but whose peoples died in huge numbers in Nazi camps, to be excluded from the one label that's been created 'Holocaust' is in their eyes to diminish the suffering of their peoples. To those whose peoples died in huge numbers in the 'Holocaust' it appears to diminish the horror associated with the degeee of planning and conscious choice of the perpetrators if we include other groups not on the Nazis' priority list of those to be eradicated.
So with labels no-one wins.
The difficulty with labels in this terribly painful and sensitive area exists even before we considered those, like my paternal grandparents, who died as a result of Soviet actions on Polish citizens, let alone those tens of millions who have suffered in the years since WW2, as in Cambodia, Rwanda, and so on. Labels can't describe; that's why we have poets and artists.

John Guzlowski said...

Danusha, thank you for asking me the question that led me to write this post. As always, you get me thinking.

D Goska said...

Thanks to all for the wonderful replies.

John, I have a question for you, not related to this topic, except tangentially. I thought if i asked you here, rather than one-on-one, if anyone else here knows the answer ...

I am watching "The Razor's Edge," 1946, starring Tyrone Power, Gene Teirny, Clifton Webb, Herbert Marshall, and Anne Baxter.

It's a very bad movie; it exists to be parodied, but.

It's about post-war trauma. It dramatizes the post-war trauma of a fictional WW I veteran, "Larry", Tyrone Power, and it was made, of course, in America in the wake of WW II, when Tyrone Power was himself a veteran, along with millions of American men.

Larry seeks englightenment. And the first person he meets on the road is ... a Pole! To be specific, a Polish coal miner! And drunk! and defrocked priest!

Now, there's a truly original Polish character. I'm sure Maugham was the first to associate Poles with coal, booze, or Catholicism.

The Pole tells Larry to go to India, and Larry does. (he wouldn't be the first to go to India because a Pole told him to, I'm sure.)

Later, Clifton Webb orders "berezowska" (sp?) vodka. he talks about getting drunk with Polish princes, and how much Polish princes like to drink.

Gene Tierny had wanted Larry for herself, but he chose Anne Baxter. Baxter is an alcohlic trying to recover from her baby's death. She stopped drinking when Larry asked her to marry him.

Gene Tierny, to destroy their engagement, entices Anne Baxter with -- Berezowska (sp?) vodka!

In the next scene, in a seedy Parisian boite, Frenchmen are imitating a lustful tramp, pleading, "Give me berezowska vodka!" then Anne Baxter enters the scene, chanting, "Berezowska!"

All this Bohunkiana is quite remarkable.

What gives? Did Somerset Maugham have an unhappy affair with a drunken Pole?

D Goska said...

Found the quote, below, on Wikipedia. I'll shut up about this after this post...

...and yet ... there are so few specific references to Poles in mainstream Hollywood productions, and what references there are always seem to hit these same ruts in a well traveled road: alcohol, domestic violence, blue collar labor, post war trauma, melodramatic spirituality ...

I mean, there are few to no references to Poles that involve frivolity, or hanging out on the beach ... do any Beach Boy songs reference Poles?

From wiki: (by the way, in the movie they say "Persovksa," as I learned when I switched on the subtitles. Zubrowka I know. It's good stuff.)

"Żubrówka plays a key role in Somerset Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge, where it is used to lure a young woman back into alcoholism. According to Isabella, a character in the book, "it smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it's soft on the palate and so comfortable, it's like listening to music by moonlight."

Urkat said...

Danusha, What can one expect from a group whose typical songs include lyrics like the following, copied directly from a Beach Boy site:

Oh oh dum do dum de dooby do
Oh oh dum do dum de dooby do
Oh oh dum do dum de dooby do
oh yeah Oh badumday oh dum do dum de dooby do Oh badumday oh dum do dum de dooby do

D Goska said...

Urkat, I'm laughing out loud.

Thank you.


D Goska said...

Listen, John, I want to increase traffic to your website, by attracting websurfers seeking details about a news story far more important than anything we've discussed here. So let me just type:

Hot Paris Hilton Nude Prison Pix.

That should bring in some readers.

Urkat said...

The only poles those readers would be interested in are the kind poles you might find in strip clubs--so I'm told.

D Goska said...

John, it's been a while since you posted this essay, but something in today's news brings it to mind.

Beverly Beckham wrote about Auschwitz in the Boston Globe on November 4.


Beckham did not specifically mention the word "Jew," but she did reference Anne Frank's diary and Daniel Pearl, who was forced to identify himself as a Jew before he was murdered by terrorists.

Charles S. Glassengerg responded with a letter upbraiding Beckham for not specifically identifying Jews as victims.


Bogusia Wojciechowska later wrote in to say that Mr. Glassenberg might now understand better how Poles feel when their victimization at Auschwitz, and in general by the Nazis, goes unmentioned or trivialized.


In today's Globe, there is a response by David S. Greenfield, who says that by mentioning Polish suffering, Wojchiechowska is a revisionist attempting to erase Jewish suffering.


Anonymous said...

What you wrote resonated with me on so many levels. My parents were also Polish Catholic survivors of the Holocaust, and I too, use that word as their "right" of usage. My parents never spoke about what happened to them, so I can't remember if they ever used the word 'Holocaust' to describe what they went through. Many seem to forget or fail to acknowledge that Poland suffered their own devastating Holocaust.

Many, many years ago, and I can't remember how this conversation started, I was shopping in a predominantly Jewish community in Queens, NY. A woman and I started talking and she mentioned that she was a survivor of the Holocaust. My reply to her was "so were my parents." She then asked me if I was Jewish, and I said no - Polish Catholics. She looked at me with such horror, as if I had some nerve. I kind of looked at her the same way she looked at me. I was very young at the time, and not as educated in this subject as I am today, so I didn't quite get it. Now I do.

My mother and father suffered greatly throughout the years they were slave laborers. So much in fact, they could never discuss it. They threw bits and pieces, but I know nothing of where they were, or what happened to them.

Jews and non Jews died side by side. Both were earmarked for extermination. Hitler hated the Poles just as much and declared that they be killed without mercy. Is this not a Holocaust in it's own right? I tend to think so.

Well, thank you for letting me ramble. Thank you for this essay, as I found it insightful and in some ways, comforting.

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Anonymous, thank you for the note. I would love to hear more about your parents. Please send me an email at

Josh T said...

Some Jews and perhaps others think that the (Hebrew) term "Shoah" should be used only for the Nazi extermination of the Jews, while "Holocaust" could refer to the extermination and enslavement of Jews, Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses, Poles, etc., by the Nazis and their many collaborators. I personally think that this makes sense; that the Nazi extermination of the Jews should have a special name. Thus Mr. Guzlowski's parents were indeed Holocaust victims, but not Shoah victims. Maybe someone (of whatever background) who was executed specifically for trying to save Jews is a Shoah victim as well.