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Holocaust scholar places genocide in global context

<rlier this week, Carleton had the honor of welcoming renowned Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum to campus. The professor, author, and former project director of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. spoke Monday night about the “Uniqueness and Universality of the Holocaust.”

Addressing an audience of fifty, composed of students, faculty and Northfield residents, Berenbaum discussed the major arguments for and against labeling the Holocaust as a unique event in world history. Berenbaum cited various holocaust survivors, historians, and philosophers throughout his speech, but addressed especially Elie Wiesel’s claim that the holocaust was an event that cannot be represented and can never truly be told. Berenbaum acknowledged the importance of the passage of time when confronting such a traumatic event, admitting that “if you flee destruction and then turn back too soon, you may never move on.” Nevertheless, in order to “deprive Hitler of any posthumous victories,” he argued that confronting the horrors of the holocaust is the only way to keep from sinking into an irreparable “despair against humanity.”

While the Holocaust shares many similarities with the mass killings in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Sudan, Berenbaum argued that the Nazi’s “instrumentality” of murder was unique. He cites specifically a crucial shift in technique, from mobile killing units and stationary victims to stationary killing centers and mobile victims. The emergence of Nazi death camps and the systematic deportation of primarily Jews to these camps was an unprecedented feat. Berenbaum, an expert on the architectural anatomy of Auschwitz, noted that there were forty-four parallel railroad tracks through which cars entered full of men, women, and children, and left empty. While this number is undoubtedly startling, it became significantly more horrific when he compared it to the mere twenty-one tracks that run through New York’s Grand Central Station.

Aside from the unprecedented means with which the Nazis killed six million Jews and roughly five million others (gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, and the mentally and physically disabled), Berenbaum also stressed that the genocide was “unique in that murder was the intentional object.” While America’s western expansion decimated the Native American population, the epic death toll was a result, rather than the goal of a “Manifest Destiny” mentality. Similarly, in other genocides, murder was the result of a struggle for land, power, or a combination of many other factors. In the case of the Holocaust, however, Berenbaum argued that implementation of the “Final Solution” represented a conscious effort to annihilate an entire people above all other goals. Berenbaum noted that even as Germany’s defeat grew imminent, Nazi resources were shifted from the front lines to the gas chambers. In fact, Berenbaum gave the estimation that over 430,000 Jews perished in the death marches of the final days of the war.

After establishing a case for the Holocaust’s uniqueness, however, Berenbaum’s speech took an unexpected turn. He said that in today’s “multicultural world” the question of the Holocaust’s uniqueness has shifted to an exploration of its similarities with other genocides. Berenbaum cited two reasons for this departure from a discussion of uniqueness: “We don’t want to value one kind of suffering over another, or quantify suffering, and also by finding similarities in genocides, we can look to prevent them.” Berenbaum cited many similar warning signs, such as that of classification, dehumanization, polarization, and denial. This last warning sign, the inclination to deny such an atrocity after the fact, is a danger Berenbaum believes we all must strive to resist. Although unpleasant to confront and impossible to fully comprehend, the temptation to leave the past in the past is exactly what Berenbaum believes will allow for such evil to return.

Berenbaum concluded by saying that his responsibility as a scholar of genocide is to “give Americans a way to deal with this trauma without abusing or misusing the Holocaust.” With a hint of frustration, he mentioned how frequently the Holocaust has been used as an absolute defense of the state of Israel, or as a perpetual condemnation of the German people. Instead of essentially exploiting the victims suffering, or at the very least ignoring the complexity of the atrocity, Berenbaum advocated an effort to demystify the unfathomable. “The Holocaust can only be understood,” Berenbaum argues, “when we take into account its time, place, and its primary actors.”

Even with such an understanding, however, Berenbaum is clearly well aware of the scope of the Holocaust’s tragedy. He emphasized that no matter how much society might possibly gain from confronting the event, it will never make up for what was lost in those years of extermination. When it comes to something like the Holocaust, Berenbaum said, “There can never be a balance between what you learn and what you pay for such knowledge.”

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