How many tries will it take before President Trump’s speechwriters finally get it right on the Holocaust? Three years ago, they issued a Holocaust commemoration statement that didn’t mention Jews. This week, they flubbed again, but in a different way.
The president’s 2020 Holocaust Remembrance declaration described the Holocaust as “the horrific atrocities committed by the Nazi regime against minority groups and other ‘undesirables’,” and characterized the victims of the Holocaust as “those of Jewish, Polish, and Slavic ancestry, Roma and Sinti [Gypsies], individuals with mental and physical disabilities, gays, political dissidents, and dozens of other groups.”
If the Holocaust had been just a general assault by the Nazis upon “dozens” of “minority groups,” we wouldn’t need the word “Holocaust” at all. It would have been just another historical example of an evil regime persecuting various people in more or less the usual ways, for more or less the usual reasons.
The word “Holocaust” — “Shoah” in Hebrew — was coined because the mass murder of the Jews was unique in crucially important ways. The Jews, unlike other mistreated groups, were at the center of Nazi racial ideology. They were blamed for all problems in German society and their complete annihilation was the only “solution” to their existence. The Roma and Sinti were not blamed for inflation. Gays were not blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War One.
The Jews were the only ethnic group whom the Germans pursued from country to country, determined to hunt down every last one. The SS didn’t go hunting for ethnic Slavs in France or ethnic Poles in Bulgaria.
The Jews also were the only targeted group whose persecution was deemed so important that the Germans consistently overrode their own wartime needs in order to focus on killing Jews. Train cars that could have been used to transport troops or weapons were instead used to deport Jews to death camps. Soldiers who were needed on the battlefield were instead assigned to assist in the mass murder of the Jews.
Of course, all the groups mentioned in the Trump statement were brutally persecuted by the Nazis. And in the case of the Roma and Sinti victims, the persecution reached the level of genocide. But that’s not the Holocaust. There is a separate International Roma and Sinti Genocide Remembrance Day, on August 2, because those victims had their own particular experiences which deserves special recognition and understanding.
Perhaps there should be separate additional days to commemorate the suffering of some or all of the other groups mentioned in this week’s White House statement. But in the meantime, the Holocaust should be not be treated as a one-size-fits-all blanket to drape over everybody who was persecuted by the Nazis. They were persecuted in different ways, for different reasons.
Sadly, the controversy over whether Jews should be recognized as such, or should be lumped together with all other wartime sufferers, has been going since the years of the Holocaust itself.
In early 1944, officials of a small U.S. government agency, the War Refugee Board, urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to publicly warn civilians in Axis-occupied countries not to take part in atrocities against the Jews. The board’s leaders presented the White House with an eight-paragraph draft that began: “One of the blackest crimes in history, the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe, continues unabated. … More than two million men, women and children already have been put to death solely because they were Jews.”
FDR objected to the wording on the grounds that it was “too much for the Jews.” He and his aides removed three of the draft’s references to Jews. They also deleted the aforementioned paragraph about the Jews being slaughtered “solely because they were Jews.”
The president and his advisers then added three paragraphs at the beginning of the statement, about Japanese war crimes and the mistreatment by the Axis of “Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Dutch, Danes, French, Greeks, Russians, Chinese Filipinos — and many others,” but not Jews. The first mention of the plight of the Jews was pushed all the way down to the fourth paragraph.
This was not a one-time aberration. During the 1940s, FDR or his representatives repeatedly issued statements about Nazi atrocities against civilians, which conspicuously omitted the Nazis’ primary target, the Jews. Even when he issued a statement commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Jewish revolt against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, President Roosevelt left out the Jews.
The important difference between Roosevelt’s attempt to universalize the Nazi genocide and more recent presidential statements, is that FDR had a specific political purpose. He and his aides were worried that if there was too much focus on the slaughter of the Jews, then — as senior State Department official R. Borden Reams put it in 1943 — “the way will then be open for further pressure from interested groups for action.” That is, “action” such as opening America’s doors to more Jewish refugee — something which President Roosevelt strongly opposed.
There is no reason to suspect that the 2017 Trump Holocaust statement omitting the Jews, or this year’s statement lumping them together with various other groups, had any political motive. Nor, for that matter, is there any reason to believe that President Barack Obama had some sinister purpose when he omitted the Jews from his 2015 recounting of the story of Chanukah.
Nobody expects the president of the United States to be a scholar of Jewish history. But we do have a right to expect that his speechwriters will do their homework before drafting pronouncements, in the president’s name, on subjects about which they apparently possess only the most superficial knowledge.
Dr. Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.