Never Again

by | Dec 20, 2021 | Public History

“While some nations vow never to forget, our American battle has
always been over what we allow ourselves to remember

— Wesley Lowery, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019 Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, Eds. 2020, p112. 

The America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is reopening in 2022. It was closed for twelve years. Milwaukee cancelled its financial support for the public history site shortly after the death of its founder, Dr. James Cameron, the only known survivor of a lynching.

Dr. Cameron got the idea for his museum after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. I have not been to this US Museum, but I have toured German concentration camps several times and I am always struck by how Germany works to never forget while the US, which must be forced to remember. The foreclosure of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, by Milwaukee officials is emblematic of that eagerness to bury the history of US terrorism.  

Visiting Dachau, one is confronted with the horrors of the Nazi reign, the body count, the genocide, the vast schemes to wring profit from enslaved and tortured people. No one with a beating heart could deny this history, after visiting this public history site. As the child of a Holocaust refugee, who lost many family members to Nazi reign of terror, the exhibit feels personal. 

In the visitor logs there the constant refrain: Never Again. I wrote it too, but when I left, I wondered, how do I implement that pledge? I don’t want it to be just words. I know that Never Again will be rendered meaningless if I reserve it only for an exact replica of this past horrific event; if I say that the horrors of Nazism in Germany cannot be compared to anything else in human experience. To make Never Again meaningful and liberating, I must compare, make historical connections, and work to dismantle current Nazi-like policies.

In doing so I will have to confront specious comparisons. Some I have heard: The youth victims of a mass shooting in Parkland Florida, who became anti-gun violence activists, are Nazis. (Yes, a Minnesota legislator said this.) or Whoever created parking space for disabled people is “the Gestapo.”  (I do remember hearing this in the early 1990s.) The purpose of these egregious misuses is to make essential comparisons meaningless.

As America’s Black Holocaust Museum, illustrates, comparisons to Nazism in US history, abound. In fact, the Nazis learned from US example. Hitler studied the genocide of Native Americans, noting the effectiveness of forced removals, poisoning, and other forms of targeted mass violence and propaganda campaigns that dehumanized Native Americans. He looked to the Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes, as a template for his 1935 Nuremberg Laws, that separated citizens based on race and denied them equal rights. Concurrent eugenics policies in the U.S. that included the forced sterilization of people of color and people with disabilities, provided Hitler with company in the 1930s as he implemented similar policies.  

But to be true to Never Again, my comparisons must not just focus on past policies. The museum at Dachau showed how the Nazi regime employed a series of oppressive measures in the 1930s, that I see replicated in the United States today. (Note that I use the term Nazi-like, not fascist. The focus is on the oppressive policies of the Nazi regime, regardless of how they are defined by political scientists.)

  1. Anti-immigrant policies and practices. The Nazi’s told people who were part of German society, economy, and culture, that they no longer belonged. The United States is doing the same today with its targeted anti-immigrant policies and practices. From Bush to Biden, we have seen a steady escalation of deportations and detentions of people seeking refuge in the United States, and a growth of inhumane conditions and treatment for people approaching the US border.The Nazi’s first strategy was to get Jews to self-deport using carrots and sticks of various kinds. It was when these policies did not work that they moved to extermination. US current self-deportation policies and practices focused on immigrants are emblematic of Nazi thinking.

    Detention camps for immigrants, including children.  Detaining people in prisons because of their immigration status (a status is that is created by the regime–and is itself Nazi-like), warehousing people in inhumane conditions, in buildings without heat, overcrowded, with no place for a child to lay their head, these are indeed Nazi-like!

    ICE and Border Patrol are police forces that operate like the Gestapo my father remembered as a child, raiding residences and places of work, using cattle prods on refugees and other inhumane practices. There only job, if you think about it, is to racially profile and tearing apart families, much like the Nazis did in 1930s Germany.
  2. Radically targeted Police Violence and Mass Incarceration. The web of policies and practices that have resulted in racially targeted police violence and the incarceration of millions in the United States, are Nazi-like. We have 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of its prisoners. Like the Nazis, the US system targets racialized groups, especially African Americans, Latina/o/x people and Native Americans for non-violent or trumped-up offenses.

    Solitary Confinement requires special condemnation. The Nazi’s perfected solitary confinement, putting people in coffin-sized spaces and providing them with a rope, to induce suicide. The rooms in which the US confines people do not need to be as bad to make this comparison. Solitary confinement in the US is meant to, and does torture, as it did in Nazi Germany.

    Prison labor. Most concentration camps were work camps. The free labor of these prisoners, coupled with the land and property stolen from those incarcerated, fed the Aryan population, shoring up their support for the regime. It also benefited German business. As a tour guide at Dachau said, “If you could justify the incarceration and prison labor of these people, you would be able, eventually to justify all Nazi terror.” Prison labor in the US that benefits corporations and keeps prices low is Nazi-like.

The Nazi’s first strategy was to get Jews to self-deport using carrots and sticks of various kinds. It was when these policies did not work that they moved to extermination. US current self-deportation policies and practices focused on immigrants are emblematic of Nazi thinking. 

As a Jew, I find the idea that my Never Again pledge should only concerned with “my people,” is also dangerous. I see the consequences of that ideology in the policies of Israel. The same week I visited Dachau in the Spring of 2018, Israel was reigning terror on a people protesting decades of forced removal, the stealing their homeland, the deprivation of livelihoods, and targeted violence. Not speaking up about these atrocities is also a violation of my Never Again pledge. 

At Dachau, Never Again is cast in stone in several languages.

As the child of a Nazi Holocaust refugee, I feel I must be on alert to call out individual echoes of Nazi policy and practice. If I do not do so, then parroting “Never Again” is worse than meaningless. I can practice my pledge, by supporting public history endeavors like America’s Black Holocaust Museum and being unflinching in my commitment to demanding an end to government policies today that engage in othering of a people and denying them human rights.