When History Repeats Itself

Rally outside Eloy Detention Center. Arizona, November 2018.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown recently signed a bill mandating study of the Holocaust in the state’s public school systems. As an ageing millennial, I was surprised at this need.

Where I was raised in rural New Hampshire, there was a unit on the Holocaust every year starting in middle school. A kind of banality emerged. The Holocaust was bad. We mustn’t let it happen again. Time for biology class

The banality was shattered, however, when I visited Auschwitz in 2012. Being there physically, seeing the bunks, the remains of the crematoria, the suitcases — the actual suitcases – that people had travelled with to their death — it made the horror visceral.

Specifically, I had two realisations. The first was that indeed “this” could happen again, and it would start, in the US at least, with undocumented immigrants. Not being a great watcher of TV or a native New Yorker, I barely knew who Donald Trump was in 2012.

But I had a second realisation when I was in Auschwitz, and it came by doing something that one should always do — walk away from the guided tour and explore.

I just happened to walk into a room — a room that the tour skipped right over — about the Sonderkomando revolt. This realisation was that I had been schooled in the sorrow and horror of the Holocaust, but not in the many forms of organized resistance.

For months, women who worked in the munitions factory at Auschwitz smuggled tiny amounts of gunpowder to members of the Sonderkomando, the group of prisoners forced to work the crematoria — the actual instruments of death at Auschwitz.

They were planning a revolt across the whole camp, but on 7 October 1944, the Sonderkomando at crematorium four learned that they would be killed — so they attacked early. Before they were executed, they managed to kill three Nazis, injure twelve, and, most importantly, burn the crematorium to the ground.

The Sonderkomando in crematorium two joined the early revolt, partially destroying that facility as well. A month later, the Germans shut down all of the crematoria, and two months after that, the camp was liberated. The revolt — the destruction of the two crematoria — saved lives.

Yet somehow, this tale of resistance in the camps did not make it into the curated tour that I went on in 2012, and it certainly did not make it into a single unit on the Holocaust in the many I went through in my childhood.

There are other missing tales as well. In perhaps the greatest act of solidarity in human history, on 19 September 1940, Witold Pilecki, a Polish soldier, purposefully got himself arrested and sent to Auschwitz, to organise the resistance from within and to send out information. The Holocaust studies of my secondary school education did not teach me that Witold Pilecki was an unparalleled hero, or even that he existed.

The same is true, sadly, for the concentration camps built much closer to home.

In 1942, the same Franklin D. Roosevelt that gave us the New Deal, radically altering class relations in American society, issued Executive Order 9066, setting the stage for the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Here too, we are taught that it could happen again, but for our vigilance, but we don’t learn the stories of resistance.

Those stories are so sparsely documented that the UCLA Asian American Studies Department created the Sumaya Project, “to preserve the history of Japanese American resistance during World War II”.

On 17 June 1942, for example, 800 Japanese Americans forced to live in horse stalls at the Santa Anita Race Track north of Los Angeles and produce camouflage nets for the US military organised a sit-down strike. Two months later, they rioted.

Now, of course, “it” is starting again with tiny children at the border. Torture. Sickness. Death.

And now, in a truly grotesque case of history living in the present, the US government is planning to move 1,400 migrant children to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the site of a Japanese concentration camp during World War II.

Survivors of Japanese internment have staged pre-emptive protests at Fort Sill, though to date, the Trump Administration has not changed its plans. 

Actions against the border camps are starting to take off. Just the other day, dozens of people blocked the busy intersection of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, organized by Rise and Resist.

Lights for Liberty is organising vigils. Groups like the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York are running accompaniment trainings to support individuals targeted by ICE.

Never Again Action was formed just last month by Jews who know their history all too well and is organising direct actions across the country.

We also, of course, need to be prepping ourselves for a ballot box battle, but it’s not enough to wait for 2020.

Even if the revolts and riots and protests and sit down strikes that slowed down past camps have not been well documented, we need to learn what works and then apply it immediately.

It’s life or death.

Photograph courtesy of Peg Hunter. Published under a Creative Commons license.