Treblinka All Over Again
By Sapphire Fein
"Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they are only animals."
I recently decided to use that quotation on a Facebook photo album dedicated to the animals I volunteered with at Animal Place, in Vacaville California. One response I received reads as follows:
“Okay, I don't understand why on this occasion it is suddenly okay to equate animal (abuse)-based industry with the Holocaust?
Don't get me wrong— this is beautiful, and hooray for happy chickens and all that jazz; but I think using specific references to that particular historical horror to describe the horrors that nonhuman animals face is a major no-no, to say the least.”
This is a fair question; I had put a lot of thought into it prior to adding that quote. Each Jewish person has his or her own take on it (for example, John Sanbonmatsu's analysis of fascism and the language of "humane meat"), and I can only speak for myself. The comparisons I've been willing to make have shifted over the years, so I'm always open to hearing other people's thoughts. I'm encouraged and inspired to see allies thinking critically about how the word Holocaust and related words are used, and I genuinely appreciate the question.
My issue is appropriation, not comparison in and of itself. That said, I do not make comparisons lightly. I do refrain from using terms like “the [event] Holocaust” because the word Holocaust refers to one specific genocide, and I don't approve of its use as a synonym. I stand firmly against using the word Holocaust (or related words) in a way that specifically equates Jewish people with Nazis (like the “Palestinian Holocaust”), and I actively speak up against that whenever I encounter it.
The quote I used does refer directly to Auschwitz, but I don't think it appropriates the word. I admit it is a thin line in this case, but it isn’t quite the same as a statement such as “the Auschwitz farm.” That phrase, to me, appropriates the word as a rhetorical prop. My quote, by contrast, does not rewrite what Auschwitz was to make a point; it points out that Auschwitz began when people justified mass murder sites for certain groups because they believed members of those groups to be inferior.
Analyzing current events through the lens of the Holocaust when the comparison is appropriate is in fact crucial; that’s what “never forget” means to me. When a similar form of injustice arises—regardless of who the victims are—we need to remember the Holocaust. We don't need to call it a Holocaust, but we do need to point out the similarities (particularly those that were unique to the Holocaust), so that history does not repeat itself. This is why I feel comfortable saying “[event] is like the Holocaust because [reasons],” or highlighting specifics features that the Holocaust and a current event have in common.
The death camps (a.k.a. farms) where non-humans are murdered are comparable to Nazi concentration/extermination camps in several fundamental ways; however, one unique aspect of the Holocaust that serves as my primary motivation for comparison to the plight of farmed non-humans is this:
The Holocaust happened right under the noses of people who, despite systemic and individual anti-Semitism, had never personally committed atrocities of that magnitude. Near the camps, they could smell the burning hair; yet they were complacent (or even participated). They called it “the solution to the Jewish problem.” Those now known as Righteous Among the Nations were breaking the law. The man who saved my grandfather was murdered after the Holocaust, with one theory being that it was out of anger since he put the entire village at risk by hiding Jews. In any case, people like him were not liked in Europe at that time. Now, they stand among history’s heroes.
The murder of animals happens right under our noses as well. Speciesism exists on a systemic level as well as an individual one. Many speciesists would never kill the animals they pay others to kill for them, but we all know that these death camps surround us. Most humans are at least behaviorally complacent with this—even if they are uncomfortable with it on a subconscious level. We see the victims of non-human death camps in every supermarket—and it's all legal. We call the “meat and dairy industry” an industry: a place to process materials. We don't speak of it as a place where billions of individuals are sentenced to death.
We call it a necessity, survival, the only option for sustenance (even though it absolutely isn't). Those who put themselves at risk to rescue non-humans who have not been released to sanctuaries are breaking the law, and are thus labeled “eco-terrorists.” I think it's also worth noting that the acts of mutilation committed against non-humans in these camps (debeaking, castration, dehorning, etc.) are committed for the sake of convenience. The number tattoos imposed upon prisoners at Auschwitz were also a matter of convenience. When the non-human's labor is no longer profitable, or if the non-human is not seen as profitable from birth, he or she is murdered. Camps during the Holocaust functioned in much the same manner. For example, Treblinka I and Treblinka II.
I confess that I am highly biased; the Holocaust is relevant to me on a deeply personal level, and it's something I've struggled to comprehend my entire life. One reason I decided to use that specific quote (and to call those hens “survivors”) was how my experience interacting with them and how I related it to my experiences learning about the Holocaust.
I thought I had broken the disconnect between the murdered person and the corpse we call “meat” in the supermarket when I was 12; but that was a pretty shallow, logic-based realization. This experience made it real for me. I can't really put it into words, but the emotions I felt as I had this deeper realization were not so different from the ones I felt upon seeing Dachau, Treblinka, Ponar, and the Ninth Fort; meeting the family that saved my grandfather; and seeing the house where my grandmother hid. Perhaps this part is not really comparable logically; but emotionally, I faced a similar reaction: the story became real.
Today, I'm treated as a person. I never had to go through what my great-grandparents and grandparents endured. I am able to wear a Star of David in public, speak Hebrew in public, and be proud of my culture without being killed for it. It's easy to think that things are so much better. For someone like me, who has never faced serious anti-Semitism (i.e., something beyond mere childhood taunts), it’s hard to believe how different my life would have been were I born just a couple of generations ago.
Yet there I stood, holding this young non-human girl—a death camp survivor, in 2014. She wasn't a happy chicken whose life had been turned around, not yet. This wasn't like stories from the past about the horrible health effects that living in a ghetto, in hiding, or in a camp caused. She was someone in pain who still needed to heal. These hens made me realize that I still had some disconnect I'd put up to make it easier to survive in this world. Overall it was still a positive experience, and one I would welcome again in a heartbeat. It was a vital moment of clarity for me.
Ultimately, I asked myself: What if I saw humans in this condition, coming out of a place where they lived in cages for two years, defecating and urinating all over each other, never stretching their limbs, having body parts as sensitive as their fingertips cut off, being exploited for their reproductive systems, losing their babies to gas mixtures or “meat grinders,” and only narrowly avoiding the death that awaited them once they were no longer fit for labor? What would I say?
The only I answer I could think of was: “It's like Treblinka all over again.”