The Holocaust: What’s missing?

Stroll through any library shelf dedicated to housing books on the Holocaust and you will see a vast collection of published testimony from Holocaust survivors. Although each testimony offers a unique story and perspective of the Holocaust collectively they overwhelmingly portray a Jewish perspective. Naturally most would seem this was logical, after all, the Holocaust was a crime against Jews. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the Holocaust as ‘the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis in the war of 1939-1945’. To many the term Holocaust is replaced in favour of the השואה or shoah which is the Hebrew word for catastrophe. However this statement is not true, the Holocaust was not just a Jewish Holocaust, Jews were not the sole group to be persecuted by the Reich. I understand the use of the word shoah from a Jewish perspective as the word Holocaust has seen to be very negative connotations as it is a term that was originally meant for animal sacrificing, and was later adopted as a term to denote massacres. Many Jews believe it to be a word representing a Greek pagan custom and thus is a theological insult. I do not believe the word shoah fully encompasses the non-Jewish element of the Holocaust, however I do not feel the definition of the Holocaust (at least by Oxford English Dictionary standards) does that either.

The Oxford English Dictionary adds an afterthought stating that the Holocaust as a term can be transferred and used to describe ‘the similar fate of other groups’, but it does not explicitly state that the Holocaust of 1939-1945 was anything other than a Jewish Holocaust. For example, the Atlantic slave trade which saw the mass deportation of Africans to the Americans has been labelled as an African or Enslavement Holocaust. Yet the Holocaust of 1939-1945 was a Holocaust widespread attack at anyone the Nazis deemed to be unworthy of life, they were considered ‘Aliens’ of the Reich.

The exact figures for the total number of victims within the Holocaust will never conclusively be established but it is estimated that six million Jews died as a result of the Nazi attempt to provide the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’. This is a horrific figure, but estimates for the total number of non-Jewish deaths during the Holocaust is estimated to range from fifteen million to twenty million. This means that the figure of six million Jews is actually a minority in the overall figures for the Holocaust. The Jews were the biggest single group to be persecuted and removed as a result of the Nazi desire to build a national community for their superior Aryan race. This fact alone warrants the fast amount of time that has been dedicated to the research and understanding of what happened to Jews during the Reich. The other groups that the Nazi’s persecuted were significantly smaller in number, does that mean they deserve less attention because of the fact their numbers were smaller?

In 1941 the Reich developed a labelling system within the camps to help differentiate the inmates. The SS guards controlling the camps were keen to avoid creating solidity amongst inmates within the camps so they designed a system of triangles to stitch onto an inmate’s striped uniform. The Nazi’s hoped that this system would create fractions so inmates would disassociate from a national label of ‘prosecuted’ and subdivide into a mentality of them and us, so that SS guards could better control the prisoners.

These different triangles were:

Δ ✡ Inverted Yellow triangle or star

Δ Inverted Black triangle

Δ Inverted Blue triangle

Δ Inverted Brown triangle

Δ Inverted Green triangle

Δ Inverted Pink triangle

Δ Inverted Purple triangle

Δ Inverted Red triangle

Δ Red triangle

Each triangle represented a different group. The subdivision could even continue further by the inclusion of an initial of a country so it could these larger triangle groups further down into nationalities. They were all persecuted by the Nazis, yet the vast majority of these triangles fall into the category of the forgotten victims of the Holocaust. For example, can you identify which triangle represents which group? Can you identify all of them? The answers appear further down.

In 1994 a historian stated that only one in four adult Americans realised that Homosexuals had been targeted during the Holocaust. You might even be aware that you have struggled to identify all the triangles. You may even wonder why this matters. I think it matters for a very important reason. A very common mantra in Holocaust studies is that in order to spot the early signs of a Holocaust and in order to prevent them all together, one has to examine and investigate the Holocaust, to fully understand what happened. Only once we have fully understood what has happened can the task of preventing future a Holocaust happen.

However there is one group in particularly that are almost completely denied a right to be represented in the Holocaust and they are the ranks of ordinary criminals. They tend to straddle two categories, either being labelled a professional criminal (green triangle) which would include murderers and thieves or an asocial (black triangle) which would contain prostitutes. The role of the criminal within the Holocaust is a difficult role to incorporate because in portraying the Holocaust victim as a victim, it implies an element of innocence. It is suggested that the only crime a Holocaust victim committed was to be an ‘alien’ of the Reich. The Criminal, the Asocial and even at the time the Homosexual broke the law, and as a result they were criminals not just in Nazi Germany, but in the contemporary world as well. Homosexuality was not decriminalised in England and Wales until 1967 and in the two Germanies until 1968-9.

Some historians have even argued that the criminal does not deserve a place in the Holocaust, but I completely disagree. Anyone who has studied the Holocaust will know about the horrific nature of the Holocaust and personally I believe that no one, not even criminals deserved to be imprisoned in a camp, therefore I belief anyone who spent time within a camp deserve the right to be acknowledged within the literature. I also believe that if criminals are excluded from Holocaust literature, we fail to understand a significant portion of inmates, they may have not been one of the largest groups, in fact in terms of numbers they were probably one of the smallest groups, but they were one of the first groups to enter into a concentration camp system, they were also some of the people who survived the longest within the camps. By excluding them from the literature, historians have excluded vital testimony of people who survived within the camps for years, who could demonstrate the growth of the camps and the long term developments of the camps. But in also failing to study them, history is also denying them a right to be remembered.

What's missing? The Dachau memorial to the Holocaust with triangles to represent the different victim groups. Source:

What’s missing? The Dachau memorial to the Holocaust with triangles to represent the different victim groups. Source:

A few weeks ago a posted a picture of twitter of Dachau’s memorial to the Holocaust. I really like the memorial, I love the triangles that show different groups, and I like that it shows that there were other non-Jewish groups within the Holocaust. In addition to posting the picture I asked the question: What’s missing? When I look at the memorial I am pleased to see the inclusion of some groups, but disappointed to see the absence of others. I got two replies on twitter, the first was to answer my question with ‘pink triangle?’, and someone replied to the comment with ‘full marks’, only it is not full marks. Because more than one triangle is absent.

I think Holocaust studies needs to begin to redress the imbalance towards non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust but I do not believe that the shift towards looking at non-Jewish victims should in anyway diminish a Jewish perspective of the Holocaust. I firmly believe that if Holocaust studies begins to intergrate a non-Jewish narrative of the Holocaust with a Jewish narrative, we will not only have a greater perspective of the Holocaust, but we will have a deeper understanding of a Jewish contextualised perspective within Holocaust literature.

Δ ✡ Jews (Yellow)

Δ Asocials or Antisocials (Inverted Black)

Δ Emigrants or people without a nationality (Inverted Blue)

Δ Roma or Gypsies (Inverted Brown)

Δ Criminals (Inverted Green)

Δ Homosexuals (Inverted Pink)

Δ Jehovah’s Witnesses (Inverted Purple)

Δ Political opponents (Inverted Red)

Δ Prisoners of War, Spys or Deserters (Red)

Memorials and Memory

As a student researching a dissertation in Holocaust studies, I am fortunate to have access to a wealth of survivor accounts. These accounts do not come in just a written format but audio and visual too; but one of the most influential and inspiring opportunities I get as a student is to attend lectures and seminars in which people who have lived through Nazi persecution talk about their experiences and their story. In addition an important product of these talks is the ability to ask questions and direct them to the survivors who are first-hand witnesses to the persecution and suffering under the Third Reich. By asking questions we can gain access to their living memory and we can shape history through the answers or memories they share from these questions. However, there is an ever increasing enemy to this process and that is time. This year we mark the 75th anniversary of the Kinder Transport and the Normandy D-Day landings and with each anniversary the increasingly inevitable reality is that these events are passing out of living memory. In 2009 the last living survivor of the RMS Titanic, Millvina Dean died; but she was just nine weeks old when she was on the titanic and so had no memory of the events. The titanic passed out of living memory in 2006 with the death of Lillian Asplund. There will ultimately by one day in the future when the Holocaust too will pass out of living memory.

There are several questions that then emerge, what will happen when we lose the survivor accounts? Obviously they will not be completely gone because they will survive in a recorded format, either through written accounts or as audio and video files. People will be able to replay them, to listen to them and hear each survivor’s story and use the evidence to contribute to research and discussions about the Holocaust but we will lose the ability to ask questions and gather new information from a first-hand witness. Naturally this has never stopped the progression of history, but it will in a way make what are still fresh and very raw wounds of a horrific event begin to heal. The problem however is a question of once these wounds heal; will they begin to fade? As generations past these victims of the Holocaust stop being people’s mothers, fathers or grandparents and become increasingly more distant relatives. How will this distance alter the memory of the Holocaust? This is a topic I am very interested in and I would hope that no matter how large the passage of time is between the Holocaust and the present, it will always be remembered and will always be taught. Yet, yesterday whilst on Facebook I came across some photographs which made me question not just how we remember the Holocaust, but how we remember other historically horrific events too.

Whilst on Facebook I came across some pictures from someone on my Facebook, they had gone to Dublin for the weekend and during that weekend they had spent some time at the Quay. At the Quay there is a set of bronze statues of several figures and a dog which appear to be walking towards the Quay. These figures are very life-like, they are painfully thin, their clothes are little more than rags and hang off the people who are little more than corpses. Their faces although frozen permanently in sculpture portray a very real and painful agony. These figures collectively are a memorial to the Irish people who fled Ireland to escape the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1850), but it is much more than that because they are forever frozen on the Quay, forever in Ireland, so they mark not only the desperate people who were fortunate to emigrate, but those that died on the ships trying to escape and those who never got the chance to make it out of Ireland because they starved to death or died from famine related illnesses. An Gorta Mór or The Great Hunger as it is known in Ireland claimed the lives of an estimated 1.25 million people and in addition the same estimated figure also represents those who fled Ireland through emigration. These figures combined represent a quarter of the population of Ireland at that time. 1 in 4 of the population fled or died. Although I have yet to see this memorial in person, I find the design of the starving half-dead figures to be truly beautiful, as I think they capture the very real trauma of the event that no simple stone that would read ‘Irish Potato Famine 1845-50’, could ever do. They bring the event alive in a very beautiful way, or so I thought.

The memorial in Dublin to the people who fled Ireland during the Potato Famine (1845-1850).

The memorial in Dublin to the people who fled Ireland during the Potato Famine (1845-1850). Source:

I thought that these figures represented a once real tragedy and even if you were not aware of the event, I thought it still signified and demonstrated that it was some kind of tragedy or even as some would argue a genocide that had occurred. Despite this I was incredibly sad to see these photos of Facebook, for there were three women laughing and joking at the statues, one points a finger at the agonised face of a man carrying presumably his child over his shoulders – a big smile on her face. Another squats over the dog, as if sitting on the statue, but not resting her weight on it. A third bends under to stare into the eyes of another statue. None of the pictures seem to hold a solemn attitude or seem to bear any indication that the people are posing next to a memorial that marks the lives of 2.5 million people torn apart by famine. My first thought was I have to say something, I then thought is it my place to say something? I asked one of the women, if they knew what the statue was she posed next to, she said she did not and it was just ‘a man carrying a child on his shoulders’. I informed her what the memorial represented and I told her that there were some people who regarded the Famine as an act of British Genocide against the Irish, her reply: ‘oh thank for the info’.

The famine itself past out of living memory a long time ago, and it is remembered through memorials and it is taught within Irish schools. However I do not recall having classes on the Famine, but I come from an Irish family, who emigrated to England, so I am aware of the story of the Famine. Even if you were not aware of the story of the Famine, surely this memorial should have demonstrated that it was not an appropriate site to hold mocking photos. Is this part of a wider culture of a seemingly disinterested new generation? In Birmingham City Centre, there is the Hall of Memory, which was built to remember over 12,000 citizens of Birmingham who died in World War One, next to it rests a plague, saying skateboarding is prohibited, at one time obviously skateboarding was a problem and it needed a sign to say not to do it, because there was no initial respect there to see it was a solemn memorial. I would of hoped with it being something that struck at a national consciousness, respect for the British who died in World War One, would have still remained potent. Is this the fate of Holocaust memorials? Over time the wounds will heal and people will forget and not see the memorial as anything other than something to pose next to for a Facebook picture? Or will the education of the Holocaust mean that these sites are always held with a level of respect and solemnity? Will this education change and fade once the Holocaust has passed out of living memory? Will future generations care? Do they care now? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I would hope that  there would always be a level of respect for a Holocaust memorial, but I would have thought and hoped for respect for any memorial that marks the passing of a tragic death, or even a heroic event, which is obviously alas not the case.