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Soap & Lampshades: What lessons can the Holocaust teach us about dehumanization?

In what ways were victims of the Holocaust dehumanized? How can we prevent others from being dehumanized in the future?

Chief Arrandondo testified in the Derek Chauvin trial of needing to be protectors rather than an occupying force, of treating people in the community with respect; the outcome is better for the community and for the wellness of police force employees. That’s basic, reasonable, and hard sometimes. Emotions cloud our thoughts, making reasoning more difficult. The video of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck creates a strong emotional response in many people who see it. The Holocaust and the photos that survive also cause a lot of emotion. It might seem hard to connect what happened to George Floyd with the millions of Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and others who died under systematic racial cleansing carried out by the NAZIs, but at the core both events are rooted in a willingness to treat others as if they are less than human. We must learn to see others as human and worthy of dignity and life.

When we ask what ‘we’ learned from the Holocaust, what do we mean by ‘we’? Does the answer mean whatever group we identify with?  Does it mean those considered to be ‘good’? What it needs to mean, in the case of genocide and systematic dehumanization, is all of humanity. All of humanity needs to learn not turn on itself like a bad auto-immune reaction.

The most important lesson we, as a species, should have learned from the Holocaust is that every human being deserves dignity and life, but the network of human experience on this planet is large and complex, so we’re still trying to learn that lesson. Listening to Chief Arrandondo speak, it seems we are learning it, but it’s not completely learned, not at all.

Everyone thinks they know about learning, but as with most words in English, there are nuances that can lead a word to mean more than one experiential concept. It’s not understanding to just recite. Almost everyone in the Western world can tell you that six million people died in the Holocaust, that the people were killed because they were Jewish, that they were gassed, or that the survivors were emaciated. There is a different kind of learning that reaches deeper into understanding than just repeating back bits of information. Real learning requires a response, a change in the way one views the world. What did we, as a species, learn from the Holocaust that goes deeper than just reciting and promising ‘never again’?

Getting the Facts Right

Let’s start with the above recitation of Holocaust facts being wrong. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) these are the statistics of those that died as part of NAZI racial purity efforts:

Jews: 6 million

Soviet civilians: about 6 million

Soviet prisoners of war: around 7 million

Non-Jewish Polish civilians: nearly 2 million

Serb civilians: 312,000

Disabled people in institutions: as many as 250,000

Roma: as many as 500,000

Jehovah’s Witnesses: 1,900

Repeat criminals (‘Asocials’): 70,000, perhaps more

German Political opponents: Hard to tell, but the White Rose group didn’t make it

Homosexuals: between hundreds and thousands

So adding that all up, give or take, the NAZIs killed as many as 24,942,900 human beings. That’s something we don’t recite. The reasons for the focus on the Jewish victims are beyond the scope of this essay, but one factor might be that many people don’t think they’re Jewish, so it’s really a story about other people. So sad for them. For it is a story about all of us, our entire species. The odds are that the NAZI Holocaust would’ve targeted any person reading this essay, as it’s unlikely that anyone reading this essay would’ve been among the very narrow group that the NAZIs deemed worthy of life and dignity. Being on the receiving end of hatred, violence, and dehumanization can happen to any of us, until it can’t happen to any of us.

How can we learn to honor the dignity and right to life of all people if we don’t even include everyone who died as being worthy of recognition and grief? Until we recognise and respect the life of each person, we will continue to have more deaths like Floyd’s, more deaths like Tigray, Bosnia, Cambodia, and the Congo.

Soap & Lampshades

When I was in high school, in 1983, the esteemed author Elie Wiesel visited us and brought many artifacts from the Holocaust. He would win the Nobel Peace Prize three years after I met him. He was just a normal man, a person one might meet down any street in America. He was so kind. He spoke to me as if I mattered. In his body language, his tone, the way he looked at me; while he didn’t know this socially awkward high school kid, he cared about me. Until writing this essay, the impact he made on my life was easy to overlook.

He brought more than himself and his book. An array of objects came with him, but two of them imprinted on me so intensely that I can see them and almost reach out and touch them as if they were here. One was a bar of soap, kind of olive drab, used, not really the right kind of rectangle to be machine made. The other was a lampshade that looked like something out of a western movie, lashed onto the frame, stretched out, hand-made, of leather, human leather. The soap was made of human fat.

My fingers touched that soap, that leather. It’s impossible to tell what ‘race’ or political group that skin and fat came from. That was the lesson, one of them, that if human beings are reduced to products, numbers in a ledger, assets to be utilized, that can be any of us. If some people are used in such a way, if we do that to each other, there is no social norm that says it won’t be us next.

Learning must be more than reciting. Reciting is safe and distant; it’s about some other time and place, but not us. Learning about the Holocaust must include understanding that there isn’t a person on the planet who wouldn’t make a fine lampshade when their humanity is taken away. Nearly twenty-five million individuals died in the NAZI quest for racial purity and political power. Chief Medaria Arrandondo said that we must be protectors not occupiers. A human being is more than soap, more than just a notch to tick.

Being Each Other’s Protectors

Learning that leads to doing is so much easier to say than to, well, do. The Nuremberg trials were meant to mean something. Surely, twenty years later, in America a whole group of people shouldn’t have to fight for their humanity. We wouldn’t have police using clubs and bullwhips on citizens demanding voting rights in the United States, right? Except that was exactly what ‘Bloody Sunday’ was in 1965, when the late John Lewis got a skull fracture. If we’d learned to be each other’s protectors, we never would have tolerated an American president calling a deadly and impartial virus the ‘kung-flu’.

This indifference to humanity in other people can feel overwhelming, as if the problem is just part of who we are as a species and it can’t be changed. Kindness sometimes feels like it’s saved just for people who look, act, sound, and behave like we do, with the occasional exception that makes the news about how sweet we really are. Therein lies the answer. We are all one humanity, one vast ocean of selves that brush up against each other and sometimes tsunami all over each other. The fears that drive our darkest impulses: scarcity, insecurity, rejection, isolation… these are not things that we can fix at our current technological level, not universally and not instantly.

Just as an impartial virus leaves us dead, so too is nature impartial with resources and luck, but we can be partial to life, human dignity, and to ourselves. Nature and viruses don’t choose, but people do. While Arrandondo spoke of the police force, his words are true for all of humanity, we must choose to be each other’s protectors. It doesn’t matter what we were taught as children or the advantages or disadvantages we’ve had. In whatever moment we stand in, the only power we actually have is choice. If we do not choose to honor the dignity and life of all in our human family, then we will not be able to meet the challenges that nature throws at us. All for one and one for all. 

Julian Maxwell

Max is currently studying history at Washington State University. He is interested in history, literature, humanity, neuroscience, art, cats, Gundam Wing, and transhumanist thought.