When words are weapons

Representing the Holocaust was held at Melbourne Museum by humanities organisation Humanities 21. Photo Ainsleigh Oates.
Australian Holocaust experts came together to speak about the impact of language in propaganda and lessons to be learned from the murder of six million. Ainsleigh Oates reports.

Sitting in the warm, cosy room of the Melbourne Museum theatre on this particularly bone-chilling night near the end of winter, you couldn’t tell that the 50 to 60 strangers who fill the room had never met. Brought together by a shared interest in the representation of the Holocaust, their lively discussion emits a certain feeling of pride in this little community.

The event on this particular night titled ‘Representing the Holocaust’, organised and run by the humanities organisation ‘Humanities 21’, focuses on the role the Holocaust has played in each speaker’s life, how they chose to perceive the events of that fatal period in history and how their perception now influences the work they do. One of the speakers and curator of the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, Jayne Josem, says there is never a bad time to remind and teach people about the horrors of the Holocaust, but people must also be aware of the implications of misrepresenting such important events in history.

“I think it is really important to reflect on how history is represented, the Holocaust is important because it was such an unprecedented event that happened last century, yet there are still lessons for us today as well as the need to commemorate six million Jews who died.”

Ms Josem says our government has had a substantial hand in misrepresenting important historical events. Josem recalls recent events in Parliament that led to the unfortunate use of the term ‘final solution’ and she clasps her hands tightly together as she speaks about the occurrence. She believes that the issue of how history is represented is so incredibly important because it is easy to see when different governments come into power how the representations of events that have happened in the past changed according to the politics of the government.

As she intertwines her fingers together and sits up just the slightest bit straighter in her chair, Josem begins to speak passionately about an example of the Australian government misusing power and propaganda to spread misrepresentation of events to its citizens.

“If we look at what happened to our own indigenous people here in Australia, the unwillingness of successive governments to properly address the way it should be dealt with, the way it should be represented in public, the idea of calling it a ‘genocide’, that has implications for indigenous people today. And not facing up to atrocities in the past has massive implications for current situations.”

Josem’s claims are further supported when looking at the ABS statistics over the last 10 years of hate crime towards Australia’s indigenous people. In report 4510.0 – ‘Recorded Crime – Victims, Australia, 2016’ the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded that in 2016 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons were more likely to be the victim of assault than non-Indigenous persons. In New South Wales, this was by a ratio of 2.6 or 1,808 victims per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons compared to 683 victims per 100,000 non-Indigenous persons.

Before she continues, she shuffles around in her chair and grabs the glass of water sitting on the table beside her. She apologises for the abruptness of her words, and cautions about putting some of it in writing but then she’s off again the next minute.

“The Holocaust began with words and the words that people like Senator Anning and Bob Katter say and the racist language that seeps in to everyday use; the Holocaust began with ideas about Jewish people that were spread through propaganda, leading to people becoming desensitised so when atrocities start happening people have already begun to think of those people as ‘The Others’, ‘they’re not like us so we don’t need to care about them’.”

As Josem’s passionate speech nears an end, she lets her shoulders drop a little and she sighs. But she is not the only one who worries about the impact our words can have on history. Daniella Doron, a historian of the post-war period from Monash University, was another speaker on this night. She provided the context for the whole evening, giving the audience an insight into how Jews dealt with disentangling their personal suffering from the wider issues of mass genocide which held political sway at the time.

“The concept of genocide; the effort to exterminate a national religious or ethnic community, was not yet commonly understood. The word ‘genocide’ did not exist, it was coined in 1944 by a Polish Jew. So how did Jews articulate to themselves and to others that they had just endured a kind of persecution… that they were victims of genocide. What words could they use? The word Holocaust as we now know it wasn’t in use just yet.”

Doron waves her hands in the air as she speaks, a testimony to her passion for this topic.

“In English, ‘Holocaust’ had been used for hundreds of years largely in a secular sense to refer to large massacres and tremendous sacrifices. The term comes from both Greek and Hebrew meaning a sacrificial offering burnt whole before the Lord. During the World War it was used but to refer to Jews and non-Jews… the point is these aren’t just euphemisms, words can be weapons.”

She pauses to catch her breath and a passer-by might believe she had just been talking about a family member passing away. In that moment the sadness in her face encapsulates everything the evening has been about and everything each speaker has spoken about. And in a second, it is gone. She continues.

“So Jewish attempts to articulate a memory of specific suffering, in other words that they were victims of genocide, was a challenging task in the immediate post-war period both because of the nature of their murder and because the language wasn’t there yet.”

Both Doron’s heartfelt tribute and Josem’s accusation of the Australian government couldn’t top the speech of the night, which came from cultural and memory studies specialist at Monash University, Noah Shenker who had a more individualistic outlook on the topic of the Holocaust. His speech on this particular night reflected that well and wrapped up the night fittingly as he focused on his field of expertise; survivor testimonies.

“Thinking about representing the Holocaust, isn’t just about remembering the Holocaust, and representing the Shoah in and of itself, but about remembering for the future the genocides that are ongoing in places like Myanmar, and more recent genocides in places like Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The Holocaust has become a paradigm for representing genocide and this presents both limits and possibilities but we should always maintain an awareness for the wrong types of paradigms.”

The recurring factor in all three interviews was an emphasis on the use of words to provoke historical events like the Holocaust and other genocides, that words rather than actions have led society to the destruction and devastation from years and years of war.

So maybe it isn’t children who should be told to think before they speak.