Separating alien families was an inhumane policy. Likening it to the Nazi genocide is obscene.
Almost everyone, including President Trump, agrees that separating alien children from their parents and housing them in detention centers was an untenable policy that needed to be changed. Some have said, not without justification, that the images were reminiscent of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
But another comparison is indefensible. “Other governments have separated mothers and children,” tweeted Michael Hayden, who directed the Central Intelligence Agency under George W. Bush — with a photo of railroad tracks leading into the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. “Children are being marched away to showers,” said MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, “just like the Nazis said that they were taking people to the showers and then they never came back.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said in a television interview: “This is the United States of America. It isn’t Nazi Germany, and there’s a difference.”
Mrs. Feinstein is right. There is no comparison.
Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were rounded up and packed into cattle cars, with little air or light, no food and virtually no water, for a harrowing two- to three-day trip to Auschwitz. They rode in terror and anticipation, having no idea what was in store for them at the destination. Exhausted and scared, they frequently had to stand for the entire trip. Mothers clutched sons; daughters held on to fathers; children gripped both parents’ hands; grandparents and the infirm struggled to stay alive. Many didn’t survive the journey.
When the trains arrived at Auschwitz, it was a scene of chaos, confusion and horror. After days trapped in darkened cattle cars, squinting into bright floodlights lining the tracks was almost unbearable. So was the stench, like nothing the captives had ever smelled before. They didn’t know it at the time, but it was the odor of burning human flesh and hair.
Outside, they heard all kinds of noises: German shepherds and Doberman pinschers barking loudly, and commands in German most of them couldn’t understand. When they stumbled out of the cattle cars, disoriented and anxious, timidly asking questions, the German shouted back, “Raus, raus, raus!” (“Out, out, out!”). In the distance, the prisoners saw a skyline of chimneys, with bright orange plumes of flame shooting into the clouds. They didn’t know that most of them would be ash within hours.
The SS separated the healthy males, slating them for work details while everyone else was taken to the gas chambers.
Invariably, mothers wanted to stay with their children. The SS would say, “good, good, stay with child.” Under a rain of baton blows, women, children and old men were marched into “changing rooms” and told to undress. The Germans told the prisoners that they were going to be “disinfected.” Then they tightly wedged some 2,000 people at a time into the chambers, where they saw what looked like shower heads.
The massive airtight doors were locked with an iron bolt. It was dark. Zyklon B was released, and the screaming began. The prisoners huddled together, screamed together, gasped for air together. While children violently hugged their parents, hundreds of people tried to push their way to the door, trampling children in the process. In the dark, skulls were crushed and hundreds of people were battered beyond recognition. The bloodcurdling screams turned into a death rattle, then a gasp. Within 20 minutes, the job was done.
The bodies lay in heaps, every one of them dead — as many people as were cut down in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg; two-thirds of the 9/11 death toll. The bodies were then burned, the ashes used as filler for German roads and walking paths. Within hours, the Nazis would repeat the process, extinguishing another 2,000 human lives.
As for the prisoners who were selected to work in the camps, the Germans stripped them of their identities, referring to them instead by numbers tattooed on their forearms. Prisoners were forced to stand half-naked, doused with buckets of ice-cold water, or lashed 50 times with a whip. They were awakened at 4 a.m., forced to do backbreaking work for 12 hours with virtually no rest or food. They slept almost naked, with no blankets in temperatures often below freezing in the winter. Most died within weeks of arriving at the camp.
Between the gas chamber and the work detail, more than a million people were murdered this way at Auschwitz.
The debate over the child-separation policy is a morally weighty one. How does the U.S. balance controlling the border with the obligation to treat people, including illegal aliens, humanely?
But the comparison to the Holocaust is an obscene lie.
Mr. Winik, formerly the inaugural historian-in-residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of “1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History.”
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal.