Several years ago, I transitioned my high school Holocaust and genocide studies elective course from an in-person class to a virtual one. At the time, I had many questions and concerns about teaching such difficult subject matter in a virtual environment. While there were certainly challenges, the switch pushed me to examine my teaching praxis more deeply, explore a flipped model of learning, and find new resources and technologies to engage both synchronously and asynchronously. 

While certainly sometimes the technology seems to be more of a barrier and actual physical distance between us seems insurmountable, rich texts, robust discussions, and a common purpose inevitably bridge the gaps and bring us together as a class. In the end, I am always reminded of the resilience of my students and my own resilience as an educator. While April is going to be a difficult month for both students and educators in Minnesota and across the country, I know that we will find a way to adjust and adapt to the new and uncertain times ahead. The outpouring of support I have received from colleagues, families, and friends, gives me tremendous hope and lets me know that I am not alone. 

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Jillian LaBranche was born and raised in southern New Hampshire. She graduated from Rhodes College with a BA in International Studies and a minor in Religious Studies. During this time, she studied abroad in Rwanda and Uganda studying violent conflict and peacebuilding. She received an MA in International Human Rights from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and an MA in Sociology at Brandeis University. She is now a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Jillian serves as a member of the graduate editorial board for The Society Pages and participates in the Genocide Education Outreach (GEO) program. During the 2020-2021 academic year, Jillian hopes to begin her dissertation research.

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Millions upon millions of people have been killed in concentration camps over the last century, and yet I have found myself distracted and angered about recent political debate over semantics: specifically how and when we use the term “concentration camps.”

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to the US government facilities used to hold asylum-seekers as “concentration camps.” Prominent voices publically disagreed with Ocasio-Cortez, saying that only Nazi camps are concentration camps. By using the term for other camps, they said that Ocasio-Cortez dishonored Jewish victims of the Holocaust. 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum jumped into this debate, too. It implicitly shamed Ocasio-Cortez, writing that one should never analogize contemporary events to the Holocaust; that doing so may offend Holocaust survivors and their families.

There are compelling articles, books, and podcasts which address this issue. Many look at the history of concentration camps across cultures, back to the camps used in the Boer Wars in South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century, to help us understand that “concentration camps” has consistently been a term that referred to more than the Nazi camps, and that the Nazis themselves adapted the camp technique from other societies, including the United States. You can find a shortlist of relevant links at the bottom of this article.

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While growing up in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, being evangelisch meant above all that you were not katholisch and therefore had to wait five years longer for your Confirmation presents. This was a little annoying, but in hindsight, it may qualify as my first encounter with the inner-worldly asceticism that Max Weber describes in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Delayed gratification aside, the German evangelical church at the time came across as benign, even reasonable, open to critical discussion and staffed with laid-back, progressive pastors. It was the seventies after all. Nobody would have spelled evangelical with a capital “E” back then, at least not in Europe. That Protestantism in the US could take on a very different flavor didn’t occur to me until I moved to California in the early 2000s and it was my daughter’s turn for Confirmation class. There was a lot about Satan in the curriculum and all the things you could go to hell for, like not showing up for class at Bethany Lutheran Church.

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In 2019 I attended a summer workshop for teachers held by the CHGS, titled “Teaching About Genocide.” As part of the workshop, we, along with two Native American activists-teachers, toured the Minnesota State Capitol with a docent. Entering the main chamber of the capitol, our guide gestured toward several portraits of white males who colonized Minnesota. She, an employee of the state, noted they were the men “who discovered Minnesota.” Here, in the most prominent institution of Minnesota government, a guide had normalized colonialism, except the normalization was now being heard by a critical audience. The statement seemed bracingly out of step with our appreciation of multiculturalism, the celebration of ethnic and racial diversity, and acknowledgment of the centrality of indigenous peoples to the shared fabric of American history.

Attendees of the 2019 CHGS Educator Workshop on the Minnesota Capitol dome.

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Max Breger, a doctoral candidate and visiting scholar from the University of Siegen, Germany, was recently hosted by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Breger has been in the United States for the past roughly two months, conducting research on torture committed by U.S. agencies, especially in connection with the larger so-called “War on Terror.” His work is part of a larger comparative research project led by Professor Dr. Katharina Inhetveen. Breger presented on the project and shared initial findings from his work with members of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Mass Violence Studies (HGMV) Interdisciplinary Graduate Group in a talk entitled: “Violent Interrogation, Psychology, and Body Knowledge: Torture in the ‘War on Terror.'” I sat down with Breger for an interview to learn more about the project.*

Max (on the right) with the author.

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Huether. Heether. Heather. Hoother. Hutter. Huewther.

“Hütter, you’re German, right?”

No, its Huether. Sounds like Heether.

“Ah, American,” she answers with a slight chuckle.

With the simple change in the pronunciation of my surname, the panel chair was able to identify my nationality, and in so doing, indirectly created a border between us. She was German, and perhaps I could have passed as German as well, if only I had gone along with her pronunciation – the one I knew was the “correct” form of my surname but not my name. Regardless, her comment made me pause and think: how could such a slight pronunciation change signify so much? As soon as I was marked as an American, a corpus of assumptions and stereotypes became accessible. It’s not to say that such a corpus would not be present if I were German; it would be, but it would simply be a different corpus. 

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In the past two decades, we have witnessed a steady expansion of interest, beyond Jewish institutions, by the number of government officials willing to introduce and participate in some form or fashion in public observances of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Commemorations are now held in more than 35 countries on January 27th, the day on which, in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

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On the morning of August 5th, 2019, 8 million residents of Kashmir awoke to severed cellphone, landline, internet, and cable television services. Days before, 40,000 Indian troops were deployed into Kashmir, in addition to the hundreds of thousands already stationed in the region. Tourists, non-resident students, and Hindu pilgrims were forced to leave. Kashmiris knew that something catastrophic lay in the near future. And something catastrophic did: on August 6th, the BJP, India’s ruling Hindu-nationalist party, revoked Article 370, stripping Kashmir of the autonomous status it had held since 1954[1]. News outlets across the globe rushed to cover the flashpoint crisis, with Aljazeera going so far as to release a page that offered daily updates on the situation[2]

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Two weeks ago I met with a community leader whose own community was devastated by a genocide that happened decades ago in a place halfway around the world. We talked about how his community marks the event, the pain its survivors continue to experience and the challenge of getting his new neighbors to care about something so foreign to them. One of the things he mentioned struck a chord with me: “Recognition is about completing the fabric of our wider community.” To him, recognizing genocide was not simply about recognizing the painful past of his people, but recognizing the shared humanity that ties us all together.

Two weeks ago the Armenian community finally had their story recognized. Following three weeks of White House-backed challenges, the Senate joined the House in calling the mass killings of Armenians a century ago genocide. The resolution officially calls for remembrance and to combat “denial of the Armenian Genocide or any other genocide” and “to encourage education and public understanding of the facts of the Armenian Genocide, including the role of the United States in humanitarian relief efforts, and the relevance of the Armenian Genocide to modern-day crimes against humanity.” 

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