My last few months have been peppered with memes appropriating Jewish Holocaust experiences. My advice? Don’t go there.
I’ve seen many but will discuss just one. The meme’s photo: Train tracks leading into the Auschwitz concentration camp. The writing: Auschwitz “still stands … because Jews who survived wanted it preserved, as it is a reminder to never let the evil that was Nazism ever happen again.” True. But the next part? “Never tear down memorials!” Wait: This person compares former prisoners preserving Auschwitz, a testament to the magnitude and dehumanizing brutality of the Holocaust, to removing monuments venerating people who fought for the South in the Civil War?
The comparison has several sharp disconnects.
First, the monuments venerate. Confederate-themed statues and other monuments are often prominently placed in locations of honor or public spaces near government buildings. Statue poses vary, but many are grand, heroic: elegant postures, action stances on horseback, men with rifles or bugles at the ready. We are not talking the same type of memorializing, not one that exposes horrors to teach “never again.” Instead, these statues venerate, valorize.
Second, despite what your teacher or relative said, they are symbolic of slavery. Schools have long taught that the issue of states’ rights rather than slavery was central to Southern states seceding. That’s true insofar as the right focused on in seceding states’ official declarations of the causes of secession is slavery. Read those of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia at Battlefields.org. Furthermore, another theme within four is a grievance that Southern slave-holding states had over the U.S. letting individual states override the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which provided that slaves caught even in free states would be returned to their owners. (That grievance is the opposite of states’ rights.) So these statues venerate figures and actions on the slave-holding side of a war largely over slavery.
Third, they largely were erected to support Jim Crow. The war ended in 1865, but the statues (and obelisks, etc.) in the South began to spring up in great number more than two decades later, especially in the 1890s and early 20th century. The new Southern influx of monuments, part of a nationwide monument wave, was significantly funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy. Locations chosen for these tributes were mostly places of public business, like outside of courthouses. These monuments came after Black citizens had enjoyed relative representation in the 1870s; they coincided with the backlash to Reconstruction and the onset of Jim Crow, and they went against the wishes General Robert E. Lee expressed in the interest of healing the country.
Whoever created this meme compared the Civil War with the Holocaust. The Germans, however, do not honor their leaders from WWII with statues. And I guarantee Jews and other victims of the Holocaust wouldn’t have supported such memorials. This meme appropriates and misuses Jewish tragedy to justify continuing to inflict pain on others.
The other memes were little or no better. Please: Just don’t go there.
Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English. The views she expresses are her own and do not necessarily represent those of any organizations with which she is affiliated.