Words Matter – In Anticipation of Holocaust Remembrance Day 5782

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As the YIVO institute describes him: “Nachman Blumenthal was especially interested in the power of language.” That is why he made it his lifelong mission to collect, categorize, and define the terms Nazis used in the pursuit of the Final Solution.


By training, Blumenthal was a philologist who mastered nearly a dozen languages. During the Second World War he escaped eastern Poland into the Soviet Union. After the war he discovered that his wife and young son had been killed. According to journalist Gail Beckerman (New York Times International Weekly, July 6-7, 2019), Blumenthal tried to make sense of it all by transcribing 3,000 survivor testimonies as well as Nazi paperwork and ghetto records. He circled and underlined seemingly innocuous expressions that carried hidden meanings.  These words were euphemisms for the Nazi’s ultimate objective.


Most readers of history are aware of the way the Nazis tried to manipulate language to justify their plans. The conquering and occupation of neighboring Czechoslovakia was explained as mere “lebensraum,” expanded living space for the densely populated adjoining German territory. And the murder of innocent people was justified on the grounds that undesirable were not people: they were vermin to be “exterminated.” Blumenthal went further. He collected the less overt words that were part of the genocidal code. For example, the Nazis used the German equivalent of “eviction” for destruction and confiscation of property, “dismiss” for murder, “recreation” for prison, “farmhouses” for gas chambers, and “deportation of Jews to the East” for murder of Jews in death camps.


Blumenthal’s work shows, in part, the complex relationship the Nazis had with their conduct. On the one hand, they recorded and detailed every operation and even built a museum for a destroyed people revealing pride in accomplishment. Yet on the other hand, Nazis resorted to an insidious, secretive vocabulary to disguise their nefarious aims. Again, according to Beckerman, Blumenthal revealed: “the way Nazis had used the German language to obscure the mechanics of mass murder.”  Blumenthal transcendent success was in showing that words matter.


Language is one of the most important human inventions: a tool for communication and ideas. But as is the case with all tools, it can be used for constructive or destructive purposes.  Today, when politicians distressingly resort to linguistic manipulation and verbal misrepresentation, the destructive use of language should give pause.


A short summary of Blumenthal and his work is posted on the YIVO website  https://www.yivo.org/p.php?id=4035  and makes for appropriate reading during Holocaust Education Week in November.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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