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Eternal Treblinka

A new book makes a disturbing comparison between the killing of Jews during the Holocaust and the killing of animals today.

by Judy Bart Kancigor

April 4, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Charles Patterson

Charles Patterson

"Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust" by Charles Patterson. (Lantern Books, $20).

In the forward to "Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust," animal rights activist and daughter of Holocaust survivors, Lucy Rosen Kaplan, states: "I came to understand that the oppression of nonhumans on this Earth eclipses even the ordeal survived by my parents."

Whether the comparison between the extermination of the Jews and our daily slaughter of millions of "food" animals evokes agreement or outrage, you will want to read this meticulously researched and compelling treatment of a painful and controversial subject. Charles Patterson, author of "Anti-Semitism: The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond," elaborates in "Eternal Treblinka" how American slaughterhouses became a model for the gas chambers of Nazi Germany and submits that the killing of animals for food, sport and research is no less an atrocity, a view that is sure to offend some.

The book takes its title from the Isaac Bashevis Singer story, "The Letter Writer," in which a Holocaust survivor speaks a poignant eulogy for a mouse he had befriended. "In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."

At its best, the book painstakingly reveals how the mindset that some humans are animals justified slavery, the subjugation of women, the annihilation of the Native American population, the eugenics movement and finally the Holocaust itself.

By "domesticating" animals and assuming "dominion" over them, Patterson says, we desensitized ourselves to their suffering because they are "just animals." It was then an easy progression to regard some human beings as more valuable than others. "Thus, with animals already defined as 'lower life' fated for exploitation and slaughter, the designation of 'lesser' humans as animals paved the way for their subjugation and destruction."

The book is filled with sordid revelations about well-known icons. L. Frank Baum, who delighted the world with "The Wizard of Oz," was a staunch advocate for the extermination of Native Americans, as was William Dean Howells and Harvard professor Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of the Supreme Court justice).

Henry Ford was a virulent anti-Semite whose "The International Jew" sold 500,000 copies in the United States and was reprinted six times in Germany. Hitler kept a life-size portrait of Ford in his office, praised him in "Mein Kampf" and was quoted in the Detroit News as saying: "I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration." Patterson points out that Ford modeled his assembly line after the American slaughterhouses, a concept not lost on his admirer, Hitler.

In a chapter chillingly titled "Improving the Herd, From Animal Breeding to Genocide," Patterson traces the American eugenics movement, which applied the principles of animal husbandry -- "breeding the most desirable, and castrating and killing the rest" -- to the sterilization of criminals, the "feeble" and mentally ill, a handy paradigm for the "racial cleansing" of the emerging Third Reich. "The progression from sterilization to extermination has been a logical one for the Nazis."

Patterson notes that long before Hitler came to power, Jews had been vilified as animals. "Calling people animals is always an ominous sign because it sets them up for humiliation, exploitation and murder." Like animals, Jews were "herded" into crowded cattle cars, transported long distances without food or water, tattooed and "selected" for extermination and led through tubes to the "killing floor."

If Jews are rats, one need feel no guilt in degrading and exterminating them. If Jews are pigs, then the crematoria were mere "processing plants." Patterson quotes the artist Judy Chicago, who wonders "about the ethical distinction between processing pigs and doing the same thing to people defined as pigs."

Many would argue that to compare Nazi genocide to the slaughterhouse is to trivialize the Holocaust. I, for one, was appalled. To buttress his case, Patterson provides numerous "testimonials" from Holocaust survivors and their families as well as from Germans who became animal activists because of their experience, not in spite of it. While the stories are compelling, here Patterson is preaching to the choir.

The events of Sept. 11 and the continuing suicide bombings in Israel demonstrate that there are individuals today who do not value the sanctity of even their own lives, much less that of other humans. Patterson may experience difficulty, therefore, in convincing a nation of mindless hamburger eaters, now focused on survival, to turn its energies to the plight of the cow.

And yet, perhaps an extreme view must be taken to get attention.

In the book, animal activist Christa Blanke, a former Lutheran pastor, notes that "130 years ago, the church remained silent about the slave trade because they were only black people. Fifty years ago, the church remained silent because they were only Jews. Today, the church remains silent because they are only animals."

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