Victims, Refugees and Irony: Similarities between Holocaust Victims and Palestinian Refugees

By Reagan Brugmans

Testifying or bearing witness to an event through the use of literature can take many forms, and has become a common when regarding many conflicts and crises throughout history. Recounting experience or bearing witness to an event through literature can be used as a method for victims of conflict and crisis to bring awareness to an event, to ensure their story will not be forgotten, or simply as an outlet to express one’s experiences during a certain event. The Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 have both generated vast amounts of literature in order for victims to bear witness to the experiences they endured during these times of crisis. Analyzing these different forms of literature provides insight in comparing and contrasting similarities and differences in victims’ experiences. Although the following comparison of Jewish victims of the Holocaust to the Palestinian victims of the continuous conflicts commencing 1948 onwards may be controversial—as the Jews were victims in one conflict and persecutors in the other—the parallels between the victims’ experiences are ironically similar. Extensively analyzing the diary of Victor Klemperer, who was a Jewish survivor from the Nazi regime in Germany, from I Will Bear Witness, Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust—a book of poetry based off of 26 volumes of documentation from the Nuremburg and Eichmann trials—and comparing them with the short narrative A Land of Rock and Thyme by Palestinian author Liyan Badr in Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, this paper explores the unexpected similarities drawn between the two completely contrasting scenarios. When analyzing and comparing specific literature of the Jews after the Holocaust and the Palestinians after the creation of the State of Israel, those that bear witness to the events that made them both victims and refugees (such as diary excerpts from the year 1945 from I Will Bear Witness, select poems from Holocaust, and the short narrative Land of Rock and Thyme), striking similarities in experiences exist, despite the stark contrast in the conflicts that took place. Although the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel targeted different groups of people, both the Jews and Palestinians experienced extreme hardship, an increasing familiarity with death, and a need to conceal their true identity. These points of intersections that are articulated through the literature manifests the irony that emerges as they, despite the religion, race or the conflict that resulted in the persecution of these victims, endured similar experiences.

Although discrimination of the Jewish population existed for many decades, the persecution of the Jews of Eastern Europe largely commenced when Adolf Hitler took office in 1933. The hatred and racism towards the Jews in Europe quickly escalated, leading to the creation of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935 that stripped German Jews of their citizenships and rights, gave way the boycotts of Jewish businesses, and later led to Kristallnacht (Kunz 45). The persecution of the Jews in Europe continued to worsen the longer the Nazi party was in power, and eventually became life-threatening to all Jews of Europe. Commencing in 1939, Jewish ghettos were created in order to contain Jews to certain areas in Europe. Jews were then confined to these walled-in areas, and placed under strict regulation. Within these ghettos, Jewish families suffered from the lack of resources, and from Nazi guards that showed no sympathy. If these Jews did not die within these ghettos, they often suffered the same fate of a horrible death, as they would be transported to a concentration camp. Although the first concentration camp was created in 1933, they became increasingly prominent in late 1938, early 1939 (USHMM). The camps treated innocent Jews as if they were not human, forcing them to participate in extremely difficult labour, and killing them in mass numbers. These camps lead to the tragic deaths of millions of Jews, and the image of these unfortunate Jews passively going to their death like ‘sheep’ would become the ‘anti-image’ of the Israeli in the creation of the state in 1948 (Kunz 47).

The State of Israel was created in 1948 on the notion that it was a Jewish right to have a safe ‘homeland’ to accommodate the displaced Jews worldwide—largely those who survived the Holocaust in Europe. Previously existing as Palestine, the United Nations General Assembly allocated nearly 50% of this existing land in order for the creation of Israel as part of the United Nations Partition Resolution (Rowley 78-79). This partition created both a Jewish state and an Arab state in the land that once belonged solely to the Arab population. Immediately rejecting this partition, the Arab nations turned to the use of force, fighting for the land that was once theirs (Rowley 79). After the British mandate withdrew from Palestine in 1948, the Arab-Israeli war commenced. The Israeli army intended to seize the entirety of Palestine, and the Arab forces—Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon—intended to take back what was once theirs, and force the Israelis out. Building up a military hegemony of 100 000 in Palestine, Israel was able to expand the borders and encompass almost 80% of Palestine (Rowley 79). Remaining in a constant state of conflict as a result of this, the hostility between the two groups lead to major wars–1956 Suez Canal War, the Six Day War in 1967 and the October 1973 War—as well as a constant state of fighting that created not only mass amounts of casualties, but also a large number of Palestinian refugees who were displaced from their homes (Rowley 79). According to the United Nations statistics, between the years 1947 and 1949 alone, over 650,000 of Palestine fled from Israeli held territory, becoming refugees in neighbouring countries (Rowley 83). The majority of these refugees, who fled in order to escape death or because they were ordered to leave, were kept in Arab refugee camps, where they experienced extreme suffering.

Jews in Nazi dominated Europe, suffering both internally and externally of the ghettos, and Palestinian refugees alike suffered through extreme hardships with regards to the living conditions they were forced to endure during the times of conflict. Both the Jewish population in Europe and the Palestinians in refugee camps were subject to a constant lack of necessary resources to survive, and subhuman living conditions, as can be seen when comparing and contrasting Klemperer’s diary excerpts from the year 1945, Reznikofff’s chapter of poetry entitled Ghettos, and Badr’s short narrative. Although the Jewish ghettos in Europe and the refugee camps throughout the Arab world were created to serve different purposes, their articulation within these sources of literature bears notably similar characteristics. Both of these locations were created in order to host a certain race or religion of people, and required their inhabitants to live in undesirable conditions that they were not previously used to. Although a large amount of the Jewish population was forced to relocate to the Jewish ghettos, there were some exceptions of some Jews that had the ‘privilege’ of being excluded. Thus in the case of Victor Klemperer, he was excluded from being conscripted to the ghettos as his wife was Aryan. However, despite not living in the ghetto, Victor Klemperer’s experience mirrored those who were contained either in a ghetto or a camp, as he also endured a constant lack of the necessary resources for survival, mainly a shortage in food. In his diary excerpts, there were vast amounts of instances in which he described a constant shortage of food and feeling of hunger, and on one occasion he described an experience in which he was so desperate for something to eat, he resorted to begging a woman on the street for a piece of her food. He described how the woman “broke off a piece of her sandwich with her no doubt dirty hand, and gave it to me. I ate it” (Klemperer 412). Once a respected member of the academic community and fairly well off, Klemperer resorting to begging for, and eating, potentially dirty food on the streets, demonstrating the level of desperation in which he was facing just to survive. The level of desperation that Klemperer faced in order to acquire food outside of the ghettos is intensified when looking at the Jewish populations that were forced to live inside the walls of the ghettos. As the ghettos were regulated and patrolled by Nazis, the inhabitants inside were subjected to inhumane treatment and inadequate amounts of food and water. As Jews who lived here had no means of earning their livelihood, many families faced extreme malnourishment within these ghettos, and witnessed the death of many as a result. Constantly witnessing fellow Jews passing away led to them resort to desperate measures in order to survive. Reznikoff’s chapter, Ghettos, described the instance in which a child was rummaging through the trashcans to “find potato peels or anything to chew” (26). This unfortunate desperation and malnourishment of the children was also present in Badr’s short story, in which she expresses the daily struggles of being homeless and living in a refugee camp through the viewpoint of the character Yusra. Yusra describes the desperation her family encountered with providing food when she described how they had to create a substitute for milk for her baby brother, as her mothers breast milk was dried up for a lack of nourishment: “she’d boil lentils for him, then grind them, mix them with water and get him to drink it” (Badr 410). Badr also demonstrates through her literature how a resource such as water, which was once so easy for these refugees to access prior to living in these camps, had become a luxury that was difficult to acquire. Describing Yusra in line at the water tap throughout the course of the short story, Badr illustrates the severity of this common issue in the camps describing how Yusra had to occasionally wait upwards of 10 hours just to access water (Badr 402). All of these authors are able to articulate the desperate measures that many victims were forced to take just in order to survive until the next day, providing insights into the difficulties that both the Jewish and Palestinian victims alike would have faced on a daily basis. When comparing the lives of the victims in these ghettos and camps, the subhuman living conditions to which they were exposed is present in both Holocaust and Palestinian refugee literature.

Further analyzing Reznikoff’s poetry in the chapter entitled Ghettos, he describes the difficulties the Jews encountered whilst living in these ghettos, stating how there “were six to eight in a room and no heating” and how “families died during the night and when neighbours entered in the morning-perhaps days afterwards-they saw them frozen to death or dead from starvation” (Reznikofff 26). This poem on the hardships of living conditions within the ghetto can be easily compared to the hardships that the Palestinian refugees faced within the refugee camps. They, too, were forced to endure subpar living conditions, often having to share a ‘home’ with many others. Badr’s literature articulates this through describing the factory in which Yusra’s family, as well as many others families, were temporarily considering their home. Badr writes that “the place was filled with over seven hundred people, who shared it with bits of metal and huge pieces of machinery,” with Yusra stating how they “couldn’t sleep because of the pungent smell of the metal that got into our nostrils and choked us” (Badr 402). Although the Jews had been victims of displacement throughout history, it was the creation of a homeland for the Jews that lead to Palestinians refugees then becoming the victims of displacement. These three works of literature expose the dark realities in which these victims would have faced on a daily basis, whilst living in these subpar conditions during the time of conflict and crisis. Continuing to exemplify the ironic similarities between the Jewish and Palestinian victims in different times of conflict, the articulation of the changing view towards death is exhibited through the works of Klemperer, Reznikoff, and Badr.

The concept of death had been altered and increasingly familiar to both the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and the Palestinian victims of the creation of the State of Israel. Analyzing Klemperer’s diary excerpts from the year 1945, Reznikoff’s chapter, Massacres, and Badr’s short story, the constant fear and anticipation of one’s own death and the increasing familiarity with death become a point of intersection for both the Holocaust and Palestinian refugee literature. Throughout the entirety of his diary excerpts, there are multiple instances in which Klemperer expresses his thoughts on death. There are instances in which he expresses fear for his own death, as well as anticipation for his death approaching, and instances where he expresses gratitude and surprise that he is still living. In an excerpt from his diary in 1945, when tensions between the Jews and Nazis became immensely hostile, and Klemperer had already witnessed the death of many of his fellow Jewish community members, he expressed his shock that they were still alive after heavy raid stating: “Hurrah! We’re still alive!” (Klemperer 393). This excitement for only surviving through another day exhibits the severity of the scenario he was experiencing as a result of being a Jewish man in Germany at the time of the Nazi reign. Klemperer made reference to his constant calculation of how much time he would be granted with as the crisis escalated, revealing his fear and anticipation of his own death. This fear and anticipation of death is greatly articulated through Badr’s short story, as she discusses the constant fear of being killed by the Israeli troops. Illustrating the intensely dangerous scenarios that the Palestinian refugees experienced by just living in these camps, she describes the danger that these troops posed to innocent refugees in the camp as “death had become familiar: there was nobody in Al-Zaatar who didn’t anticipate his own” (Badr 406). Not only did these refugees anticipate their death, some actually prepared for it. Yusra describes a man who built his own coffin out of cupboard doors and measured it against his body to make sure that he would fit into it (Badr 410). Death surrounded both the Jewish and Palestinian victims alike, creating this notion of death that had become a normality as opposed to a tragedy.

The chapter Work Camps by Rezinkoff and Badr’s Land of Rock and Thyme both exemplify through literature how death as a result of the Holocaust and post-1948 creation of the State of Israel occurred so frequently that it became normalized. This literature denotes how many became numb and impartial to death, as it surrounded them so frequently. Jews confined in the ghettos witnessed deaths of their neighbours and loved ones, and the larger the death toll, the less shocking it became. No one was excused or granted pity in these ghettos, and it was not uncommon for entire families to pass away as a result of starvation or the cold. Death in these scenarios became so frequent that it many became indifferent to it, especially those Jews who suffered the appalling fate of being sent to concentration camps. These Jews were constantly surrounded by the darkness of death, as the death tolls were much higher within these camps than in the ghettos. Death of the innocent was carried out on such a mass scale, and the Nazi guards would occasionally force other Jewish prisoners to assist with these atrocities. Rezinkoff’s poem exhibits how these Jews were forced to “undress the bodies and carry them,” and often they were too weak to carry the bodies on their shoulders and had to “drag them by the feet”(Reznikoff 58). Punishable by death if they did not submit to these orders, these Nazi guards managed to completely dehumanize these victims of the horrors of the Holocaust. Although the Palestinian refugees’ familiarity with death is not quite as intense as the Jews in the concentration camps, it was very comparable to the Jews living in the ghettos. Badr’s literature articulates the frequency of death that surrounded the inhabitants of the refugee camps, as Yusra described how life in the camp was like a bad dream in the sense that “you’d talk to someone, and an hour or two later you’d hear they were dead” (Badr 406). Through her work of literature, Badr articulates how familiar the concept of death became for all of the Palestinians in these camps, demonstrating the fate of many innocent Palestinians, and how they were just lucky to still be alive in such a time of crisis: “Many people were injured as we left, shot down as though they’d been standing right in front of the rifle. As the snipers fired, the dead dropped one after another. Those who got out in one piece were the lucky ones” (Badr 404). Comparing the experiences of the Jews in ghettos and concentration camps with those of the Palestinians in refugee camps, there is a repetition of the ill fated and frequent encounters with death that both the Jews and Palestinians victims encountered on a shockingly regular basis during these times of conflict. However, this Israeli hostility towards innocent Palestinian refugees seems to be quite ironic, considering the number of innocent Jews that were murdered only years before in Europe. Although these authors each approach the stories of victims through a different form of literature—a diary, a poem and a short story—the articulation of death within these three works of literature acts a method to bear witness to the events that occurred during the times of these conflicts, and as a way to commemorate the tragedies of death that these victims faced. A third and final similarity between the Holocaust and Palestinian refugee literature can be drawn when analyzing the need to conceal one’s true identity.

Both Klemperer’s Holocaust literature, in the form of his diary excerpts from 1945, and Badr’s Palestinian refugee literature in the form of her short story articulate the need to conceal one’s identity in order to prevent death during the time of these conflicts. In the Holocaust and the conflicts that arose as a result of the creation of the State of Israel, the victims were persecuted because of their race and/or religion. If the enemy forces—the Nazis or Israeli troops—were aware of their race and religion, they would have been murdered on the spot. Jews in Nazi Germany were required to wear a star indicating that they were Jews, which left them no room to conceal their identity. Klemperer describes in his diary excerpts for the year of 1945 the ‘miracle’ of the bombing of his city of Dresden that lead to such chaos and destruction that he was able to escape the city—and his fate of nearing death—unnoticed. A fellow Jew in Dresden advised Klemperer that he must remove his star. Klemperer perceived himself having no other choice, acknowledging that, “with the star [he] would immediately be killed” (Klemperer 415). As the city was left in shambles, Klemperer was able to claim that he lost his papers, and that he was in fact, Aryan. Corresponding to the instance with Klemperer being advised to conceal his identity, Badr describes a comparable scenario when describing Yusra’s family leaving the camp. They were advised to take on a different identity other than Palestinian in order to survive: “before we set off we all warned one another how, if you’re questioned, you must answer: I’m Lebanese” (Badr 408). The Israeli troops were killing all refugees from the camp who declared that they were Palestinians. Despite receiving this advice previously, Yusra’s brother, Jamal, responded that he was Palestinian when questioned about his ethnicity. Jamal was instantly shot as a consequence of his answer. Once again, there is irony in reference to the murder of innocent Palestinian refugees, as it mirrors the Jews in Europe being persecuted solely as a result of their religion. These two works of literature articulate the extreme persecution leading to the murder of thousands of innocent civilians purely as a result of either race or religion that was prevalent with both the Nazis and the Israeli troops.

Thoroughly comparing three major points of intersection within the texts—the extreme suffering and hardships the victims experienced within the camps and ghettos, the constant fear and anticipation of ones own death, increasing familiarity with death as a result of the conflict, and finally the need to conceal their true identities—Reznikoff, Klemperer and Badr all articulate these similarities between the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the Palestinian refugees through their works of literature. They demonstrate that despite the irony of the situation, these victims endured similar experiences regardless of the differences in their religion or race, or the conflict that resulted in their persecution. Both the events of the Holocaust, which targeted innocent Jews as a result of their religion. and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, which lead to a constant period of conflict that eventually lead to the persecution of Palestinian refugees by Israeli troops, created victims that endured similar experiences, as can be seen through their attempts to bear witness through the use of literature. Despite the irony that lies with the Jews who were victims of both displacement and persecution throughout history becoming the reason for the displacement of the Palestinians with the creation of the State of Israel, and Israeli troops acting as the persecutors towards the Palestinian refugees, similarities in experiences of victims of the two conflicts are able to be drawn from Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness, Reznikoff’s Holocaust, and Badr’s A Land of Rock and Thyme. These three texts articulate how the victims of the Holocaust and the conflict resulting from the creation of Israel all experienced suffering and hardship within the ghettos and refugee camps due to the lack of necessary resources and inadequate housing. The three authors also demonstrate that the victims, Jewish and Palestinian alike, experienced a constant anticipation of their own death, and an increasing familiarity with death causing it to be more of a normality than a tragedy. Finally, these works of literature articulate how both the Jews and Palestinians had to conceal their identities in order to survive. Edward Said, who is a Palestinian, once made reference to the phrase, ‘We are the Jews of the Arab World’ (724) in his work Past and Future. In the context of his work, this phrase was used to express Palestinian superiority; however, in the context of this essay, this phrase seems to prove relevant when referring to the irony that exists with the parallels drawn from the similarities of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the Palestinian victims of the creation of the State of Israel, and their articulation in literature.


Badr, Liyana. A Land of Rock and Thyme. Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature. Columbia University Press. (1992) Print.

Klemperer, Victor, and Martin Chalmers. I will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years. New York: Random House, (1999) Print.

Kunz, Diane. Remembering the Unexplainable. World Policy Journal. 14.4(1998) 45-53. Proquest. 7 Dec. 2015.

Reznikoff, Charles. Holocaust. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, (1975). Print.

Rowley, Charles., and Jennis Taylor. The Israel and Palestine Land Settlement Problem, 1948-2005: An Analytical History. Public Choice. 128.1-2.(2006) 77-90. Proquest. 7 Dec. 2015.

Said, Edward. Past and Future. Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature. Columbia University Press. (1992) Print

United States Holocaust Museum. Concentration Camps 1933-1939. Holocaust Encyclopedia.(2015) 7.Dec. 2015.

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reaganReagan Brugmans is a fourth year student at the University of Toronto, completing a major in Diaspora and Transnational Studies, as well as a double minor in Human Geography in History. Drawing from a breadth of disciplines, Diaspora and Transnational Studies has largely shaped her perception of the world, and inspired her to continue her studies within the same field. Upon her graduation in June, she is intending to pursue her interests in the political science and development field by attending graduate school for International Development.

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