As an aromatherapist, and someone who spent most of my school days studying various war literatures, I suppose it was inevitable that a day would come where thoughts about the Holocaust and smell should intersect. Today, the term Holocaust rightfully reminds us of the horrific years of genocide against the Jewish people during the Second World War, but the word also hides a darker, seemingly forgotten religious truth, which pertains to incense.
When I discovered this, the cruelty and beauty of it cut right through me. It felt like a bomb eviscerated my insides when I finally understood how brilliantly evocative the term was. If nothing more, it served as a reminder to me that the basic action of smelling an essential oil, whenever I want to, is nothing even close to a right.
It is a precious God-given privilege.
When we hear the term “Holocaust” today, we understand it to mean the Second World War assassination of six million Jews across Europe. Two thirds of the European Jewish population were exterminated by Nazi Germany and its allies during the years of 1941-45. They systematically executed Jews, in Pogroms, violent riots, incited with the sole view of killing them, through mass shootings, by starving them in concentration camps, and the killing of prisoners in gas chambers and vans in extermination camps.
It would be impossible to pinpoint the beginning of this tale of hatred toward the Jews, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll place it at 30th January 1933, and the moment when Adolf Hitler was appointed Germany’s chancellor. On acceding to the post he not only led the National Socialist (Nazi) party, but also sought to take an extremely hard line against anyone who opposed his fascist regime.
Forced labor detention camps were seen as an ideal solution for Nazi party enemies, in particular for trade unionists, communists, and Democratic Socialists, and so a network of concentration camps was created to deal with anyone his organization deemed "undesirable". First political opponents, then Roma (gypsies), homosexuals, elderly, frail or mentally disturbed Germans or other nationalities and eventually, Jews.
It had been SS officer Theodor Eicke who had originally come up with the idea of Dachau, a concentration camp, which opened just two months later, on March 22 1933. There, Eicke instituted a doctrine of “dehumanization” by withholding food, enforced slave labor, flogging, corporal punishment, and executions of anyone brave enough to try and escape.
A huge sign reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” dominated the entrance of Dachau. Under its cruelly ironic advice that “Work will free you”, the prisoners tore down the massive WWI-era munitions factory and reconstructed barracks that would then serve as the head office and training ground for the SS.
Two days after the first prisoners were sent to Dachau, on March 24th, the German government, the Reichstag, passed the Enabling Act, to permit Hitler to begin segregating and isolating Jews from society. The new legislation in place, people boycotted Jewish businesses, their homes were ransacked, and a dreadful terror infected the communities of Europe.
In 1935, the Reichstag enacted antisemitic Nuremberg Laws, forbidding interracial marriages, and making guidelines around the ways Germans and Jews could relate through work.
Three years later, Germany annexed Austria and the world would bear witness to the terrifying events of Kristalnacht, the oddly poetic “Crystal Night” or “The Night of Broken Glass”.
On the evening of November the 9th, just before the clock struck midnight, Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller sent a telegram to all police units instructing them that: “in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.”
Police were ordered to seek out any victims and to arrest them. Rioters torched synagogues, and in the first two days and nights of the Pogrom, over 1,000 synagogues were set alight or vandalized. Following orders only to intervene if flames threatened adjacent “Aryan” properties, fire companies stood by and watched them burn.
The pogrom continued for days. Over 7,500 Jewish businesses were ransacked and looted as windows were smashed to smithereens. Jewish hospitals, schools, and cemeteries were vandalized. People’s homes were violated and destroyed by neighbors who had previously been these people’s friends.
At least 91 Jews were killed that night, and some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested.
So many more prisoners for the SS to deal with, Dachau and concentration camps at Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen were expanded.
In September 1939, then, Germany invaded Poland, triggering the start of World War II. Hitler’s regime continued to segregate Jews and subsequently, thousands of detention centers and camps were founded across Nazi-occupied Europe.
But incarcerating many millions of people brings its own problems and expenses, of course. Segregation in ghettos brought diseases that could not be contained. Prisoners were marched from ghettos to be drowned in rivers and Einsatzgruppen, specially trained paramilitary death squads shot around 1.3 million Jews in mass shootings and pogroms that began in the summer of 1941.
(Picture: Shoes by The Danube, sculpture in Budapest.)
But, in a saving grace for humanity, it became apparent that even the best trained soldiers found it difficult to keep lining up people and shooting. So with the Nazi regime determined to purify their bloodline, new tactics had to be instigated.
In 1942, Senior officials met in Berlin to discuss the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Under directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, and perpetuated by the SS, killings began in Germany and spread throughout occupied Europe.
Freight trains were sent to collect victims from ghettos across Europe, incarcerating the prisoners in sealed carriages to ferry them to extermination camps. By 1944, the number of people headed for the camps outstripped even railway capacity and still more were marched hundreds of miles to their deaths.
For many, the journey was a death sentence in itself, and perhaps they were the lucky ones. They escaped being worked to death, killed by disease and starvation, dying of hyperthermia, or being used as guinea pigs in torturously cruel, medical experiments.
The obscene killing would continue until the end of the War in Europe in May 1945 when the camps were liberated by the US army.
In “The Anatomy of Disgust”, author William Ian Miller reflects the limitations many languages endure when people are trying to describe smells. The limitations are so binding that adjectives are created from the subject of the smell. Roses smell like roses and rotting flesh like rotting flesh.
And yet, somehow, in witness accounts, experiencing the concentration camp stink seems to have transcended even that.
When U.S. infantrymen marched into Dachau, late in April 1945, they were greeted by a monstrous, acrid malodor. Unfamiliar to their olfactory receptors, with no previous data to draw from, some presumed they must be downwind of a chemical factory. Others described how it reminded them of the smell of feathers being burned off a chicken that has been plucked.
Veteran, William “Bill” Cassava described coming across an unusually high fence covered in barbed wire just outside Hannover, having no idea what was behind it but being troubled by the smell of the air.
“Í will never forget that smell,” he said, “I did not notice it at first until the wind shifted. I did not see the inside of what was behind the fence. I smelled it.” (Johnson County, 2020)
He was to discover the fence was the perimeter wall of Ahlem concentration camp.
In her memoirs, Czechoslovakian survivor, Edith Birkin describes her own memories of the smells of Auschwitz.
This feeling of death, all these people going in the gas chamber. It was a very weird place, very weird place. With this atmosphere of death all the time you know, and this unbelievable situation of people being… you could smell, you could smell these people being burnt. All the time you smelt this… it was a little bit like you know, when people used to boil glue, it was the bones that smelt like glue.
Veteran John Roberts recalled being part of the Dachau liberation team in April of ‘45. He had been assigned to guard duty at Dachau after a short hospitalization for trench foot, arriving at the camp shortly after its liberation.
He explained, “I didn’t guard prisoners but was ordered to prevent Germans from destroying the ovens or hiding evidence of war crimes,” He describes piles of bodies on the ground, and prisoners who had been liberated lying in rows behind fences or in huts. (Johnson County, 2020)
“The stench was overpowering,” said Roberts. “The odor was worse than any (meat) packing house I had ever smelled.” (Johnson County, 2020)
If you collate documentary evidence of witness accounts of the smell, the fragrant landscape is hellish.
Burned flesh, burned hair, rotting corpses, vomit, feces, ammonia and the smell of an unholy latrine - nothing more than an open field, wading through what has been a foot deep of excrement, vomit and bodily fluids. Thousands of people, soiled and unwashed for months.
But the term Holocaust has another meaning, which one supposes probably inspired this term, and it pertains to the burning of incense.
The Religious Significance of The Holocaust
In Exodus, we learn that G-d instructed Moses how to build The Tabernacle, the first Temple for his worship.
He gave him a complex recipe for how to create the sacred incense. Frankincense was used to purify the Temple space, both psychologically and physically of bacteria and molds and The Holy incense, known as ketoret, was burnt on the altar as an offering to G-d in the morning and at twilight.
Historically, it was burnt with the animal sacrifice and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides described how incense offset the overpowering stench of burning flesh and of the death that pervaded the Tabernacle. White smoke that rose from the altar symbolized the prayers of Israel ascending to God.
Believed to be beloved by G-d and his angels because of its sweet smell, incense is offered generously and should be allowed to burn right through, till all that remaines is ash, perhaps a symbol of Man’s mortality.
The word Holocaust comes from the Greek word holokauston, a translation of the Hebrew word ʿolah. ‘Olah means a burnt sacrifice offered whole to God.
The Jewish race has an intimate relationship with scent.
Discovering that made the lesson even crueler to me. There’s a subtext that I, as a gentile, had never been able to imagine before. The loss of ritual, or remembrance and the occasional silent craving of some beautiful scent.
Earlier we saw that incense played a vital part in the origins stories of the Jews. Burning it on the Sabbath and at festivities is intricately woven not only with the stories of Hebrews, but also as a memorial of the first Temple of Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
“They destroyed our Temple, our sacred tract with G-d lives on through our prayers, our ritual and incense….”
Even today, the rich relationship between divinity and aromatic beauty continues.
Fragrance acts as a socio-religious barometer in Jewish teachings, distinguishing whether things are either benevolent or corrupt. Sweet smells are seen as godly and manifestations of things that are good. Holy people, prophets and martyrs are perceived or described as smelling good. Negative people or things that seem dodgy smell foul and bad smells relate to sexual promiscuity.
Scent is seen as a manifestation of the Holy. To smell something beautiful is a blessing indeed, especially if something’s smell is its primary attribute.
Rabinnic teaching asks the devout to say blessings each time they know they are about to smell something beautiful. Blessings are owed to different circumstances. Each has its own bracha, said in recognition of the good that God has given.
The words Borei atzei vesamim are blessings for aromatic trees and shrubs and their blossoms.
On smelling fragrant fruits or nuts, the bracha: hanosein reiach tov bapeiros is said. (Although not if they have been grown to eat as their primary function, then the blessing would relate to food rather than fragrance.)
To enjoy the fragrances of flowers, fragrant grasses or herbs, then gratitude for the beauty of the fragrance is given in the form of Borei isvei vesamim.
Then for spices, or lovely aromas of animal origin Borei minei vesamim is recited.
How awful must it have been to go from a world where every fragrance has been so clearly observed, lovingly anticipated, witnessed and acknowledged - so much so, that it was worthy of its very own kind of gratitude - to be placed in such a distasteful funk?
I wonder how many sat in silent desperation, pining for just a whiff of incense. Words, too shallow to be uttered out loud, and yet, blesséd respite, for a while.
The Midrash is a second century commentary on the Talmud. It crowns incense as the one truly pure offering a person could give to G-d, and that anyone smelling incense when it burned upon the altar would be blessed with thoughts of repentance, his heart purified of evil thoughts, and he would be protected from being defiled by Evil Inclination.
The reasons behind this are given in reference to Adam’s expulsion from Eden. There, it teaches that every one of Man’s senses were blemished by sin, except for one, when the forbidden fruit was eaten. The one that remained pure was the sense of smell and thus, no-one ever sinned through smelling something bad.
I dearly hope that Jews learned this before they reached those camps. That the silent belief they were protected from the sin that pervaded the air around them gave them some tiny degree of solace. Or even: that they managed to summon some hidden spark of defiance that even this pervasive reek could not infect them with the hatred that Hitler inspired.
I hope it, so very, very much.
So, we should end by acknowledging that different societies choose to frame the events described in this article differently.
In the years following World War II, Yiddish-speaking Jews and survivors chose the word “Ḥurban” to describe the events. The word means “destruction” and was already in use in their language, where it referred to the two decimations of the Temple of Jerusalem.
In Israel, they choose to use a Biblical word which means “catastrophe”, Shoʾah.
For them, the term Holocaust is searingly sensitive, so they choose to represent it fully. Sho’ah speaks of the annihilation of the Jews. According to the camp records from Dachau, the day prior to its liberation, 67,665 prisoners were registered at the concentration camp. Roughly a third were Jewish. The word, Holocaust, is a whole burnt offering and so Israel rightly encapsulates all those exterminated, including Roma, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals, and those “euthanized” in the T4 programme.
France also chooses to reflect in this way.
So today, as a mark of respect for those who died in the most awful way, I’d love to ask you to remember them in a very special way. Please, select your most treasured fragrance in memoriam for those millions of cold, hungry and terrified people; for the Jews and all the other souls who suffered at the Nazi hands in the camps.
Sit for a moment with you closed bottle of oil, then just before you remove the lid, say a few words of gratitude, not only in blessing for the fragrance, but for the very freedom you have to do so.
And then, appreciate, with all your heart, the majesty of its beauty.
May their souls rest in peaceful Heavenly fragrance.