Lessons from Auschwitz is a groundbreaking project run by the Holocaust Educational Trust, to explore the universal lessons of the Holocaust and its relevance for today. The blog below was written by Katherine Perry and David Rowley, students at Brine Leas Sixth Form in Nantwich, to share their experiences of undertaking the programme last year. This is accompanied by a display in the museum’s upstairs Joseph Heler Room, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January.
As part of the Holocaust Educational Trust project we visited Auschwitz One. Throughout our entire trip what was most striking to me and my work partner was that alongside the horrendous suffering of the victims of the Holocaust, there were also signs of the perpetrators’ humanity. From the Auschwitz One camp the house of Rudolf Höss, the man in charge of Auschwitz and responsible for overseeing the death of hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women and children, was clearly visible. It was also in that house that he, according to his daughter, became ‘the nicest man in the world’ who ordered his children to ‘never hurt others’. It is difficult to reconcile what seem to be two completely opposing personalities into one human being but we must in order to understand why the Holocaust occurred.
Höss is just one example of thousands of Germans in the period between 1933-45 who were seduced not just by Hitler but by the whole idea of Nazism. It can be hard to see how regular people became convinced that Jews and other minorities were indeed ‘Untermenschen’ and thus not worthy of dignity, compassion or even life. The once glorious Germany had been destroyed through the First World War and the subsequent collapse of the German economy. Often in times of crisis people gravitate towards parties or people that offer a return to the safety of the past, that find an easy cause and solution to the current problems (often a minority group) and who reinforce the idea that they as a nation are special and more important than any other nation. We can even see this trend in modern day Europe with the rise in Nationalism since the 2008 economic crisis. However the sheer scale of indoctrination that seeped into everyday life, from the burning of Jewish shops to the rampant propaganda in schools, meant that extremism and intolerance became part of everyday life.
It is painful to admit that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not just indoctrinated Nazis but also ordinary people from all over Europe. During our lecture on the Holocaust by the Holocaust Education Trust, it was astonishing to discover how numerous countries participated in the genocide by allowing the Jews to be deported without a struggle – from Greece even to places such as the Channel Islands where British policemen helped to deport Jewish members of their own society. Whilst one could argue that the invaded countries were forced to deport the Jews out of fear for their own lives, it does not explain stories of people defying this hate and intolerance in order to protect people of their community. In comparison to France who lost around 90,000 of their Jews to the Holocaust, Denmark lost only 120 people. This was mainly due to the fact that the Danish were so resistant against Nazi persecution. The Danish warned and hid as many Jewish families as they could when they got wind of the order to deport the Jews on the 1st October 1943. Moreover they made persistent demands to know the whereabouts of the 430 Jews that did not manage to evade capture, which meant no Danish Jews were deported to the killing centres. One of the main reasons for this is that the Danish did not see their Jews as ‘other’ but as members of their community.
Often in our narrative of the Holocaust there is no room for the true complexity of human nature. The perpetrators are monsters, the persecuted helpless victims. In doing this we cause a disservice to those who perished in the Holocaust. By allowing the Holocaust to simply become a cautionary tale with the people involved becoming distortions of themselves we turn this tragic event into something that is too far removed from reality to be actually be taken as a threat. It is only by becoming aware of how easy it is, especially in the modern day with the increase in indoctrination through social media, for such a dangerous mentality of ‘Us vs. Them’ to arise and acknowledge the true danger in passivity that we can begin to make sure such an event never occurs again.