The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has many active supporters in the Cincinnati area, including the local Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education (8401 Montgomery Road, Kenwood, 513-487-3055). As a result, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, Scott Miller, came last week to Amberley’s Adath Israel Congregation to discuss a sensitive ongoing oral history project. Implicit in the visit was a call for donations, despite the ongoing recession, because time is of the essence.
Miller’s presentation was called “Witness, Collaborator or Perpetrator.” And that’s also an apt name for the museum’s project. It is seeking out older European non-Jews to ask what their role was in witnessing or facilitating the Nazi-initiated Holocaust.
The interviews are filmed, as part of the museum’s broad “rescue the evidence” initiative. It’s partly an attempt to head off Holocaust denial in the future, by amassing as much first-hand testimony as possible. Since some 90 percent of its visitors are not Jewish, the museum sees itself as an important opponent of the deniers.
As Miller pointed out, most giving testimony were just witnesses — maybe even children or teens at the time. But not all. For the Germans didn’t entirely impose their genocidal will on the nations where they gained control during World War II.
They had cooperation.
In Latvia and Lithuania, for instance, local police and volunteer auxiliaries participated in mass shootings. And Croatia’s Ustase — a fascist militia — ran its own concentration camps for Serbs and Roma as well as Jews. And elsewhere there were citizens willing to betray Jewish neighbors to grab their possessions.
Previously, the museum has gathered testimony from survivors. But this is new territory, one fraught with peril. “There’s nothing redemptive about these,” Miller says. As a result, he calls the project “unique and chilling.”
The key question the museum is trying to address is a difficult one. “What were ordinary Europeans doing during the Holocaust, and how much did they know,” Miller asked the crowd. “We at the Holocaust Museum want answers to those questions. So we’ve decided to ask the witnesses themselves. We’re returning literally to the scene of the crime.”
To date, the museum’s researchers have interviewed 1,357 people in 17 countries. Miller brought with him excerpts from three interviews. They played without sound, just subtitles. But they spoke volumes.
In one, two Polish women recalled how as teenagers they watched a mass killing. In another, a Polish train engineer discussed how he took cars filled with Jews to the Treblinka concentration camp.
The other film clip was an interview with a member of the Lithuanian Police Battalion who joined Germans in mass shootings of Jews, including children. Asked how he could be involved in such a thing, he — incredibly — blamed God. “Why does he allow humanity to kill innocent people,” he asked (according to the subtitles).
He served 20 years in Soviet prison, and died just last year. The museum now is arranging to show his interview in Lithuania.
Miller cautioned the crowd against shrugging off the culpability of those who cooperated or collaborated with the Nazis.
“The flip side is there were thousands of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews,” he said. “So you don’t want to give up and say, ‘It’s war. What could they do?’”
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