'Small' Actions and the Holocaust

Monday, January 26, 2015

On 27 January 1945, Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz, the horrific Nazi concentration camp where over a million people were murdered during the Holocaust (the vast majority of which were Jews). In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly established January 27 of each year as an International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

In recognition of this, I’d like to share some information about one of the exhibits in our Examining the Holocaust gallery that includes some material on Auschwitz. The exhibit (pictured below) is called “Complicit in Genocide.” It is intended encourage visitors to reflect on the fact that that the massive, organized and systematic nature the Holocaust did not just happen. It was not an accident or inevitable. Rather, it was the result of specific decisions and actions – some large and many small – that were made by individual people. 


A wall with two large serial shots of Auschwitz
'Complicit in Genocide' Exhibit


The backdrop of the “Complicit in Genocide” exhibit consists of two large aerial shots of Auschwitz (one of the main camp and the other of Auschwitz-Birkenau). The scale of this backdrop is intended to symbolize the massive scope of the Holocaust and its brutally efficient, organized and systematic nature. Juxtaposed in front of these images is a small sampling of artefacts, which represent some of the individual actions that – when taken together – enabled the Holocaust to be perpetrated on the scale that it was. Visitors are asked to consider how actual people put up barbed wire fences around concentration camps in order to keep other people trapped within; how the architectural plans for Auschwitz had to be drafted by someone; how a real person had to type up transport lists that made it possible to deport huge groups of people to their deaths; how someone had to order canisters of Zyklon B gas for the camps, and how someone had to actually empty the canisters into the gas chambers.


Documents featured in an exhibit
Transport lists and other documents in the “Complicit in Genocide” exhibit


The exhibit is rounded out by a chilling photograph of Nazi soldiers and support staff from Auschwitz. But unlike many representations of Nazis that we may be familiar with that emphasize brutality, this image is chilling for how happy and carefree they all look. This group of young people is enjoying a break at a resort near Auschwitz. One of them is holding an accordion. The group is smiling, laughing and mugging for the camera in friendly camaraderie. Aside from their uniforms, this photograph seems like it could be a picture of enthusiastic friendship anywhere. Yet these individuals were among those that helped Auschwitz function, and contributed in various ways to the perpetration of the Holocaust.


A group of young men and women smiling
Photograph of Nazi soldiers and support staff from Auschwitz on leave at a resort near the camp (Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of an anonymous donor)


We hope that this exhibit will help visitors to consider how human rights violations depend on concrete actions and decisions made by individual people. Sometimes these actions or decisions may seem minor, but can have large consequences when they interact with many other small decisions by other people. By encouraging dialogue and reflection on this, we hope that our visitors will think about how the decisions and actions that they take in their own lives can contribute to human rights, positively or negatively.