Ordinary People – Holocaust Memorial Day 2023

One of my first posts when I started this blog in 2012 was to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Each year after that – until last year, for reasons which may be obvious from some of my other recent posts – I wrote about some aspect of the Holocaust. Looking back I can see how much research went into those posts, how hard I tried to do justice to a subject which is both impossible and imperative to write about.

I haven’t done that research this year, but the 2023 theme, Ordinary People, is reflected in a number of my past posts. I have often touched on how the complicity, indifference or obliviousness of ordinary people, the collaborators and bystanders, was essential to the achievement of the final solution, as it is to all genocides. But I’ve also talked about, and named, some of the ordinary people who died in such unthinkable numbers, in mass shootings, in gas chambers, through starvation and exhaustion, through disease, and some of those who survived. And there are others too, the ordinary people who did not stand by, who gave a damn when it wasn’t their turn and when it would certainly have been safer to look the other way.

It’s a subject to which I have returned over and over again, in my reading and my watching. It was a major theme in my doctoral research. My very first HMD post tried to explain why I have needed to keep returning, when I have no direct personal connections to those events. But leaving aside my early encounter with a different genocide, I study the Holocaust because it addresses so profoundly and in so many ways what it is to be human, and what being human might mean at its worst and its best.

This year three documentaries have brought new light to bear on those events.

The first, The US and the Holocaust, focuses as the title would suggest on the role of the USA, and the glaring disparity between the Statue of Liberty’s claim to offer refuge to the ‘tempest-tossed’ and its refusal to help the Jews of Europe. Had the immigration quotas been waived, had more visas been offered before war broke out, before the Nazis blocked all means of escape, how many could have been saved? What is clear is that the reason for this obduracy in the face of the known facts was anti-semitism, and the fear of fuelling anti-semitism by allowing an influx of Jews. We followed the efforts of some ordinary families, with relatives already in the US, to get visas, and the fate of those who did not get out in time. This was an exemplary documentary, which made excellent use of archive footage and contemporary interviews, and balanced the institutional with the personal to moving effect.

How the Holocaust Began‘s mission was to show the chaotic and spontaneous beginnings, before the death camps, before the gas chambers. The focus on Auschwitz as the symbol of the Holocaust obscures the fact that millions were already dead before it began operation, in mass shootings at sites such as Babi Yar in Ukraine. It began even before the Einsatzgruppen, the units who had been specifically tasked with clearing the newly invaded territories of Jews and other despised categories of humanity, arrived on the scene. Clearly the local commanders knew that their actions would be approved, and were enthusiastic about what they were doing. The programme also looked at some of the research now being undertaken to identify the sites of mass graves and some of the people who were murdered. (See Wendy Lower’s book, The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, for one such project.) Ordinary people lying in those mass graves, and ordinary people who colluded or participated directly in their murder.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening embodies this year’s HMD theme in the most powerful way. It begins with three minutes of amateur film, no soundtrack, no commentary. People milling around in a town, drawn to the man with the film camera, jostling and waving and smiling for posterity. One year before that town was invaded, and its inhabitants rounded up in the square and deported to ghettos and thence to Treblinka. This bit of film was discovered, providentially, just before it would have been lost, either destroyed, or to the process of decay. The documentary shows how the location of the film was identified, Nasielsk, in Poland, and how the testimony of one survivor (Nasielsk’s pre-war population was 7,000, of whom 3,000 were Jews, and of whom only 100 survived) enabled the identification of a handful of the people we see. If we saw this clip without knowing its context, we might wonder what became of them all, but the horror of this is that we do know, they are Jews, and they are in Poland and it is 1938. The film, which we see repeatedly over the course of the programme, gives the 150 people who appear in it just over an hour, from those three minutes. Watching it is a profound experience.

As much as I have read and seen, I still feel that sense of shock. I hope I always will.

  1. #1 by Ellen Hawley on January 27, 2023 - 2:14 pm

    The refusal of the US and many other countries to accept refugees from Nazi Germany is worth remembering–especially in this era when so many countries are closing their doors to refugees. I grew up wondering how so many people could turn their backs on such horror. Sadly, I’ve come to understand now how it can happen.

    Thank you for keeping the memory alive.


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