The subject of Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 is Ordinary People.
Barbara Yelin’s artwork from Irmina, credit: SelfMadeHero Barbara Yelin
What is unusual about me is that I am average. What is unusual is that I survived the Holocaust and moved on to adore attractive females, speak, write, eat bread and tea, and enjoy my life.
Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust
Ordinary individuals enable genocide. Ordinary citizens turn a cold eye, accept lies, and embrace homicidal governments. And those who are hounded, subjugated, and killed in genocide are punished not for offenses they have done, but simply because they are regular people who belong to a specific group. (eg, Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).
Ordinary people were engaged in every element of the Holocaust, as well as Nazi oppression of other groups and genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. Ordinary individuals were offenders, spectators, rescues, and witnesses, as well as casualties.
In every genocide, those targeted had few options – “choiceless choices” (Lawrence Langer), but in every genocide, offenders and regular people have choices.
Sometimes their options were restricted, and they had to make life-threatening judgments. Ordinary individuals were the ones who bravely chose to help, conceal, or speak up. Ordinary people, on the other hand, chose to disregard what was going on around them, to be spectators, and to enable the slaughter to continue.
There are extraordinary people in every massacre, exceptional and uncommon people who went to great efforts to assist, rescue, and save, and extraordinary people who went to great measures to hurt, torment, and kill.
Our topic this year, however, focuses on ordinary people who allowed genocide to occur, ordinary people who deliberately committed genocide, and ordinary people who were punished.
Our subject will also motivate us to consider how everyday people, such as ourselves, can possibly play a larger role than we might think in today’s fight against bias.
We will look at some particular groups in order to investigate the subject of ordinary individuals. (perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers). It is essential to observe that individuals do not always fit perfectly into one of these groups, and that within categories, industries, occupations, and duties, there were a variety of reactions to what was going on around them, as shown by the case of train employees during the Holocaust:
Ordinary people, for example, railway employees during the Holocaust
I could stand at the border of the meadow where the trains were being filled as a five-year-old. In those timber vehicles, people are packed in like sardines.
And the guys putting them in – they were railway men, and they didn’t appear all that different from the railway men who verify my passes these days.
Dr Martin Stern MBE, Holocaust survivor
These seemingly regular railway employees came from all over Nazi-occupied Europe and worked as train drivers, operators, and signalmen. Some of these regular individuals were offenders, transporting Jews to extermination centers, while others were rescues, concealing Jews.
Henryk Gawkowski was a drummer who testified for Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah. Henryk calculated that he conveyed 18,000 Jews to the execution center at Treblinka. At Treblinka, it is believed that 800,000 individuals were killed. Henryk claimed that he consumed vodka all the time because it was the only way he could tolerate his work.
In August 1941, 200 Lithuanian railway employees killed more than 60 Jewish men on a field, firing them into a ditch excavated by Russian prisoners of war. The train employees purposefully positioned big engines near the hole to keep the commotion of the gunfire from being heard by other Jews being held in a nearby farm. (from testimony by Abe Leson). Yadvashem.org hosts Abe Lison’s statement.
Léon Bronchart was a French railway worker who was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations for assisting Jewish neighbors, concealing a Jew, and declining to operate a train carrying political inmates.
In September 1942, Marcel Hoffman was one of 24 French train employees who assisted in the rescue of Jewish children from expulsion.
These train employees represent the range of killing events that regular people have had.
Perpetrators as ordinary people
Ordinary people in positions of power who took advantage of, or made, a set of conditions that enabled them to misuse their power and prejudice, harass, and kill people were perpetrators.
Many studies have also looked into how some of the offenders were regular people who did not hold places of authority. While watching the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt created the term “the banality of evil,” which means that evil acts are not always committed by wicked people, but rather by regular people following instructions.
Ordinary people were police officers gathering up victims, clerks filling up genocide records, dentists and physicians conducting picks, ordinary people were Rwandan neighbors brandishing machetes, and school teachers turned concentration camp guardians in Bosnia.
Jean Louis Mazimpaka, a victim of Rwanda’s massacre against Tutsis, recalls:
To be honest, everyone was participating when the slaughter began. We were neighbors and pals, but we had no idea the murders were so widespread.
Persecuted people as ordinary people
They may believe they have nothing to do with my tale. What happened to me, however, could happen to them – to individuals like you. It may seem impossible to believe, but people from far away do not experience this. I’m just a regular individual. These heinous crimes can happen to ordinary individuals like us.
Kemal Pervanić, survivor, Bosnia
Genocide victims were regular people. They simply had a facet of their personality that the offenders disliked, and as a result, they became targets for abuse. Some victim group members did not even identify as members of the victim group, but the norms were set by offenders. Perpetrators could and did choose who would be punished based on whatever criteria they desired, including imagined rather than real elements of someone’s character.
Survivors are frequently depicted as exceptional people. It is essential to recall, however, that they escaped the most heinous actions not because they were exceptional, but because of a combination of chance, talent, situation, or the participation of other people.
Survivors of atrocities live regular lives, facing the same daily obstacles as the rest of the community. They are everyday individuals in our communities: store employees, physicians, parents, and instructors.
While some survivors find it difficult to talk about their experiences, others have become extraordinary in their ability to recount their experiences, becoming speakers, educators, representatives, and in some cases historians, to share their testimonies even when it causes them pain. These survivors recognized that hearing their firsthand experiences of what happens when ordinary people turn against other ordinary people because of who they are would benefit others.
Rescuers as ordinary people
Rescuers are frequently depicted as exceptional, or supernatural, with incredible courage and ability. This is accurate in some cases, but many rescues characterize themselves in very basic terms, emphasizing the conditions that allowed them to save others. They were sometimes able to provide sustenance to those in need, and other times they were able to hide individuals. Ordinary individuals who went above and beyond to assist others, endangering their lives, jobs, and families.
Sir Nicholas Winton, a young trader, saved 669 children from Czechoslovakia and brought them to the United Kingdom, saving them from the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Why are you creating such a fuss about it? I only contributed a little because I happened to be in the right location at the right moment.
Ordinary people as bystanders
Most individuals living under a homicidal government do not actively participate in killing. They do not transform into offenders or rescues. They stand by and do nothing to add to the slaughter, but they also do nothing to question, prevent, or halt it from occurring, as this picture from Barbara Yelin’s comic book Irmina shows:
While the HMD 2023 topic centers on everyday individuals, this can be expanded to include commonplace places or landmarks. Genocide is an unusual act that disrupts the natural order of things, stealing commonplace locations and their original purpose. During genocides, everyday places are transformed into genocide staging grounds. Throughout all genocides, schools, hospitals, old age homes, religious structures, woods, and fields have been used and stolen as holding centers, confinement sites, and even murder sites.
Similarly, everyday items take on new meanings as they become proof of murder or symbols of an experience, such as luggage symbolizing children sent away by their parents to safety as part of the Kindertransport, or Vali Racz’s commonplace closet becoming a concealing place. Look through our Days to Remember website for some artifacts.
Today, we are all regular individuals with remarkable deeds. We can all choose to question bias, oppose hate, voice out against identity-based oppression, and buy ethically.
Ordinary people are also the ones driving Holocaust Memorial Day, leading neighborhood commemorations, and supporting and encouraging everyone around them to participate in memory and teaching initiatives.