Home April 2011 Facing the Perpetrators

Facing the Perpetrators

“It’s a race against time,” said Scott Miller at a California State University Long Beach event last month in the Karl Anatol Center, marking a new program at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he serves as director of Curatorial Affairs.  With more Holocaust survivors passing away each day, as well as the perpetrators, the museum is changing its focus from the victims to the witnesses and collaborators who still are alive and well in Europe, he said.

Addressing more than 100 members of the community, including students and professors, Miller said the program is continuing to call attention to all the atrocities in the world, but he reminded his audience that there are those who continue to deny the Holocaust, including “the mad rantings” of world leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The museum’s new program, he said, is “now beginning to interview those who witnessed the Holocaust, were collaborators” or, perhaps, were perpetrators themselves.

With the rise of anti-Semitism once again and the passing of survivors, officials of the museum are cognizant, first-hand, of the necessity of keeping the Holocaust in front of the public.  “Many will remember two years ago on June 9 when a man came to the door of the museum and killed a museum guard before he was stopped” from harming others, continued Miller.  “He really came to attack the idea,” the idea of the Holocaust.  He came to “deny the Holocaust, thinking he could kill the idea with a bullet.  People continue to assault the truth of the Holocaust.”

Today the museum has sent staff to Europe to interview those, not who are Jewish, but who witnessed or collaborated or perpetrated the atrocities against civilians.  The staff members are “going back to the scene of the crime,” Miller said.  Addressing “morally and complex issues,” they are collecting testimony from these non-Jewish witnesses who actually saw the crimes committed.  This oral history project has been strengthened with the help of an Israeli photographer, Nathan Berach, who has been spending time in Europe.  They now have visual testimony, a few of which Miller provided his audience in the form of videos as illustration that evening.  The hard-core testimony proved to be an eye-opener for some of those present (those who might not have seen a documentary by Claude Lansman titled Shoah, which ran on PBS stations years ago).

“We have gone back to the killing fields.  We went to Croatia and Poland” and Germany.  Miller said they already have interviewed more than 1,300 people in various countries of Europe who have described their witnessing abuse, humiliation, torture and murders inflicted upon innocent citizens – Jews, homosexuals, Romas (Gypsies) and others.  Now there is real-time documentation to add to the copious archives of the museum.  “The Nazi lists were not as complete or as perfect as has been written,” or led to believe, said Miller.  “The lists don’t tell us what genocide looks like,” he noted.

The interviewees, some of whom are doctors and scientists, have been documented in their own language, and eventually these tapes will be translated into English and digitized so they will be accessible to researchers.  At present, most are in Polish or German; but besides Germany and Poland, the interviewers are investigating witnesses in France, Lithuania and Morocco.

“Surprisingly, we have found little resistance to our interviews; people have been very open,” despite having committed such terrible atrocities!”  The videos were compelling, and most of the elderly being interviewed spoke in unemotional and matter-of-fact voices.  After watching the several videos Miller screened, it was apparent that there little display of remorse, which made the interviews even more chilling.

To help counter the decimation of the survivor population and fearing that the world population will soon forget the lessons of the Holocaust, the museum has initiated a teacher’s training program to prepare teachers how to teach correctly and truthfully the story of the Holocaust to students in high schools around the country.  In this manner they hope to help combat hate and bigotry. “We call attention to the atrocities in the world and teach students the lessons of the Holocaust.”

Miller was introduced by the Western Regional director of the Washington museum, Michael Sarid, who provided a few statistics to acquaint his audience with the huge store of information the museum offers to visitors and researchers, including the largest archives on the Holocaust in the United States and the astounding fact that this 18-year-old museum is the most popular museum in the nation’s capital with over two million visitors a year.  To date, there have been over 30 million visitors.  The museum gets Federal support, which guarantees its permanent presence on the National Mall in Washington.

The lecture was presented by the museum in partnership with the Jewish Studies Program at CSULB.

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A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was created to inspire leaders and citizens to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. Federal support guarantees the Museum’s permanence, and donors nationwide make possible its educational activities and global outreach. For more information, visit www.ushmm.org.

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