There is a gap in American understanding of the Holocaust, and the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation is bringing in a speaker to help fill that.
Americans’ view of the Holocaust is shaped by the stories told by Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel, and through photographs and stories that came from American soldiers who liberated concentration camps. Education here often overlooks what happened in Eastern Europe, where German soldiers went into towns and villages, rounded up Jewish residents, and shot them.
This “Holocaust by bullets” is something many Americans haven’t heard about, said Dr. Waitman Wade Beorn, and it is an important thing to understand.
Beorn is the first speaker to come as part of the Sidney and Nina Widell Memorial Lecture in Holocaust Education series. He will be giving an all-day workshop for educators, followed by a public talk.
HERC Executive Director Shay Pilnik said Beorn’s work “shows the extent to which the ordinary soldiers were complicit, but also came up with a fascinating methodology of documenting – proving, essentially – the involvement of ordinary soldiers in the killing.”
Pilnik said Beorn’s work helps to dispel the belief that ordinary German citizens did not know what was happening, disproving the claim that the murder of nearly 12 million people “happened behind closed doors.”
The work of Beorn and others like him, Pilnik said, is changing that.
“There were thousands, maybe dozens of thousands of soldiers who did it, who had comrades who did it, who had access to information about people involved with the killings, and that knowledge of that certainly trickled back to ordinary Germans who were not involved in any way, shape or form,” Pilnik said.
Like Beorn, Pilnik said the American understanding of the Holocaust is built so much on the experience in Western Europe and with concentration camps.
Half the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Pilnik said, were murdered in the Soviet Union by shooting.
That’s what Beorn’s talk explores.
“The Holocaust in Eastern Europe is a profoundly more personal affair for everyone involved,” Beorn said. “Many were shot or murdered in and around the towns they lived in, with their neighbors watching. Non-Jewish neighbors were witnessing, plundering homes or collaborating.”
Beorn said the Holocaust by bullets was “close range and person-to-person.”
“Given that we know 99 percent of (German soldiers) were not sociopaths, they had the ability to empathize,” Beorn said. “To perform those tasks, day in and day out – the murder of men, women and children – produced PTSD.”
That realization – and the expense of the operation – led to the decision to move forward with gas chambers, Beorn said.
“The killers recognized the work is psychologically destroying the killers,” he said. “It was easier to bring Jews to the killers rather than the other way around.”
In his work, beyond the atrocities, Beorn has pointed out examples of Germans who did not participate.
There are cases where a Nazi guard became friends with a Jew under his command, he said. Oscar Schindler was set to profit by Jews being forced to give up their businesses, but meeting them changed him completely.
“It’s hard to see from the national level,” Beorn said. “They are important things to look at, but the examples that stick most often are the personal ones.”
That is where understanding comes from, he said.
“You can only learn by looking at individual cases and individual human beings,” Beorn said.
Some members of the German Army – and Beorn included examples in his book – refused to participate in the Holocaust by bullets, stopped participating or who rescued Jews.
“This is not to exculpate the Army or because it was statistically significant, but it is vitally important as object lessons for the rest of us,” he said. “These are German soldiers in a Draconian disciplined organization who had the space to choose not to participate and did so. If they can do that, the arguments that no one helped or that no one could help are proven faulty. It does matter to Jews who were helped.”
This is a topic that is still relevant, he said, “How to make ethical choices in the face of an organization or state that is directing us to behave differently.”
“The Holocaust and other genocides remind us we’re not as good as we think we are. We all have the opportunity to be victims, perpetrators or collaborators. We can say honestly we would hope we’d be the person who stood up, but we can’t prove that until we’re put in that position.”
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How to go
Speaker: The Wehrmacht’s Role
3 p.m. Sunday, March 26
Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee
Free and open to the public.
RSVP to Brittany Hager McNeely at BrittanyH@MilwaukeeJewish.org or 414-963-2714.
Waitman Beorn, the first speaker brought to Milwaukee as a Sidney and Nina Widell Annual Memorial Lecture, is to present a public lecture on what the complicity of the German Army in the Holocaust looked like on the ground. He looks beyond vague concepts like “complicity” to explore the ways in which ordinary German soldiers participated in the Nazi genocidal project in the East.