Examining locals Holocaust crimes

Historians at Yad Vashem conference focus on low-level perpetrators.

July 6, 2010 04:29
2 minute read.
Holocaust seminar

311_Holocaust conference. (photo credit: The International Institute for Holocaust Research)


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While previous generations of Holocaust researchers have focused on the Nazis’ strategic extermination of Europe’s minorities, at Yad Vashem’s summer seminar this week, a new generation of scholars from all over the world are discussing a bottom-up approach to answer the question of who killed the Jews.

The workshop, titled “The Persecution and Murder of the Jews: A Grassroots Perspective,” began Monday at Yad Vashem in the capital and will continue for a week. Participants will look at the involvement of local peoples throughout Europe – from the women perpetrators in the fields of Ukraine and Poland to the judges in France – in the killing of approximately 6 million Jews in less than four years.

“Hitler did not do it on his own,” Prof. Dan Michman, chief historian of Yad Vashem, said last week. “This was an enormous project that was done in a very short time. How could this happen? It was not just by giving an order.”

Although Holocaust experts have been “asking the big questions for years,” contemporary research suggests that strategy has proven insufficient. This year’s seminar is part of a larger trend in Holocaust research that started gaining traction during the late 1990s. Michman said he has seen more and more examples in the past three or four years.

“Within the general picture of Holocaust research, on the perpetrators aspect, the emphasis for many years was on higher echelons of the decision-making process, and there is a new wave of research – especially among younger historians – who say that it was carried out on the local level,” Michman said. “This subject has become a hot topic in Holocaust research in recent times.”

To tackle this issue of tremendous breadth, Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research has invited a team of global Holocaust historians.

“We tried choosing applicants from a wide array of different countries,” Michman said. “There are all kinds of kinds of fragments of persecutions, but a lot of marginal issues, when you put them together you see how important they are in order to have this whole issue materialize...We wanted a varied program about many countries.”

From Hungary to Australia, scholars will gather to build an information-sharing network that may help shed light on a darker side of Holocaust history.

By spreading the responsibility of the Holocaust to individuals all over Europe, this contemporary trend in research could have tremendous implications in refuting the conventional wisdom concerning one of the biggest scars on human history.

“A policy is not just an issue of top officials but of everyone who contributes to it,” Michman said. “So you can contribute to the good or contribute to the evil... in this case, the evil.”

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