BOSTON — With new access to archives and other primary sources, historians are supplanting archetypal images of Aryan Nazi men as the Holocaust’s sole perpetrators. Previously obscured perpetrator “sub-groups” are being exposed one portrait at a time, ranging from women who guarded death camps to Dutch bounty hunters of Jews in hiding.
And as researchers uncover an array of Europeans involved in the murder of Jews and other groups during Hitler’s rule, perpetrators’ motivations are being individually examined.
Digging in 70-year-old files and knocking door-to-door for witnesses, scholars are honing the relatively new “Holocaust as local history” method. The trend departs from a generalized “Holocaust as universal history” approach by focusing on interactions between “ordinary” victims and perpetrators — zooming way in on the action, as it were, and exploring a site’s history before and after the war.
Unsurprisingly, some of these investigations are ruffling feathers.
In Sarah Helm’s 2015 book, “Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women,” the historian biographized the camp itself, where 132,000 women and children were imprisoned. Poring through post-war trial transcripts and archives opened after the Soviet Union’s fall, Helm shed light on Ravensbruck’s lesser known function as an SS training camp for women to become concentration camp guards.
“The overwhelming majority of these female guards were easily able to get back into the social fabric of postwar zones of occupation, as they were not usually viewed with the same disdain that men in the SS were viewed with,” said Daniel Patrick Brown, author of studies on the involvement of women in the all-male SS, including their training at Ravensbruck.
“It helped, of course, that the women did not have the ‘tell-tale’ blood tattoo that every SS-man had,” added Brown in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Just as Anne Frank became a convenient, catch-all symbol of Jewish victims, one particularly gruesome guard — Irma Grese, nicknamed “the blond beast of Birkenau and Belsen” — came to embody female perpetrators at large. The 2013 publication of Wendy Lower’s book, “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields,” helped expand understanding of women’s roles beyond the Grese stereotype.
According to Lower, half a million “ordinary women” from Germany’s “lost generation” — including teachers, nurses, and secretaries — worked near sites of genocide, as both assistants and even executioners.
“Nearly all histories of the Holocaust leave out half of those who populated that society, as if women’s history happens somewhere else,” wrote Lower in her introduction.
“The dramatic stories of these women reveal the darkest side of female activism,” she said. “They show what can happen when women of varied backgrounds and professions are mobilized for war and acquiesce in genocide.”
An expert on the Holocaust in Ukraine, Lower has documented war-era atrocities throughout Europe. By investigating farther east than Soviet-era scholars were able to operate, and by widening the circle of perpetrators to include collaborators and bystanders, her work encapsulates current trends in Shoah studies.
Focusing researchers’ lenses
“The picture is rather clear now” of Dutch citizens who served as bounty hunters during the war, said Dutch journalist and historian Ad van Liempt.
After exhuming police records and other documents tied to the deportation of Dutch Jewry, van Liempt estimated that 15,000 Jews were captured in hiding by reward-driven Nazi collaborators. His 2012 book, “Jew Hunt,” exposed files on 250 Dutch police officers who organized units to locate and arrest Jews in hiding.
“Every large town in the Netherlands had such units,” van Liempt told The Times of Israel in an interview.
Though it is likely there were far more than 250 police officers who participated in anti-Nazi resistance activities, “the 250 who collaborated in this brutal way did much more harm to the reputation of the Dutch police than any other group in history,” said van Liempt.
During two decades of pursuing bounty hunters, the historian said he occasionally incurred the wrath of people who accused him of “being too critical.”
“But facts from the [police] files cannot be discussed or denied,” said van Liempt, who was born four years after the war.
Unexpected perpetrators and unlikely descendants
As researchers look east, some are studying the role of Muslims recruited to the Waffen-SS in Yugoslavia. Up to 42,000 Muslim SS members and police troops were recruited by the Nazis, and thousands of them participated in the slaughter of Jews and Orthodox Christians in Bosnia and Serbia, respectively.
For decades, Muslims’ involvement in the Holocaust has been told in trope by a 1941 photo showing Hitler meeting with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem. Less remembered is that actual Muslim SS divisions, recruited in part by al-Husseini, were key perpetrators of the Holocaust in Bosnia. Muslim units also participated in the murder of Jews in Greece and Russia.
According to “IBM and the Holocaust” author Edwin Black, the slaughter inflicted by Muslim SS men in Eastern Europe was exceptional, even by Nazi standards, and involved a surprising collaboration.
“The Ustasha of Yugoslavia [was] a Muslim-Catholic alliance of Nazi killers so gruesome and beastly that even Berlin shrank in horror at the slaughter,” wrote Black in his 2010 book, “The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance During the Holocaust.”
“This berserk army of ghastly murderers, the Ustasha, and three related crack divisions of Arab-Nazi Waffen SS comprised of tens of thousands of Muslim volunteers, terrorized people of all faiths in Yugoslavia,” wrote Black. Among the camps staffed by Muslim SS men was Jasenovac, cited by survivors for unparalleled displays of brutality.
Religious motivations aside, a fresh source of information on perpetrators is coming from an unexpected source: their grandchildren.
The third-generation truth-seekers are a diverse bunch, including a black German woman who discovered that her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the pitiless Nazi commander made famous by the film “Schindler’s List.”
In her 2015 book, “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past,” Jennifer Teege focused as much on her notorious grandfather as she did her grandmother, Goeth’s wartime lover. Throughout her life, Teege’s grandmother — Ruth Irene Kalder — denied that Goeth committed atrocities, attempting to hide his actions from her daughter and granddaughter.
After stumbling upon the truth by accident in a Hamburg library, Teege, whose father is Nigerian, uncovered her grandmother’s role as both a bystander and denier. She visited Plaszow concentration camp and Krakow, where Goeth brutally liquidated the Jewish ghetto.
“I want to see where my grandfather committed his murders,” wrote Teege of her plan to visit Poland. “I want to get close to him — and then put some distance between him and me,” said the biracial granddaughter of an SS monster.
Archives and archeology as witnesses
In a few years, there will be no survivors or perpetrators alive to testify. To prepare for that day, researchers are digging deeper than ever into all kinds of archives, as well as literally digging at sites of mass murder for artifacts to bear witness in the future.
According to scholars, the role of Holocaust bystanders is an emerging priority. During three generations of collecting victims’ accounts and bringing perpetrators to justice, these involuntary witnesses received scant attention. When teaching the Shoah to young adults, some curricula — like “Facing History and Ourselves” — ask students to envision themselves as bystanders, emphasizing that group’s role in enabling genocide.
As intoned by the late Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor from Italy, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
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- Adolf Hitler
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- Schindler’s List
- Nazi collaborators
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