Since 2005, by United Nations decree, Jan. 27 has been designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the date in 1945 when troops from the Soviet 60th Army liberated Auschwitz. Today, what might be the lessons of Auschwitz for the United States, which remains crippled by the pandemic and is grappling with the effects of divisive politics, including the deadly Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol? The earliest, largely unknown Soviet reports of the camp’s liberation offer some answers.
Recently declassified war diaries of the units that liberated Auschwitz tell us an important but long-hidden story. Hurriedly written, the Russian cursive is often barely legible and the descriptions are short and dry. The Soviet officers and clerks who produced the reports did not — indeed, could not — realize the significance of what they had accomplished. Yet universal lessons do emerge from these pages. The main one is that it takes ordinary people to commit evil acts, but also to defeat evil.
The liberation of Auschwitz was a bloody undertaking. “The adversary offers determined resistance. … The 3rd Battalion is engaged in combat for the barracks,” notes the war diary of the 1085 Rifle Regiment that liberated the main camp, Auschwitz I. Hundreds of German military and police servicemen were killed and wounded defending Auschwitz and the surrounding area. Many, if not most, of them certainly knew what was behind the barbed wire they so fiercely protected. Did they kill and die because they were driven by racial hatred or a murderous ideology? Likely not. We now know that the perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity from the Holocaust to Rwanda were surprisingly ordinary people from different backgrounds and walks of life.
It takes ordinary people to commit evil acts and it takes ordinary people, such as those German soldiers who fought in Auschwitz, to perpetuate this evil.
In the aftermath of this month’s Capitol breach, many Americans were flabbergasted by the wide range of participants in the crowd, from firefighters to real estate agents to retired military officers, men and women, young and old, the well-educated and blue-collar workers. For most involved, this likely was their first brush with violent politics. They are ordinary Americans. The storming of the Capitol was not Auschwitz and the rioters are not Wehrmacht soldiers, but the broader point remains: It takes leaders to incite mass violence, but it requires ordinary people to commit it. Every society has people capable of political violence and the United States is no exception.
Ordinary people are also those who defeat evil. We don’t know who the first Soviet soldier to enter Auschwitz was, but we know some of those who gave their lives liberating it. A 46-year-old Jewish lieutenant colonel from Leningrad, a 26-year-old Russian peasant, а 23-year-old Ossetian and many others among them were simply “ordinary people” willing to defeat evil. As long as such people exist, all is not lost.
War diaries also describe the liberation of Auschwitz prisoners of multiple ethnicities and nationalities: Russians, Poles, Czechs, French, even American POWs. Not mentioned in these early reports are the Jews, who constituted the vast majority of the victims. The reason was not anti-Semitic prejudice. Rather, this was because the most vulnerable can be the least visible. Non-Jewish prisoners had more physical and mental energies to be seen and helped by the liberators. The Jews, on the other hand, were too emaciated and terrified to even believe that they were finally free. Only several days after the liberation would the extermination of the Jews appear in the reports for the first time.
Luckily, the United States of 2021 is far from experiencing the horrors of war and genocide. But when the American society confronts multiple crises — political, economic and social — we should remember this lesson from the past. The most vulnerable in our midst — the disabled, the elderly, children, minorities, undocumented immigrants and the poorest members of society — often are the least visible and thus unlikely to seek and receive help, even when the government wants to extend it. That rescue is on the way does not necessarily mean it will be sought or received. The government should make an extra effort to reach out to these vulnerable groups and not cease its outreach until all those who are eligible for assistance receive it.
The final lesson is that even the unimaginable is possible. We have yet to fully digest what it means to lose more than 400,000 Americans in a year to a virus. The Soviet liberators were genuinely shocked and bewildered by what they discovered in Auschwitz. The victims of the Nazis initially also could not comprehend what was in store for them. The horror was unimaginable, yet nonetheless very real. On a small patch of Polish land, the Holocaust eventually brought together Jews, Slavs, French, Ossetians and Americans.
When it comes to major world issues such as genocide, pandemics or the survival of democracy, being bystanders is not a viable option.
Eugene Finkel is an associate professor of international affairs at Jonhs Hopkins University and the author of “Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust.” Follow him on Twitter @eugene_finkel.