by Anuj Apte, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Visiting ‘Auschwitz, Not long ago Not for away’ was an eye opening experience, in the truest sense of the term. The curator of the exhibit made a radical choice by devoting almost a third of the exhibit to the years leading up to the Holocaust. I wholeheartedly agree with this choice and the vision of educating the populace about the causes is an admirable one. I am sure that this decision will be controversial, especially since the marketing of the exhibit sets up hopes for a narrow focus on Auschwitz and the artifacts recovered therein. This particular decision views history not as an ossified record of what happened, but as an intermediate step in a continuous evolution that has brought us here today. How and why did Anti-semitism start in Weimar Germany, how was propaganda exploited to spread Nazism amongst common-folk, are questions addressed quite successfully in this exhibit.
One of the fascinating things about the Holocaust was the fact that Jews made up only 2 percent of German population at its start. Hitler was able to chalk up many harmful acts to this tiny slice of population and convince others that they were in fact a source of many troubles plaguing Germany at that point. After going through the entire exhibit, I was quite saddened by the atrocities committed by the Nazi administration; but even more so, by the silence of the bystanders. Seeing the artifacts, the legacy of the horror witnessed by the prisoners in Auschwitz sent chills down my spine. The electric barbed wire signifying no escape, whips and other devices for torture and finally the gas pellets which were the instruments of death, are objects that have been pressed permanently onto my memory.
The remark of our tour guide about present day genocides brings me to the title of this write up. The fact that genocides have been recurring part of human history since 150 BC and continue to this day, makes me feel like hatred towards others and use of violence for achieving extermination of the outgroup are features of humankind that are quite difficult to get rid of. When walking through the exhibit it is easy to imagine oneself as one of the many heroes who helped the jews and sheltered them at great personal cost. However, if we go by what was actually observed at that time, the overwhelming majority of us would be bystanders, going on with our lives while evil acts happen around us. Content with our impotency, we would have done or said nothing.
It is scary to think that an average German during the Holocaust is not too different from an average citizen today, susceptible to the same rhetoric. As technology has afforded us with ever more powerful killing machines, our ethics have not caught up to the power we wield. Although it is a miserable conclusion to draw, perhaps out propensity for violence and aggression towards others is an essential part of the human self. What else can explain the evil acts committed by the Nazis and countless other people before and since then. We must come to terms with evil that is inside us and learn how to contain it, for the sake of all of humanity. I expect that lessons learned from the Holocaust will help in stopping ethnic cleansing and violence towards minorities. Looking towards the future, I sincerely hope that peaceful coexistence becomes a reality in every part of the world.