ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets.

I am joined this week as usual by my colleague Martin Winstone from the Holocaust Educational Trust, who researched 70 Voices and who is also the author of The Dark Heart of Hitler’s Europe available now in hardcover in all fine bookstores. Martin, welcome.

So this week we examine the reactions of non-Jews to the Holocaust. Heinrich Himmler described the Holocaust as “an unwritten and never to be written page of glory.” Many of our listeners who are also following the online content of 70 Voices will remember this quotation from our section recently on perpetrators, yet it seems like some of the sources that we’ve seen this week in 70 Voices have suggested that knowledge of the Holocaust was in fact more widespread.

MARTIN WINSTONE: Absolutely. In a way, Himmler’s famous speech highlights the ambiguities of Nazi policy, because he talked about it being unwritten, never to be written, which obviously suggested the desire to keep it secret, and in certain senses the Nazis went to quite considerable lengths to do this. On the other hand, Himmler took great pride in what he felt had been achieved. And there is this sense of this which also comes out during the Holocaust that it was something that many people actually boasted about – and that is maybe a point that we can return to – and certainly much of the perpetration of the Holocaust, particularly in eastern Europe, took place in plain sight, it wasn’t hidden away. Most obviously, as we have seen with some of the readings this week, there were events such as the round-ups of Jewish communities for deportation which took place in towns and cities where people lived. This was a phenomenon across Europe. In western Europe, for example, very frequently when Jews were arrested they were obviously living in major cities and they were usually taken to quite central buildings before their deportations to a transit camp. So, for example, in Amsterdam Jews were held in a theatre in the centre of the city, in Prague in an exhibition hall. In a previous week, when we again looked at perpetrators, we saw how the Jews of Paris were held in a cycling stadium in the centre of the city.

In eastern Europe, that was even more acute. Quite often the round-ups were accompanied by mass shootings, as we have seen in the entries from Zygmunt Klukowski’s diary this week. In certain parts of eastern Europe, particularly in the occupied Soviet Union, these mass shootings sometimes even became public spectacles where locals, German soldiers who were on leave, and so on would actually come to watch. Certainly as far as Germany is concerned, a theme that historians have stressed increasingly in recent years is the idea of the Holocaust as an open secret: that actually, although people were not officially supposed to talk about it, they often did. We have seen this week train passengers talking about an extermination camp, there are very many letters home from German soldiers who were serving in the East who witnessed atrocities who would write about this to their families, and if they were writing about it in letters we can assume probably that even greater numbers were actually talking about it in person. And equally, we have also seen in the first source this week how even the extermination camps to some extent were visible, because by definition they had to be on railway lines and that inevitably meant that those railway lines were being used by other traffic as well. So we had a source relating to Bełżec extermination camp which was on a very significant railway route between two major Polish cities and many passengers couldn’t necessarily see into the camp but they were aware of its existence and there are similar sources for a number of other camps, notably Treblinka, as well. 

AM: I feel like you are really complicating my thinking, in a good way, on a number of different levels. One I feel like a term that is often thrown around is ‘bystanders’ and what you are highlighting is how the term ‘bystanders’ potentially encompasses a very, very broad range of different types of actions taken by a very broad range of different types of actors or people. I also can’t help but be struck by how much misunderstanding there is around the actions of non-Jews, who we sometimes call bystanders, in both directions. There are perceptions of certain groups of people who couldn’t possibly have known what was going on when in fact it is the opposite, and then other groups of people who are perceived as being rabidly antisemitic and revelling in being bystanders to what they saw when in fact they probably were unaware or certainly unfairly classified as bystanders. Coming from an educational background, how important do you think it is to set the record straight?

MW: Well, very important. I think you’re absolutely right that ‘bystanders’ is this catch-all term which tends to be applied to anyone who is not a victim or a perpetrator, and in reality there are so many gradations of this and, as you suggest, so many different ways in which people reacted. And it would be very comforting if we could just look at the Holocaust and say there is a relatively small, number of bad people who do bad things, other people for whatever reason are not involved. But, in reality, the Holocaust is much more complex than that, and only by engaging with those complexities can we really properly be able to understand it and to understand what it says about human behaviour as well. And I think that we tend to find that although there are many people who said later on “Well I knew nothing about it”, the evidence that exists tends to undermine those claims. And it’s not necessarily the case that people are bad people for, as it were, having stood by, but nonetheless their actions, or in some cases lack of action, could make a difference. They, on their own, could not have done anything to stop the Holocaust but at what might seem to be the margins of it, but margins that could mean life or death for individuals, their responses could be quite significant. So, for example, if somebody chose, say a farmer in eastern Europe, chose to shelter a Jew or chose not to they might have had very good reasons for choosing not too but nonetheless that choice contributed to the fate of the Jew who was seeking refuge. And I think that’s something that can be seen across the continent, because again an issue that we have to be very careful with here is this tendency to categorise not just groups of people in terms of ideology but also in terms of nationality. So there is sometimes a tendency to say “well certain nations were the goodies, others were the baddies”, and in reality in every nation we see the same complex range of very varying responses from different people.

AM: So some of the sources, that our listeners hopefully will have accessed in this week’s theme on the 70 Voices content online or on the app, seem to suggest that many people reacted in a negative way. So, to what extent was this true?

MW: I think obviously the reality was mixed. Probably most historians would tend to say that perhaps the most common reaction was indifference, although that in itself can cover a multitude of different responses. But certainly, there is a large amount of evidence of a minority of people, but nonetheless a fairly significant minority of people, who in various ways reacted in what we would see as negative forms. This could take a variety of, or involve a variety, of different actions, quite often economic exploitation of Jews. So, for example, where Jews were hiding, there were blackmailers who would not necessarily seek to denounce them but would threaten to denounce them in order to extort money. Equally, there are some people who hid Jews, which in itself was a very risky thing to do, particularly in Eastern Europe, but nonetheless did that for personal profit. After Jewish communities had been destroyed, very often local people would go and take the possessions of the now probably murdered Jews. 

So there is that dimension of it, in other cases much more directly contributing to their ultimate fate. There were people who denounced Jews who were in hiding, sometimes because there were rewards that were offered, sometimes maybe because of antisemitism or malice. There were people, ordinary people, who took part in the hunt for Jews, particularly in eastern Europe – again, where most of the murders were taking place. When people escaped from camps or ghettos and tried to hide in the countryside or in forests, there were local people who would either assist the Germans, the German police, as they searched for the Jews, or actually go on their own initiative and look for them. And there are sadly quite a significant number of cases recorded of supposedly ordinary people actually participating in the murder of Jews, particularly in rural areas of Europe, sometimes, fairly frequently it would seem, where the Germans weren’t even involved. And there may be all sort of dimensions involved there, but I think what particularly tends to come out there is in the countryside where Jews hiding maybe with one particular farmer, their neighbours would discover or believe that there was a fugitive Jew there and they would take it upon themselves to hunt down the Jew.

AM: And what is your sense about why these negative actions tended to take place? Was it antisemitism or something else?

MW: I think there is certainly a strong degree of antisemitism; for many people, I am sure it contributed. At the same time, though, it is probably only one of many factors. The majority of cases of this sort, where maybe Jews were in hiding and they were denounced or they were hunted down, these were people who probably lived in this community before the war or in neighbouring communities – quite often we find people who were being murdered or denounced by their neighbours, by former classmates, former friends, it would seem. And although there may have been an undercurrent of antisemitism there before the war, it’s hard to see that as the sole factor that was involved. I think that there are other things that come into it. As I say, the Germans offered rewards to people who handed over Jews; they also punished those who sheltered them – in Poland particularly, this carried the death penalty. So that was undoubtedly a factor. Or sometimes, there is fairly clear evidence, in some of those cases where maybe other villagers would denounce a Jew who was hiding with an individual farmer, there is the sense that this farmer was putting the community in danger because if the Nazis discovered that there was a hidden Jew then they might take reprisals against the whole community.

There is also the sense, I think, that in the Second World War, in many countries, the nature of the occupation and the cheapness of human life did mean that moral inhibitions were released and people did things they might not have done in other circumstances. One of the sources this week, Zygmunt Klukowski, a Polish doctor, wrote this diary which is an astonishing source for ordinary life during the Second World War in Poland, and he records quite extensively the actions which local people took against Jews but also against non-Jews as well. I mean he even gives an example in his diary of a farmer who denounced his own brother to the Gestapo because his brother was a member of the Polish underground, so there is that loosening of maybe community ties and, as I say, of moral inhibitions.

But I think increasingly, as well, many historians are emphasising as a significant factor what might be seen as material reasons, economic reasons. So some of the behaviours I have highlighted like blackmail or plunder seem to have been fairly widespread. Even with the extermination camps we find this. This is fairly unpleasant material to talk about. I mentioned earlier that Treblinka was fairly widely known because it was by a railway line, it was visible. And, in fact, so widely known did It become, that not only local villagers but it seems even some people from as far away as Warsaw would come to the area around the camp, because we've seen in previous discussions that the murder of the Jews also involved the theft of their possessions. And in a camp like Treblinka, where more than 700,000 people were murdered in less than a year, in less than six months in fact, there was a huge amount of property going through this camp, much of which was falling into the hands of the guards there. So people would descend on the neighbouring villages and trade with the guards to get their hands on watches or diamond rings or whatever it happened to be, often very mundane articles. And so that sense of being able to profit from others’ misfortune, I think, unfortunately did play a significant role. And there is even a sense that comes out of some sources and research which has been carried out particularly in Poland in the last ten years – and I should say this is not a judgement on Poland, because it’s actually in some ways to the country’s credit that historians there are openly discussing these issues in a way that perhaps has not happened in many other countries – but in Poland it often seems like there was a sense that once the Jews had been deported what had been their property was now common property, it belonged to the community, and almost a sense it was the individual’s patriotic duty to take the property of the Jews, because otherwise it would go the Germans. And so you were actually helping your country by taking the possessions of murdered people, which is a pretty upsetting way to look at the world but that does seem to have been quite common.

AM: That’s fascinating. Of course, there were other people who did act differently, in more positive ways as well.

MW: Absolutely. And, as it were, in the second half of this week we’ve been looking at those examples. There were people, only a minority of people, but people from all countries, from all walks of life, who acted to help or to rescue Jews. Often this was at great personal risk: as I’ve already mentioned, in Poland this carried the death penalty; even if that was not the case in other countries, there was a very strong chance that it would lead to imprisonment. And so the people who rescued Jews were remarkable and, as I say, a very diverse group of people. In some cases, we had organised groups, so two of the sources this week have highlighted examples of that: Żegota in Poland, which was an arm of the Polish underground state which organised the largest rescue operation of Jews, and then also in Denmark where the Danish resistance facilitated the escape of Jews to Sweden. But equally – more often in fact – most rescuers of Jews were individuals. Sometimes they were people with a long history of engagement in public service or in charitable activities; quite often, just people whose prior lives had given no hints that they were going to turn out to be heroes as it were.

AM: So, if we were trying to get at the issue of what was it that motivated people’s negative actions, I suppose we have to ask what is it that motivates the more positive side as well. You mention that sometimes it’s plain to see and sometimes it’s not; is it religious conviction?

MW: For some people undoubtedly it was, or they felt that it was. And there have been many people – historians, sociologists, psychologists – who’ve tried to address this issue and religion is sometimes suggested as a factor, and when one looks at profiles of rescuers many of them indeed did have a strong faith. At the same time if that were the prime motivation, frankly, one would expect rather more people to have been rescuers – there were equally people with deep religious faith who were perpetrators of the Holocaust. So, certainly that comes into play for some, or other pre-existing world views may well be a factor. In the case of Denmark, which is in some ways the most remarkable act of rescue, almost a national effort in October of 1943 – although again we do not want to say that every Dane was a rescuer because they were equally people in Denmark who did inform to the Gestapo – but in Denmark there was the sense that Jews were just Danes who had a different faith, and that was fairly unusual in most European countries, where perhaps elsewhere there was more of a sense of pre-war antisemitism. But one of the examples we have looked at this week, and one of the reasons why this example was chosen, that of Zofia Kossak – an antisemite who initiated the largest rescue operation of Jews during the Holocaust – shows that pre-war ideologies was not necessarily a decisive factor. In Kossak’s case, even as she was denouncing the murder of the Jews, she still used antisemitic language, she talked about the Jews still being the enemies of Poland, but at the same time talked about it being the duty of Poles as Poles and as Catholics to come to the aid of their fellow human beings.

And other possible explanations have been suggested. It’s sometimes been said that rescuers were often quite marginal figures in their communities and there are examples like this. The final text of the week which relates to a man called Anton Sukhinski who was a bit of an eccentric and loner within his community who helped to save the lives of four Jews; he might fit that pattern but equally someone like Zofia Kossak was a well-known public figure in Poland, a very prominent figure. Sometimes we find people with a history of risk taking. Quite a well-known example of a rescuer, thanks to the film In Darkness, is another Pole called Leopold Socha who lived in the city of Lwόw, who was a sewer worker and a former petty criminal and he sheltered Jews in the sewers of the city. And the fact that he was a former petty criminal [means he] might be seen as someone who was more inclined to take risks. And in that context, it is also worth saying that for many rescuers this was an instant decision they had to take: someone might approach them – it may be somebody they knew, quite often it would not be – and they had to decide instantly did they offer shelter to this person. So, it may be that there are certain things in people’s personalities which give hints that they would do this but, equally, many survivors write about people who they expected would assist them, the obvious people that they would come to, and the first person whose door they would knock on would often turn them away, and it would often be people that they never knew or they knew barely, or sometimes even who had been hostile to them before, who would actually offer them that shelter.

And I think what that shows, really, is that ultimately none of us today can say how we would have reacted in these situations. The Holocaust, as I suggested earlier, does tell us a lot about the complexities of human behaviour and in a way that just makes it all the more important to appreciate and to honour the efforts of those people who did take these enormous risks to help the Jews; at the same time, also recognising that they were very much a minority and, perhaps more frequently, the human behaviours that we see during the Holocaust are perhaps not quite so encouraging.

AM: I am so glad you made that point about none of us being able to really know how we would act in those situations. Coming again from the educational perspective, I suppose, it’s a pitfall which is asking students what seems like a logical and well intentioned question, which is what would you do in this situation. And, really, what I think that this episode of the podcast has highlighted, and this whole week on the 70 Voices project has highlighted, is this really complex web of different factors that contributed and how, I suppose, futile it is for us to try and consider. But again, I say this commonly in our podcasts, that’s really the whole point of the 70 Voices project, just really complicating our thinking and, as I say, a good way of really challenging us, provoking us to think about some of the complexities that are part of this period in history.

So Martin, I want to thank you for all that you have done to pull together these sources, for sharing your thoughts again on the podcast. And to our listeners, once again, you can follow us on Twitter, @HolocaustUK, and we do welcome all of your feedback and comments and do join in the conversation online and we will be back next week with another edition of the 70 Voices podcast.


Read more by Martin Winstone: