Aleisa Fishman, Klaus Mueller and Wolfgang Schmutz, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The seeds for this project began in 2013, when the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) opened a new special exhibit in Washington, DC, called Some Were Neighbors. Rooted in the concept that Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders did not perpetrate the Holocaust alone, Some Were Neighbors uses case studies from Nazi Germany and across occupied Europe to show that ordinary people contributed to those events, making a wide range of choices and with a myriad of motivations. These influences often reflected antisemitism, career concerns, community standing, peer pressure, or chances for material gain. It also looks at individuals who did not give in to the opportunities and temptations to betray their fellow human beings, reminding us that there are alternatives to conformity, complicity, and collaboration even under the most despotic regimes.The purpose of the exhibition was to disrupt the simple explanation and encourage visitors to more deeply consider the behaviors of ordinary people.
In 2017, a group of German NGOs working on antisemitism and other discriminatory issues — visiting the Museum for a week-long workshop — saw the exhibition and remarked that the question-driven structure of the exhibition would allow them to engage audiences in new ways. They inquired about the possibility of showing the exhibition in Germany. Their strong interest dovetailed with the Museum’s goal of developing a resource that broke down common Holocaust narratives, which often tend toward over-simplistic explanations of this complex past, and that could be used easily by a wide variety of organizations in their educational programming to have conversations about those issues with their audiences. This led to the creation of a 22-panel version, including three short videos, that could be shown outside of the United States.
Some Were Neighbors: Choice, Human Behavior & the Holocaust launched at the German Bundestag in January 2019 for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As the themes of the exhibition are relevant far beyond Germany, it was also presented at the United Nations headquarters for International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2020, and has been shown in some two dozen countries through the UN’s global network of information centers. Since January 2022, the exhibit has been shown across Poland.
So far, we have worked with more than 40 venues in 10 German states.
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
The exhibition aroused the interest of many different partners across Germany, who joined the Museum in its effort not only to show it, but to develop educational programming for local students. Our partners liked that the exhibitiondid not look at big events, but focused on individual, personal lives. The concept of “neighbors” was understandable and resonated for everyone. The title Some Were Neighbors narrowed the focus to highlight neighborhoods and how neighbors reacted during National Socialism, thereby bringing the history closer to home, surfacing difficult questions, and prompting discussion.
The Museum sought out a diverse set of partners to learn how different audiences would approach the exhibit and to jointly develop an educational model that would resonate locally. We wanted to explore whether there were different responses to the material or interest in different materials from audiences in urban or rural settings, in the east or the west of the country, if the display/discussion location had impact, and the size of the partner institution made a difference. So far, we have worked with more than 40 venues in 10 German states. Our partners included the Villa ten Hompel in Münster, who arranged to bring the program to more than 20 museums, memorials, and archives in North Rhine-Westphalia. Miteinander – Netzwerk für Demokratie und Weltoffenheit scheduled displays in Saxony-Anhalt at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, at the Gardelegen Library, and at the state parliament in Magdeburg. The German Cities Association connected us to city halls across the country; the exhibit was displayed at national memorials, including the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial, the House of the Wannsee Conference, and the Prora Memorial; and the headquarters of the German police in Wiesbaden displayed it on their campus. German Ambassador to the U.S. Emily Haber introduced us to the head of the Conference of State Ministers of Education and Culture (KMK), who connected us to the Osthofen Concentration Camp Memorial in Rhineland-Palatinate. The Museum’s long-standing relationship with the German Hygiene Museum Dresden brought us to Saxony, just to name a few.
The strong positive response and geographical spread of the presentation of the exhibition was greatly facilitated by endorsements from the Bundestag and the German Cities Association, as well as minister presidents, ministries of education, and antisemitism commissioners in several German states.