Victims and Perpetrators
Understanding the Holocaust
To understand how the Holocaust happened and to grasp its repercussions, the voices of its victims and perpetrators need to be heard. Their testimony deepens awareness of the Holocaust's destruction, challenges assumptions about human nature, and requires us to reflect on ethical questions about right and wrong, good and evil.
The testimonies of victims—those who died and those who survived—provide the most effective way to humanize the Holocaust. In words that are written or spoken, and sometimes in the gaps and silences that surround them, the victims' voices reveal how the Holocaust affected individuals one by one. The listener or the reader needs to respect the particularity of each victim's experience.
Disturbing though the perpetrators' testimonies may be, partly because their words frequently are problematic, self-serving defense mechanisms, those statements are also crucial sources.
In many cases, such openness may question our assumptions about how people ought to respond to disaster, and it may require the listener or reader to see that the testimony of Holocaust survivors does not fulfill our hopes for happy endings to tragic events. Although the Holocaust was stopped with the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, it left a legacy of immense pain and loss for the survivors. Unless we allow that testimony to sink in, we will miss what the survivors are saying. Sad as they are, accounts by victims also leave readers and listeners amazed at the determination and courage people showed as they struggled to survive in desperate circumstances.
By contrast, when the perpetrators rarely break the silence and anonymity that they prefer, their words usually produce the opposite effect: the reader or listener is appalled by the perpetrators' lack of remorse and disquieted by the all-too-familiar human weaknesses that the perpetrators display. Disturbing though the perpetrators' testimonies may be, partly because their words frequently are problematic, self-serving defense mechanisms, those statements are also crucial sources. They open a window into the perpetrators' thinking, both at the time those people participated in genocide and afterward, as they tried to find ways to rationalize their actions so that they could move on with their lives.