At first look, the black-and-white photograph seems sweet and innocent. The image was taken in 1929 in Bremen, Germany. Nine neighborhood boys stand together. They are smiling as they look at the camera.
But, the photograph is the start of a dark story that is part of a new exhibit. The show, called “Some Were Neighbors,” is at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Many years after that photograph was taken, and after the end of World War II, one of the men in that old photo put it in the mail. He sent it and a letter to another man in the photo, seen standing with a bicycle. The man with a bicycle was Jewish. During World War II, Nazis murdered his mother. Later, he became a rabbi.
In the letter, the other man explained that he had worked as a Nazi guard at Germany’s Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. But, he wrote, he “never touched a Jew.”
The rabbi wrote back to the sender of the letter.
He said, “What I wanted to hear...was how he felt about his job. Did he think that killing Jews was the proper thing to do?”
He never got an answer.
The questions the rabbi asked the guard are central to the “Some Were Neighbors” exhibit. Millions of ordinary people saw the crimes of the Holocaust. They saw the crimes take place in city squares, in stores and schools, in the countryside and other places. The Nazis found people all across Europe who willing to take part in their crimes.
“Some Were Neighbors” explores what moves people to behave certain ways in difficult situations. The exhibit challenges viewers to understand a dark period of history. It also examines the importance of social responsibility.
Zsuzsanna Kozák runs the Visual World Foundation in Budapest, Hungary. The non-profit organization works to support peace through video and media literacy. Last year, Kozák and other educators gathered at the U.S. museum for an international conference on Holocaust education.
The museum organized the conference with UNESCO. The conference brought together teams from 10 countries that have limited educational material on the Holocaust and other genocides. Those countries were Hungary, India, Lithuania, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, South Korea, Rwanda and Turkey.
Each country’s team left with a project plan. Kozák and the team from Hungary used the “Some Were Neighbors” exhibit to create a traveling student art project. The project centered on the Holocaust. But, it aims to create a discussion about current tensions in their country, including a large new border fence that blocked migrants from entering Hungary.
The anti-discrimination project is called “Your Decision.” Kozák’s team worked with educators from six Hungarian schools. The students were from the very young to college age. The students explored ideas of tolerance – or accepting difference.
Each group studied pieces of the “Some Were Neighbors” exhibit, such as a film clip of a Holocaust-era public shaming, or the Bremen neighborhood boys’ photo. Each group was asked to make art communicating the ideas they had studied.
The students’ works were displayed at an exhibit last week in Budapest at the Canadian embassy.
Teenagers from a Jewish school in Budapest made a three-dimensional copy of the Bremen neighborhood boys’ photograph. They separated the man who received the letter and another boy from the rest of the group.
Zsuzsanna Kozák was born in 1974. She recalled not learning much about World War II history in school. “There is such a cultural silence,” she said.
Peter Fredlake directs the Holocaust museum’s teacher education program. He said the “Some Were Neighbors” exhibit tries to change people’s understanding of what the Holocaust was.
The Hungarian student art project, he said, “pushes back against the Holocaust narrative Hungarians hear today, one that ignores personal responsibility and claims victimhood.”
Fredlake said that since the international conference, the other nine countries’ teams have also been exploring new ways for talking about genocide.
The Hungarian students’ art project will be on display at the six participating schools starting in May. It will then move on to sites like the International Jewish Youth Camp in Hungary and to a gallery in Austria.
Kozák said she hopes the art project will be seen in many places, for many years, because intolerance “is a universal challenge.”
I'm Ashley Thompson.
Carol Guensburg reported this story for VOA News. Ashley Thompson adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
rabbi - n. a person who is trained to make decisions about what is lawful in Judaism
proper - adj. correct according to social or moral rules
ordinary - adj. not unusual, different, or special
challenge - v. to test the ability, skill, or strength of (someone or something)
literacy - n. knowledge that relates to a specified subject
tolerance - n. willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own
narrative - n. a story that is told or written
genocide - n. the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group
gallery - n. a room or building in which people look at paintings, sculptures, etc.