Seeing Auschwitz: the Roles of Ordinary People in an Unfolding Genocide   

24 Jan, 2023 | Education, Genocide, Latest

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Trigger Warning- this Seeing Auschwitz opinion piece contains images of genocide, which some readers may find uncomfortable viewing. 

Seeing Auschwitz entry image of ordinary people during the Holocaust
Image: from the Seeing Auschwitz exhibition

In the lead-up to Holocaust Memorial Day, with the theme for this year being ‘ordinary people’, I attended the Seeing Auschwitz exhibition created by Musealia together with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. I had certain ideas of how the exhibition would resonate with me. Firstly due to being Polish, having had relatives perish, and survive Auschwitz, along with working at René Cassin, an organisation that promotes the narrative of ‘human rights as a legacy of the Holocaust’. With these pre-existing ideas of how stories of ‘ordinary people’ would be represented, I was pleased that this exhibition lived up to these expectations. 

The narrative of the Holocaust contains so many parameters of knowledge, information and statistics that no exhibition could cover the full-scale reality of the horrific events. Seeing Auschwitz encourages us to see the events of the Holocaust through many different groups, including the Nazi, victim, onlooker and future generational perspectives through the images that remind us of the genocide. 

Though there were many concentration camps set up by the Germans, the exhibition took the viewer on an audio-guided journey of the images capturing experiences of those sent to Auschwitz, the largest of the extermination center for the ‘final solution’ and murder of Jews and other ‘enemy populations’.

My Family Story & the Banality of Evil

Victims of the Holocaust, ‘ordinary people’, were denied their basic human rights and freedoms based on religion, nationality, race or the people they stood up for. Other ‘ordinary people’ were the perpetrators – the guards and the soldiers who enforced Nazi rules.  

Philosopher and Holocaust survivor, Hannah Arendt, famously questioned whether evil could be carried out with no intention of its being evil, or not being aware of an evil act being committed, in the ‘banality of evil’. In the context of the Holocaust, such detachment from reality could apply to politicians, and railway workers authorizing and transporting individuals to their death or doctors carrying out selections. Those who carried out these mundane tasks were cogs in a machine inflicting extraordinary harm. It is vital to think about how and why they were able to participate in such cruelty. 

The fear of Auschwitz was not unique to the experiences of victims in the camp itself, but also on the streets of Nazi-occupied Poland. I remember my grandfather’s expression of the terror of people being rounded up, tortured by the Gestapo and killed if disobeying Nazi regulations.

One specific event that is ingrained in my mind is my grandfather’s experience of collecting coal, as a seven-year-old boy, that had fallen from the train on the tracks. A volksdeutsche (a person who had German origins but did not hold German citizenship) started shooting at him and his friends. This is especially difficult as when my grandfather informed his father of the events. His father threatened the volksdeutsche to never shoot at the kids again, a risk that ultimately sent him to Stutthof concentration camp, where he was murdered.  

Parents couldn’t even protect their own children in the context of atrocities on such an extreme scale. The example of people such as the volksdeutsche thoughtlessly reporting individuals for protecting the vulnerable shows a distancing between one’s character, the desire to be rewarded for their loyalty to the Third Reich and the morally right thing to do. This need to impress and advance in one’s position can be seen as Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’.  

The banality of evil can even be extended to victims in Auschwitz. Auschwitz survivor, Primo Levi, explained the Law of Auschwitz being to:

Eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbour

Primo Levi, If This is a Man

Victims had little choice but to turn on each other in order to survive, whether it was deemed ethical or not.   

Seeing Auschwitz as a Perpetrator: The SS Auschwitz Album

The ‘Auschwitz Album’ is a bound collection of no fewer than 200 photographs. Its importance and impact are profound. Discovered in 1945, the album contains the only known photograph of the arrival and selection of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau during the most intense periods of killing – May, June and July 1944– when some 400,000 people, almost all Jews, were murdered.  

Every family, whose relatives suffered the evils of any concentration camp, is reminded of their experience through prisoner mugshot photos taken on their arrival. These images show the attempt to strip away a person’s identity, shaving all their body hair and replacing their name with a number tattooed on their arms. These dehumanising mugshots can be overwhelming for a relative to envision them suffering to such a traumatic extent.  

The album’s photographs are vital in remembering the atrocities and the victims of the Holocaust and their importance as crucial evidence in post-war trials for crimes against humanity and to give justice to our families who suffered.   

Seeing Auschwitz: photograph taken by an SS officer of Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz
Photograph from the Seeing Auschwitz exhibition, likely to be taken by an SS man: the head of the camp’s photographic department,
Bernhard Walter, or his assistant Ernst Hofmann.  

On entering the exhibition, I was immediately faced with a photograph of Hungarian Jews being unloaded from the train at Auschwitz, in mid-1944 – a powerful image showcasing the scale of the genocide, as transports of this size arrived regularly at Auschwitz.  

Within the image, there are many visual elements that have become part of Holocaust iconography, including the cattle wagons, stripped pyjamas and the infamous ‘gate of death’. The longer I examined the image, I recognised scenes encapsulated within the larger-scale scene itself. I became emotional reflecting on the experiences of my relatives, and their fear, confusion and sense of helplessness.  

Growing up, I also heard my grandfather’s stories of his cousin’s, Zosia’s experiences at Auschwitz. Zosia was my age, twenty-two, when she was caught by Nazi guards on the Polish-Slovakian border whilst escaping with her intellectual friends. They were sent to Auschwitz, with her friends being sent straight to the gas chambers whilst she was selected for medical experimentations. The young woman in the image, above the two men in the striped pyjamas, deeply distressed me as that could have been my relative Zosia, alone, not knowing what would happen to her or whether she’d see her family again.

Seeing Auschwitz Through the Survivor’s Eyes

This part of the exhibition included drawings – a powerful reminder of the weight and intensity of the scenes and feelings the artist was trying to capture and portray (often at risk of capture).    

These images deeply moved me as the artist, MM, illustrated radically different pictures of Auschwitz from that of the SS Nazi propaganda images. This made me envision the realities that Zosia would have faced in her day-to-day life living in the camp.  

Through the artist’s eyes, we see compassion for the victims of mass murder instead of the mass ‘otherness’ the Nazi perspective outlines. The images are emotional and capture the moral chaos of Auschwitz through the brutality of the guards, the distress of ordinary people separated from their families and the final walk to the crematoria building.  

These sketches reveal radically different truths to the SS photographs. Most importantly, they portray the process of dehumanisation to what Primo Levi called, the Muselmann. The Muselmann referred to those suffering from starvation and exhaustion (often resigned to their impending death). 

In contrast, the SS Auschwitz Album only presents scenes displaying the detached and ‘efficient’ orderliness of the death machine, most likely shared with higher Nazi officials as evidence of the effectiveness of the ‘Final Solution’.  

Photograph taken by a Sonderkommando, with a smuggled camera, showing the burning of the gas chamber victim's bodies from the Seeing Auschwitz exhibition
Photography taken by a Sonderkommando, with a smuggled camera, showing the burning of the gas chamber victim’s bodies, Seeing Auschwitz exhibition

A photograph that really made me want to fight harder to raise awareness for genocide prevention is the only photograph showing the realities of Auschwitz, coming from victims working as Sonderkommandos. Sonderkommandos were Auschwitz prisoners who were forced, under threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims.

The Sonderkommando became cogs in the machine of ‘othering’ and murder; they were ‘ordinary people’ forced to do unthinkable act in order to survive and expose the monstrosity of the Nazis to the outside world.  

With a smuggled camera, the Sonderkommandos exposed to the world how the Nazis were treating their ‘subhuman prisoners’. The picture shows the ‘unspoken evil’ of the SS burning the bodies of gas chamber victims in open pits, to speed up the process of extermination. 

This bravery of the Sonderkommandos risking their own lives through ensuring the world saw the tremendous human rights violations occurring gives no excuse for me not doing all I can to campaign for human rights.  

Seeing Auschwitz: Responsibility to Prevent and Protect Genocides

The exhibition concluded with educating the viewer about our responsibility to protect and prevent future atrocities from happening – something I reflected on throughout. 

No matter how much we recognise the importance of remembering the Holocaust and vow never to let such events happen again, genocides continue to take place worldwide. I was pleased to see that, at the end of the exhibition, the viewer was left with this very thought and the responsibility to protect humanity against future, and ongoing, cruelty in their everyday lives.

The exhibition showcased six legally recognized genocides that have happened since, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and the Yazidi in northern Iraq. This was a powerful way to end the exhibition to encourage the viewer to think about atrocities that have happened and that are continuing worldwide. 

Within the camps, such as Auschwitz, there was nothing secret about the Nazis’ actions as the world was aware of the atrocities and did not immediately respond. It is, therefore, our responsibility, especially as generational Holocaust survivors, to protect those who cannot fight for their own human rights.


Walking through the exhibition, and discussing images with my friend, I was constantly reminded of my family history and its close traumatic experience of the Nazi occupation. My family was just like any other family in Poland affected by the events ending in 1945, and I am, like any other generational Holocaust survivor, affected and challenged by the traumatic experiences my relatives faced.  

Philosopher and Holocaust survivor, Hannah Arendt, in The Life of the Mind, who spoke of the role ‘ordinary people’ had in enabling the atrocities committed to happen: 

‘The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil’. 

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

But if anyone is capable of evil in the right circumstances, then anyone is also capable of good. However, the conditions for good must themselves be built from the ground up and the top down. From education and local community work to international human rights frameworks. Solidarity and shared humanity must be built and fostered. They cannot be taken for granted. 

This is why human rights frameworks were developed as a direct response to the Holocaust. I am especially why I am standing up and taking action for genocide prevention along with several other human rights violations that occurred in Auschwitz. On reflection, this is why we need to take action to ensure society, not only as generational survivors, prevents events such as the Holocaust never happen again. This cannot be done without reflecting on how ordinary people were victims as well as perpetrators of crimes against humanity in the actions they chose to carry out as autonomous individuals.

So, if we remain blind to such unfolding cruelty, ‘ordinary’ actions, and if the international community do not become more effective in preventing genocide, can we really say that we have ‘seen’ Auschwitz at all? 

Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.

Primo Levi

Against this backdrop, in which the moral tide can turn so quickly, actions of solidarity emerge not as a preference, but as a fundamental necessity. When the current changes, solidarity makes the barrier strong. We stand together, we resist, and we act in favour of dignity.   

All images used are from the Seeing Auschwitz exhibition. 

Link to the exhibition website:  

The exhibition is open till 29th January 2023.  

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