By Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.
Reflecting on the Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 theme of 'ordinary people', I wondered what – if anything – the word 'ordinary' meant to the people who survived the genocide. In a time that was by all accounts extra-ordinary, what value does the word 'ordinary' have in talking about it? Who do the survivors think of as 'ordinary people' in the context of their own persecution?
The British Library Sound Archive is home to more than 600 Holocaust oral testimonies. The word 'ordinary' appears with surprising frequency in them.
But interestingly, there is no consensus between them on who the 'ordinary people' are.
Some survivors identify themselves – and the Jewish people in general – as the 'ordinary people'. Ivan Cybula does so in the opening moments of his 1988 interview.
For Ivan, there was nothing extraordinary about his family; they lived modest, working lives, in keeping with the lives led by many other Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The picture that Ivan paints of an 'ordinary' family in an 'ordinary' community that largely kept itself to itself sets the scene for what we know follows: a community that would be persecuted and ultimately murdered as a perceived anomaly, before Ivan had barely entered adulthood.
Other survivors draw a distinction between themselves and the non-Jewish people around them, but instead characterise non-Jewish people as 'ordinary' and themselves – or the notion of being Jewish – as some kind of other. Here, Eric Bluh talks about working in Bournemouth, England after the war. He describes his fractured relationship with an employer, who despite being Jewish themselves, did not think he lived up to the standards they expected of a Jew.
Eric describes himself as behaving ‘like an ordinary person without Jewish ways’ as a way of distinguishing himself from the Jewish stereotype, demonstrating in the process that the persistent ‘othering’ of Jewish people which had underscored the Holocaust continued into the post-war period, and beyond continental Europe..
Elsewhere, we hear survivors speak of their persecutors as 'ordinary people', making the same argument that scholars such as Christopher Browning and Hannah Arendt set out eloquently in their historical analyses: that genocides are not simply perpetrated by 'evil' people, but often ordinary people who under certain conditions are capable of making evil choices. By emphasising the ordinariness of their tormentors, the survivors challenge us to make sense of the extraordinariness of their actions. In the following clip, Naomi Blake describes the German soldiers who attempted to bury her alive as 'in normal circumstances law-abiding, good people, professional people':
The outcome is not to absolve perpetrators of their responsibility or to underplay the severity of their crimes, but instead the opposite: to emphasise the extent to which their crimes lay beyond comprehension, yet firmly in the realm of the everyday possible.
The word 'ordinary' appears as an adjective to describe many other types of people and circumstances in survivor narratives. Heidi Fischer - who hid as a child in Hungary under Christian papers - describes sitting on a train listening to 'ordinary people - peasants and suchlike […] talking about the Jews […] in a very awfully derogative manner' (BL ref C410/088). In stark contrast, Alice Schwab speaks of 'the help, and the love, and the kindness, from ordinary people' she received after arriving in England in 1937 (BL ref C410/089).
In his 1989 interview, the interviewer asks Henry Kohn to describe 'an ordinary day' in the Czeldź ghetto (BL ref C410/002).
What does this tell us?
It tells us that the Holocaust was an event perpetrated and experienced by ordinary people. Though used in different contexts, the word almost always serves to emphasise the extremity of the situation, or the incomprehensibility of people's choices. After all, the word 'ordinary' only has meaning if the word 'extra-ordinary' can be used to describe something outside of its boundaries.
In speaking of the event in these terms, the survivors force us to see ourselves in their stories, at all stages and in all parts of the narrative. Believing ourselves to be 'ordinary people' is no longer a valid defence, a reason to believe that it couldn't happen to us or by us or under our watch. By describing those involved as ordinary - perpetrators, bystanders, and the persecuted alike - the survivors confront us with the possibility that, in fact, it could.
When asked whether he thought the history of the Holocaust ought to be shared, Michael Lee responded that the lessons must be learned precisely because of how ordinary those involved were:
Michael made these observations in an interview given in 1989. One might ask what he would think now about the parallels between the past and the present day, 34 years later.
Madeline White is the Curator of Oral History at the British Library. She holds an MA and PhD in Holocaust Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London, where she conducted extensive research into the history of archival collections of Holocaust testimony in Britain and Canada.