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‘Holocaust by Bullets’ at Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Exhibit tells stories by eyewitnesses to mass murder

Apr. 24, 2017
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The use of chemicals as an agent of mass murder during the Holocaust is familiar to everyone, aside from a certain member of the Trump administration. But as shown in “Holocaust by Bullets,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, the infamous death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka represent only one facet of the Nazi project of extermination. In the early months after the German invasions of Poland, the Baltic states and the Soviet Union, the SS swept into small towns and assembled Jewish residents for summary execution. They were shot down on the outskirts of their towns and piled into graves. More than two million Jews and Roma perished in this way before the assembly line of genocide, whose terminus was the crematorium, was in place.

Yahd-In Unum, a Paris-based organization dedicated to documenting the Eastern European sites of Nazi mass murder committed outside the ghettos and the camps, curated “Holocaust by Bullets.” A map of Eastern Europe at the entrance is covered in red dots, indicating the nearly 2000 gravesites identified by Yahad-In Unum. The organization estimates that 2.2 million were killed in this manner by Nazi forces, usually by a single bullet. In some cases the victims were still alive when they were tossed into mass graves.

The groundbreaking and uncomfortable aspect of Yahad-In Unum’s work was its project of videotaping the accounts of surviving eyewitnesses to the murders. They have interviewed 4,714 witnesses over the past 10 years, most of them small children at the time of the killings. They were often neighbors of the victims who watched out of childish curiosity. Some were forced to watch if the perpetrators were in the mood to terrorize villagers with a show of murder.

Selected quotes along with the faces of the witnesses and archival stills of the events are displayed on large panels. “They caught the kids, yelling ‘Juden! Juden! Juden!’ They grabbed them, put them in a truck, and took them away,” one witness remembers. Others describe the way Jews were ordered to strip naked or recall Gentile villagers forced to pick through their clothing and present any valuables to the Nazis. In some cases, the Germans allowed the villagers—suffering under the deprivation of war and occupation—to keep the clothes for themselves. According to one witness, “These clothes [of the victims] were used as rags to wash the floor in the Gestapo building.”

Yahad-In Unum’s director, Father Patrick Desbois from Georgetown University, recently spoke in Milwaukee at the opening of the exhibit. “Because some of the images are disturbing, they have been presented in a thoughtful and discreet fashion, enabling the visitor to view them at his or her own discretion,” he said. “The visitor in effect becomes a witness to the crime, choosing to delve deeper into the findings.”

Desbois is keen to remind everyone that genocide did not end with the defeat of Nazi Germany. His recent book, The Fabric of Terrorists: Into the Secrets of Daesh, investigates the mass murder by ISIS of the Yezidis, a religious minority in the Middle East. 

“Holocaust by Bullets” is on view through May 23 at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. For more information visit MilwaukeeJewish.org/Bullets. 

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