I was born in Russia. My family, as many others, was influenced by the second world war, anti-Semitism, and Stalin’s political repressions. So from my childhood, I thought about roots of such human behavior, and about choices that we make at hard times.
In the last few years, I’ve made a few museum and memorial projects. I have come to a simple idea that I want to share with you, using my project of Auschwitz memorial museum as an example. This place keeps the memory and energy of one of the most terrible tragedies, and there is no memorial or museum there that adequately reflect upon this tragedy.
Visitors to Auschwitz break out of the usual flow of days and contribute a lot of time to dive deep in the history of the place. Memorials like this one serve not only to recall the events of the past but also to reduce the possibility of repeating them in the future.
I have noticed that all of the memorial projects that I have seen– monuments built after genocides, wars, etc– tell us only one part of the story: that of the victims. I would like to talk about executioners.
The vast majority of victims do not choose their own destiny, while executioners do have a choice. No one ever hopes to be a victim, so it makes no sense to teach people “how not to be a victim.” However, I propose that some change can be made on the darker side; perhaps we can show how easy it is to fall into darkness, and what choices can lead you there. This can be a vaccine against evil.
We learn more from our mistakes than our successes. In the best case, we are perceptive enough to learn from other people’s mistakes. Often, though, we try to learn from other people’s successes, because it seems easier. This phenomenon is called “survivor bias” (wiki). “Survivor bias” is a common logical error that happens when one group (“survivors”) provides a lot of data, and another group (“dead”) provides virtually none. People and researchers usually search for common traits among the “survivors” exclusively, forgetting that important information is also hidden among the “dead.” This error is common in business too. It is impossible to learn how to become rich by reading success stories because these stories neglect to mention all of the reefs and rocks that “kill” less successful entrepreneurs. In the case of the Holocaust, the paradox is that “survivor bias” refers to the victims. We know a lot about them; we talk about their stories, we make movies, and we write books. We learn from them. In this case, the executioners are “dead “. We don’t speak or think about them, even though their stories may teach us how to avoid this from happening again. It is they who made a mistake and became monsters. When we speak about the Holocaust, we often look only at the history of the victims, excluding the executioners. It would be more appropriate to call this effect “victim bias.” when speaking about the holocaust. In this case, executioners’ stories are forgotten.
And when I speak of people who can unconsciously fall on dark side I speak of all of us, including me. This is proven by numerous post-war studies of human conformity, obedience to the authority, and tolerance for cruelty. You may remember the Milgram experiment in which 87.5% of subjects of the experiment “killed” the victim, obeying immoral orders of the scientist and administering an electric shock. In the Asch conformity experiment, 75% of the subjects agreed with obviously wrong opinion of the majority. In the Stanford prison experiment, students playing the role of guards began to show sadistic tendencies after 2 days. These experiments were repeated in many different countries and proved that 75% of people, regardless of their nationality, are willing to obey the most terrifying orders. Thinking of ways to reduce this acceptance of evil and obedience inspired this project and this text.
The Museum consists of two corridors, each one around 1000 feet long. The first corridor is underground and tells the life stories of executioners– how ordinary people with families, kids, dogs and cats made one decision after another, and at the end found themselves on concentration camp guard towers with rifles, or turning on gas in the Auschwitz chambers. The idea is not to disturb visitors but tell the story of how gradually, imperceptibly, and easily this transformation occurs
As a side note: showing gruesome pictures or documentary materials turns on psychological and biological mechanisms that hinder empathy. Disgust chemically blocks empathy and makes it easier for humans to kill spiders, etc. It is important to preserve one’s ability to empathize while speaking of such dark topics. So we have planned to create a special “black room” for these kinds of materials– only for those who feel ready. Not for all.
The main hall of memory has mirrors on the walls. There is one glass cube, with sides 6 meters long, in the middle of the room. This cube can hold about half a million phones, demonstrating this figure. Modern phones have chosen in order remind viewers that this can happen nowadays with any of us, that evil is not a thing of the past. The walls of this room are covered completely in mirrors, so that the reflections of the cube form an infinite field of such cubes, symbolizing the massive scale of such tragedies in our world.
On the ground level, there is a gallery of memory to the victims. Going through the gallery, visitors will see endless rows of real barracks, in which hundreds of thousands of people were contained. On the glass, there are silhouettes symbolizing 6 million victims of this camp. Rows of these .3 meter silhouettes will fill the gallery walls; if connected, these rows will stretch 22.5 km.
Gallery in memory of the victims
Both corridors were intentionally made very long. Visiting this museum should not be easy and should take some time and effort – to reach an effect of the vaccine against evil. Secondly, this corresponds to the entire structure of the camp, which was basically a continuous conveyor for destruction
I want to emphasize that this project is just one example, one illustration of how the idea of inclusion of stories of executioners in our personal and collective memory can affect our mindset.