This week, the museum is opening a special, long-term exhibit titled "Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity During the Holocaust." It includes interviews with perpetrators that have never been shown before, as well as details of mass killings in the former Soviet Union that were only uncovered in more recent years.
Curator Susan Bachrach said the exhibit and its research challenge the idea that the Holocaust was primarily about Hitler and other Nazi leaders. Surveys at the museum show that's what most visitors believe.
"That's very comforting to people, because it puts distance between the visitors and who was involved," Bachrach said.
So, the museum set out to look at ordinary people who looked on and were complicit in the killing and persecution of millions of Jews through greed, a desire for career advancement, peer pressure or other factors. It examines influences "beyond hatred and anti-Semitism," Bachrach said.
Focusing only on fanatical Nazis would be a serious misunderstanding of the Holocaust, Bloomfield added.
"The Holocaust wouldn't have been possible, first of all, without enormous indifference throughout Germany and German-occupied Europe, but also thousands of people who were, say, just doing their jobs," she said, such as a tax official who collected special taxes levied against Jews.
In an opening film, some survivors recall being turned over to Nazi authorities in front of witnesses who did nothing. "The whole town was assembled . . . looking at the Jews leaving," one survivor recalls.
Steven Fenves was a boy at the time. He recalled how in 1944, the government of Hungary, allied with Nazi Germany, forced his family out of its apartment. The family was deported to Auschwitz, where Fenves' mother was gassed.
"One of the nastiest memories I have is going on that journey and people were lined up, up the stairs, up to the door of the apartment, waiting to ransack whatever we left behind, cursing at us, yelling at us, spitting at us as we left," he said in an interview with the museum.
The museum located images of bystanders looking on as Jews were detained, humiliated and taken away.
Non-Jews were also punished for violating German policies against the mixing of ethnic groups. For the first time, the museum is showing striking, rare footage of a ritualistic shaming of a Polish girl and a German boy for having a relationship. They are marched through the streets of a town in Poland, where the film was located in an attic. Dozens of people look on as Nazi officers cut the hair of the two teenagers. They are forced to look at their nearly bald heads in a mirror before their hair is burned.
The federally funded museum's theme for its 20th anniversary is "Never Again: What You Do Matters." The museum devotes part of its work and research to preventing future genocides. A study released by the museum last month found that the longer the current conflict in Syria continues, the greater the danger that mass sectarian violence results in genocide.
Much more is still being learned about the Holocaust, as well, Bloomfield said. The museum is compiling an encyclopedia of all incarceration sites throughout Europe. When the project began, scholars expected to list 10,000 such sites. Now the number stands at 42,000.
Since opening, the museum has had more than 35 million visitors.