Bystanders

As most of you know, aside from serving as the rabbi of Temple Emanuel, for as long as I have lived in this community, I also have served on the faculty of the Theology Department at St. Ambrose University; a position I inherited from my predecessor, Rabbi Robert Benjamin, of blessed memory.  At St. Ambrose, I teach one Jewish studies course per semester.  While over the years I have taught many different courses, early on I made the decision to dedicate one semester a year to a course on the Holocaust.  It might interest you to know that the St. Ambrose administration supported, and continues to support, that decision, and one need only look at the heavy enrollment in my Holocaust classes to see that the students support it as well.

Back in rabbinical school, even though my major field of study was Jewish history, I never envisioned myself as any sort of Holocaust scholar.  My scholarly pursuits centered upon the period of Jewish history known as the Second Commonwealth; the time between the Maccabees and the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Masada.  I left Holocaust studies to my good friend, Peter Weintraub, who had the great privilege of doing some studying with none other than Eli Wiesel.  Ironically, all these years later, I find myself teaching the Holocaust and being invited to attend scholarly seminars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum while several years ago, Peter chose to leave the rabbinate in favor of becoming a wealthy man, taking over his family’s very lucrative import-export business.  Life is funny that way.   It never plays out as we think it will.  It twists and turns and takes us to some of the most unexpected places.  So I have found myself living in Iowa, teaching the Holocaust.

There is an interesting thing about teaching a subject on a college level.  The more you teach the subject, the more you yourself learn about it.  It is not long before you start discovering that there are certain aspects of that subject, about which you did not give much thought before, but you come to realize that they happen to be very important.  Often, the public pays little attention to these aspects but you become convinced that it is precisely these aspects that should be receiving a lot of attention.

So it has been with my studying of the Holocaust.  While I could tick off for you a list of Holocaust issues which should receive more of our attention, I won’t.  Rather I want to spend some time this morning focusing on one such issue; the issue which has come to be known as “The Bystanders.”

Who were the Bystanders and why do I think that they are so important?

When most people think about the Holocaust and the groups of people that played a role in the Holocaust, they tend to focus their attention on two main groups, those groups being the “Perpetrators” – the evil Nazis who committed these atrocities – and the “Victims” – the innocent civilians who suffered horribly at the hands of the Nazis.  Indeed, even when it comes to the Victims, most of our attentions are directed toward the 6 million Jews who were slaughtered, while we tend to ignore or minimize the other 3 million non-Jewish victims; the mentally and physically disabled, the Roma – which is the appropriate title for what most people call Gypsies – the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Afro-Europeans, the Communists, and the political dissidents.

However, the cast of characters in the Holocaust was more complex than that.  The Holocaust was not just a matter of black-&-white; of bad guys and good guys; of Nazis and Jews.  There were shades of gray as well.  There was a continuum of players that need to be carefully considered.

On the Perpetrators’ side of the continuum, you also had the Collaborators.  These people were not Nazis.  Most of them were not even German.  They were of many nationalities.  Regardless of where they were born or where they lived, they shared a certain affinity with the Nazis, and particularly with the Nazis’ hatred of the Jews.  Therefore, when the Nazis invaded their countries, they did not resist the invaders but chose to actively assist them, particularly in their efforts to exterminate the Jews.  Accounts of the Holocaust are filled with testimonies of how Lithuanian and Ukranian collaborators and guards were even more brutal than the Nazis in their treatment of the victims.  The Arrow Cross, Hungary’s home grown Nazi-like fascists, were notorious for their cruelty.  In almost every occupied country there were those who were all too ready to lend the Nazis a helping hand, or if not a helping hand, at least to take full personal advantage of the suffering state of the victims.

On the Victims’ side of the continuum, you had the Rescuers; to whom Yad VaShem, the Israel Holocaust museum, has bestowed the title, the Righteous Among the Nations.  These people were not members of any of the targeted groups, yet they were driven by the call of their conscience.  Witnessing injustice, they felt impelled to act.  At the very real risk of their lives, they went out of their way to do all they possibly could to protect and save those who the Nazis had marked for imprisonment, suffering, and death.  Some of their names have become well known to us, like Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies, Corrie Ten Boom, and Irena Sendler.  There are many whose names are known, but not nearly as well known.  And there are many whose names will never be known because they worked in secret and were caught and executed in secret, or because they worked in secret and never shared their secrets, even after the war.

Still there was another group who played a role in the Holocaust.  In fact, they were the biggest group of all, yet they are the ones we talk about the least.  They were the Bystanders.

The Bystanders were all those people who stood by in Germany and Austria, or during the Nazi occupation of their countries and elected to help neither the Perpetrators nor the Victims.  They were the ones who saw what was happening and chose to do nothing about it.  They watched as their neighbors and fellow countrymen were rounded up and sent away to the ghettos and the camps, or were taken out to the forests and shot.  They watched and said nothing.  They watched and did nothing.  After the war, they would claim innocence.  After all, they did not participate in the persecutions.  They did not lift a hand against the Victims.  But then again, neither did they lift a hand to help them.  “What could I do?” many would claim.  “If I tried to interfere, the Nazis would have punished me and my family.  I was powerless.  My first obligation was to my family and myself.  Sure, I felt bad about what was happening to those people.  It was horrible what they did to them!  But that was their problem, not mine.  I had problems of my own.”

Nor were the Bystanders only to be found under Nazi rule.  There were plenty of Bystanders here in America and in Great Britain as well.  They heard about what the Nazis were doing to their Victims and they kept silent.  They did not call upon their free governments to act; to save.  The entry gates to the United States, Great Britain, and Palestine, all were closed and locked.  The Victims were pleading to have those gates opened, and the American Bystanders and the British Bystanders said nothing; did nothing to help them.  “We’re just coming out of the Depression.  The job market is fragile.  We can’t let all those foreigners in.  They’ll steal our jobs!” were the cries so often heard in defense of doing nothing.  Sad to say, among those Bystanders were many Jews; Jews like you and me.

Were the Bystanders innocent, as they claimed to have been?  No.  Not by a long short.  They may not have lifted their hands to actively help the Perpetrators, but by their very choice to stand by, saying nothing, doing nothing, they in effect enabled the Perpetrators to do their worst.  They could do their worst because they knew that no one was going to stand up to them in opposition.  As Edmund Burke so astutely observed, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Those Bystanders; most of them were probably good men and women, but they chose to do nothing.

Could they have done something or was their paralyzing fear of the Nazis truly well founded?  Would helping have without question or doubt resulted in their destruction?  While many would say yes, one need look no further for another model than to countries like Denmark and Italy.  For in such countries, there were to be found enough good people who chose NOT to do nothing that a majority of the targeted Victims were in fact saved.  Practically the entire Jewish population of Denmark was saved because the Danish people chose to do something, and not nothing.  In Italy, 80% of the Jews survived because there were so many Italians who chose to do something, and not nothing.  In such countries, those who could have been Bystanders chose not to stand by, and in so choosing made all the difference in the world; and in so choosing, proved themselves to be beacons of justice and right and good.

Of all the players on the stage of the Holocaust, it is the Bystanders who have the most to say to us today.  And what they say is, “Don’t become like us!  Don’t carry on your souls, the sins we carry on ours!”

When my St. Ambrose students and I discuss the Bystanders, not all of them but many of them, perhaps most of them, are quick to declare that they could never have been a Bystander.  Indeed, they proclaim that they cannot fathom how anyone could have stood by and done nothing.  If they were there, they most certainly would have done something!  They claim that, but then I ask them, “Tell me.  What have you done to feed the hungry in our own community?  What have you done to help the homeless?  What did you do about the genocide that was taking place in Darfur?  What are you doing about the starving multitudes in Somalia and East Africa?  Did you ever see someone being bullied in school, whether it be this school or back when you were in high school?  What did you do to stop it?  What have you done to help stop human trafficking?  Do you even know what human trafficking is?  Have you ever actively protested against discrimination directed at homosexuals or people of color?  What have you done in response to ads – especially political ads – which demonize Muslims and immigrants, whether legal or undocumented?  What have you done to stand up against those states which have enacted laws permitting the profiling of certain groups of citizens, making them vulnerable to increased scrutiny and intolerable treatment?”  These questions most of them cannot comfortably answer, for while they talk about standing up, in reality they more often than not choose to stand by.

Now my students at St. Ambrose are not evil people.  They are part of Edmund Burke’s good people.  Nor are they alone, for they have plenty of company.  And in that company, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us can be numbered.

We consider ourselves to be good people, but still, when we hear or we read in the news about all those people in this world that are suffering, whether they are being denied food or clothing or shelter or equality or freedom, or even their lives, we may feel sorry for them, but how often do we do something to actually help them?  Their plight might be tragic, but they are so far away.  Their world is not our world, so it is easy for us to ignore them or forget them.  And there are so many of them, we cannot help them all.  There are so many problems out there.  It is beyond our ability to solve them all.  So we wind up convincing ourselves that since we cannot help them all, we need not help any of them; since we cannot begin to solve all those problems, we need not contribute to solving any of them.  We just need to get on with our lives.  It is tragic what is happening to them but we have our own problems.  Sound familiar?  It should.  For we have become the Bystanders.

Now wait a minute, Rabbi?  How can you compare us to all those people who passively stood by and watched as 9 million innocent souls perished at the hands of the Perpetrators of the Holocaust?  Well, perhaps you did not hear what I said during my Hunger Appeal on Rosh Hashanah.  There are 12 million innocent souls in East Africa, right now – not 70 years ago – who are in very real danger of perishing from starvation, and what have we done?  How much have we done?  Can we do more?  Or will we choose to go “tsk, tsk!” and then put it out of our minds.  East Africa is thousands of miles from the Quad Cities.

In the streets of Syria, people are being gunned downed by soldiers simply because they wish to protest in the name of freedom.  I know that the Syrians are not our friends, and as hostile as the current Syrian government is to Israel and the Jewish people, if a new government arises, there is a good chance that it may even prove to be more hostile.  But still, people should have a right to express their hunger for freedom.  It should not have to cost them their lives.  But what have we done in their defense?  We have watched it on the news and read about it in the papers and have done nothing.

On the very borders of our country, there are those who are desperate to flee from a life of poverty and deprivation.  They yearn to grasp the promise that has always been America’s promise.  The very same promise that brought our own ancestors to the shores of this country.  But in response to their aspirations, we build fences to keep them out, send out patrols to drive them back, and establish laws which enable the authorities to stop any Latino looking person on the street and arrest them if they cannot adequately prove that they are citizens of this great republic.  And what do we do about it.  We do little if anything to stop it, and there are those of us who encourage it and want it to increase.

It is true that as individuals, we cannot solve all the problems of the world.  By ourselves, we cannot eradicate poverty or disease or injustice.  But that in no way permits us to do nothing.  In PIRKE AVOT, Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying, “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor, V’lo Atah Ben Horeen L’hibatayl Mimena – While you are not required to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”  In other words, we may not be able to do everything, but we ought to do something, for something is far better than nothing.  And you know, if I do a little something, and each of you do a little something, and our friends and neighbors decide to join us and do a little something, the next thing you know, we are Denmark!  For we have come together, each of us doing our little something, which when you put it all together adds up to something great.  The world can change – dramatically change for the better – if we but choose to stand up instead of stand by.  In a moral universe – and I would hope that you would join me in wanting to create a moral universe – there is simply no room for bystanders.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Afro European victims, Antisemitism, Arizona Immigration Law, Arrow Cross, Bullying, Bystanders, Collaborators, Communist victims, Corrie Ten Boom, Darfur, Denmark, Genocide, Great Britain, Hate, Holocaust, Homelessness, Homosexual Victims, Human Trafficking, Hunger, Immigration Reform, Intolerance, Irena Sendler, Jehovah's Witnesses victims, Jewish Victims, Mentally and Physically Disabled victims, Miep Gies, Nazis, Oskar Schindler, Perpetrators, Political Dissidents victims, Prejudice, Rabbi Robert Benjamin, Racial Profiling, Raoul Wallenberg, Roma victims, Social Action, Social Justice, Somalia, St. Ambrose University, Syria, The Righteous Among the Nations, United States, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Victims, Yad VaShem, Yom Kippur

7 Comments on “Bystanders”


  1. I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.


  2. I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.

  3. freyamorel Says:

    I visited Auschwitz a few days ago with the Lessons From Auschwitz project and found the bystander issue especially interesting. I’m in sixth form at the moment so am probably around the same age as the students you talk about.
    I’ve written an account of how I felt at and after Auschwitz and would be very interested in what you think of it- it talks a little of bystanders and how the Holocaust relates to today.

    • ravkarp Says:

      I read your blog post and understand your dilemma. You never really know how you will react, or when you will react, to an experience like visiting Auschwitz. In your mind you have a pre-formed image of how you should react; one filled with grief and pain and shock and horror. But, as you stated, studying the Holocaust and simply watching films such as “Schindler’s List” “prepare” you for the Auschwitz experience, and the shock value just might not be there. Indeed, with all that we see in movies today, we do find ourselves wondering whether “life imitates art” as much, or more than, “art imitating life”; whether the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign over the Auschwitz gate has become in our minds more of a movie prop or stands as a testament to the horror beyond the gate. In fact, when I co-lead with a Catholic priest a group of college students on a Holocaust tour of Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland, just as our group was exiting the Auschwitz Museum, one of the students approached the priest and asked whether or not he thought that the pile of shoes in the display was truly as high as it appeared or was it just propped up to look that way. Was it fact or simply “movie magic”?
      Yet while you did not leave Auschwitz in tears, unable to catch your breath due to the overwhelming sadness, still the experience touched you and touched you deeply. The very fact of your blog post gives testimony to that. If you had not been moved by it, you would not have written about it. But even more so, what gives greater testimony to its effect is how you have carried the experience with you and have started to view your contemporary life through the lens of Auschwitz. Whether it is in your recognizing the parallels between Nazi bigotry against the Jews and contemporary bigotry against immigrants, or in how you have connected the simple scene of a child feeling abandoned by his mother in the park to what a child must have felt when separated from his or her parents during the selection process immediately after arrival in Auschwitz.
      Do not fool yourself. You have not remained untouched by the Auschwitz experience. For in Auschwitz you were brought face-to-face with the realities of the Holocaust, of which prior to that time, you had only read about, or been told about, or watched on the screen. In standing were all those victims stood, you have touched history. In so doing all that you have “learned” about the Holocaust prior to that moment has taken on a new dimension. It has become not only a reality of the past but also a warning for the present and the future. It has literally changed the way you look at the world around you and your own role in it.


  4. […] you to Lessons From Auschwitz Another interesting article: Bystanders Share this:TwitterFacebookPrintTumblrLinkedInLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this post. Tagged […]


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