Bystanders

“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” –Yehuda Bauer

For the amount of times that I have learned about the Holocaust and World War II, I am surprised by how little thought or discussion I have had about the concept of “bystanders” in the period of 1933 to 1945. This, along with complicity, are two themes I am attempting to tackle this summer.

We all know the numbers: 11 million Jews, Roma, Poles, homosexuals, political opponents, disabled people, and elderly people (and many more groups) were targeted for extermination and murdered during this terrible period of time. We all know the Nazi Government administered these mass murders and we know the Nazis came to power in Germany, but we also know that only a portion of population was a member of the Nazi Party and smaller portion actually taking direct part in the 11 million deaths.

That’s why I find the concept of bystanders so interesting. Yes, a large portion of the German population had no direct contact with the Holocaust. They weren’t in the camps, arresting the Jews, signing the death warrants, or firing the guns, but they did play a part in the Holocaust nonetheless.

I came to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at a fortuitous time. A brand new exhibit opened in April, called “Some Were Neighbors.” The exhibit discusses the difficulties of assigning guilt to the countless number of bureaucrats, local officials, drivers, etc. who took part in the deaths of the victims, but who might not have even seen the victims or considered themselves in any way taking part in the murders. I really enjoyed the exhibit, especially because it tried to raise more questions than it answered. Who can decide how guilty these bystanders were, outside of a judge and jury? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I think it’s a topic that is relevant to this day.

Is the person who took this picture of a firing squad in Drohobycz, Ukraine, responsible for not stepping in to try and stop the murders?

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Photo Credit: USHMM Photo Archives

Are the people who walk past someone being bullied guilty at all for not trying to stop it? Rwanda is a natural connection. Is the international community guilty for withdrawing from Rwanda during the worst of the killings?

So yeah. I decided to start off my blog with something light! 😀

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