“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
I believe that I am a good person, but I did nothing, and evil has triumphed in Syria.
I believe and hope that people of every nation in the world are good, but the clear majority of people and of nations, including my own, did virtually nothing, and evil has triumphed in Syria.
I have learned many lessons from my studies of genocides perpetrated throughout the ages. Several conditions, when arising simultaneously, present the greatest risks for mass murder, on the macro level, and workplace, schoolyard, and community-wide bullying, on the micro level, to take place.
1. Strong leader(s), 2. whip up sentiments by employing dehumanizing stereotyping and scapegoating of entire groups, while 3. other citizens or entire nations look on, often refusing to intervene. Everyone in every country, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a vital role in genocides.
Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
As one who studies history, and who has closely followed the barbarism perpetrated on the Syrian people throughout the past decade and increasingly intensifying over time, I feel shame by not speaking out (intervening.) Apparently, I have not learned from history as deeply as I had prided myself. Has the world’s people learned their history?
My personal history and my studies should have better prepared me to act.
When I was a young child, I sat upon my maternal grandfather, Simon Mahler’s, knee. Looking down urgently, but with deep affection, he said to me, “Varn,” (through his distinctive Polish accent, he pronounced my name “Varn”), “you are named after my father, Wolf Mahler, who was killed by the Nazis along with many of my thirteen brothers and sisters.”
(Simon’s mother, Bascha, died in 1934 before the Nazi invasion of Poland). When I asked my grandfather why they were killed, he responded, “Because they were Jews.”
Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.
We later learned that Nazi troops forced most of my Krosno relatives into the surrounding woods, shot them, and tossed their lifeless bodies into mass unmarked graves along with over two thousand other Jewish residents. The Nazis eventually loaded the remaining Jews of Krosno onto cattle cars and transported them to Auschwitz and Belzec death camps.
The handful of Krosno Jews who survived liberation of the camps attempted to return to their homes that had been confiscated by the non-Jewish residents. No Jews reside today in Krosno, or for that matter, virtually anywhere throughout southeastern Poland.
More recently, on a snowy February morning in 2002, while in my university office organizing materials for that day’s classes, I received an email message that would forever poignantly and profoundly change my life. A man named Charles Mahler had been looking for descendants of the Mahler family of Krosno, Poland, and he had discovered an essay I had written focusing on Wolf and Bascha Mahler.
Charles informed me that he had survived the German Holocaust along with his sister, parents, and maternal grandparents and uncle, but the Nazis murdered his father’s parents (Jacques and Anja Mahler), sister, and her two children, and other relatives following Hitler’s invasion and occupation of Belgium, their adopted home country.
My cousin Charles related their story in hiding from August 1942 until the final armistice in Europe. His father, Georges, altered the family’s identity papers from Jewish to Christian, changed their name from Mahler to Marlier, and they abandoned Antwerp for what they considered the relative safety of the Belgium countryside.
During their plight, members of the Belgium resistance movement and other righteous Christians shepherded them throughout the remainder of the war to three separate locations as the German Gestapo followed closely at their heels. On several occasions, they successfully “passed” as Christian directly under the watchful gaze of unsuspecting Nazis.
Though most Jewish inhabitants of Antwerp ultimately perished, many survived. However, at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel), one will observe “Krosno” chiseled into the glass and the stone walls listing towns and villages where Nazis and their sympathizers decimated entire Jewish communities.
One piece of my family puzzle met a tragic end, another partial segment survived. In both instances, the so-called “bystanders” determined the balance of power: in Krosno, many, though not all, did nothing or conspired with the oppressors, while in Antwerp, many dug deeply within themselves transitioning from bystanders into courageous, compassionate, and empathetic righteous upstanders in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
“As the will of the students go so does the will of the nation.”
This statement from the film, Return to the Hiding Place, profiling the youth underground resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Holland gives me hope for a better world and a better tomorrow, one in which humanity will, indeed, learn from its history so as not to repeat it.
Each day, we all are called to make small and larger choices and to take actions. So, which side are we on? This question recalls the words of Eldridge Cleaver:
“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”
Today, as in the past, no truer words were ever uttered, for in the spectrum from occasional microaggressions to full-blown genocide, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”
I am so sorry to all the good people of Syria by not speaking out sooner, and I hope that one day, “Never Again” will become a reality rather than an unfulfilled promise.
Photo credit: Getty Images