“[A]nyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”
President Barack Obama, in his moving and brilliantly-crafted address at the Democratic National Convention, not-so-subtly called out Donald Trump and the danger that Trumpism poses to our form of government. In the United States, as in every country, the factor determining where a nation stands on the continuum from tyranny to liberty rests on “we the people.”
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 13 brothers and sisters.” (Simon’s mother died in 1934 before the Nazi invasion of Poland.) When I asked 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 a mass unmarked grave along with more than 2,000 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.
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 come across 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, 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, 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 a number of occasions, they successfully “passed” as Christian directly under the watchful gaze of unsuspecting Nazis.
Though the majority of 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.
I have learned many lessons in my studies of genocides perpetrated throughout the ages. Strong leaders whip up sentiments by employing dehumanizing stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups while other citizens or entire nations look on, often refusing to intervene. Everyone, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a vital role in the genocides.
On a micro level, this is also apparent, for example, in episodes of schoolyard, community-based, as well as electronic forms of bullying. According to the American Medical Association definition: “Bullying is a specific type of aggression in which the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one.”
The problem of bullying and harassment should not be seen simply as involving those who bully and those who are bullied (the “dyadic view”), but rather as involving a number of “actors” or roles across the social/school environment. In one study, peers were present to witness 85 percent of the bullying incidents at school.
One piece of my family puzzle met a tragic end, another partial segment survived. In both instances, the bystanders determined the balance of power: in Krosno, many, though not all, conspired with the oppressors, while in Antwerp, many dug deeply within themselves transitioning from bystanders into courageous, compassionate, and empathetic upstanders in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Each day we all are called on to make small and larger choices and to take actions. At a homecoming dance at Richmond High School in California on October 27, 2009, for example, up to 10 young men grabbed a 14-year-old young woman who had been waiting outside the dance for her father, dragged her behind a building, and gang raped her for over two and a half hours with approximately 10 witnesses observing. Some even cheered on the attackers. No one notified the police. The perpetrators left the young woman in critical condition.
But then a few years later, during a horrendous traffic accident between an automobile driver and a motor cyclist that resulted in the cyclist being thrust under the burning car, a group of stunned bystanders immediately and without hesitation turned into courageous upstanders by joining in unison, with flames raging around them, to turn the car on its end ensuring that others could pull the young cyclist to safety, thereby saving his life.
Where do we fall on the continuum? Today, as in the past, in the spectrum from occasional micro-aggressions to full-blown genocide, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”