As we approach Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day on 27 Nisan (on the Jewish calendar) or May 1 this year (on the Gregorian calendar), I reflect upon my familial history: two scenarios with somewhat varied outcomes.
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.” His mother, Bascha Trenczer Mahler, died in 1934.
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 Wolf and Simon’s siblings into the desecrated Jewish cemetery in their village of Krosno, shot them and tossed their lifeless bodies into a mass unmarked grave along with over 100 other Jewish residents.
The Nazis eventually loaded the remaining Jews of Krosno onto cattle cars and transported them to the 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.
Outside the town, however, Polish citizens who refused to relinquish Jewish property shot and killed many of the Jews as they approached. No Jews reside today of 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 Poland, and he’d come across an essay I had written focusing on Wolf and Basha Mahler.
Charles informed me that he had survived the German Holocaust along with his sister, Nanette, parents Georg and Selma, and maternal grandparents and uncle, but the Nazis murdered his father’s parents (Jacques and Anja Mahler), sister, 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 May 1945 armistice in Europe. His father, Georg, 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 several 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 often refuse to intervene. Everyone, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a key role in the genocidal dramas.
On a micro level, this is also apparent, for example, in episodes of schoolyard, community-based, as well as electronic forms of bullying.
The American Medical Association defines bullying as “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.”
Dan Olweus, international researcher and bullying prevention specialist, enumerates the distinctive and often overlapping roles enacted in these episodes: The person or persons who perpetrate bullying; the active followers; those who passively support, condone or collude in the aggression; the onlookers (sometimes referred to as “bystanders”); the possible defenders; those who actually defend the targets of aggression; and those who are exposed and attacked.
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, they conspired with the oppressors, while in Antwerp, they dug deeply within themselves transitioning from bystanders into courageous, compassionate, and empathic 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. Which side are we on? This question brings to mind the civil rights activist Eldridge Cleaver’s call to action: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re 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.”