Don’t be a bystander: A call to stand up against hate

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The word “hero” takes on a special significance to Holocaust survivors, as those who were saved from the atrocities of Nazi concentration camps, ghettos and deportations were few and far between. 

To that end, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), in partnership with Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, is launching “#DontBeABystander: Those who risked it all to save a life.” This social media campaign highlights the stories of people who chose to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, risking everything they had — including their own lives and that of their families — to save a neighbor, a friend or, in some cases, a total stranger. 

There were a lot of opportunities to intervene before World War II. Many countries, statesmen and individuals stood by while the Nazi party came to power in Germany, enacted laws and began deporting Jews. In the decades since, Holocaust survivors have tirelessly shared their testimonies of survival, working to educate the generations behind them on the horrors of unchecked hatred and the unintended violence of complacency. And yet, ordinary people around the world today continue to be singled out for their otherness.

This cannot be our legacy.

Every day, each of us is faced with an opportunity to intervene, a choice to look away or to lean into our humanity. Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as we remember the 6 million Jews who were murdered and honor the suffering of those who survived, let us also remember that we choose our actions, and those choices — good and bad — have consequences.

Knowing our history is one way to understand the weight of our choices. In a recent survey of U.S. Millennials commissioned by the Claims Conference, 48 percent of respondents were unable to name a single one of the more than 40,000 camps and ghettos established by Nazis during the Holocaust. Not knowing our history leaves us vulnerable to those who would manipulate and influence our choices. 

In that same survey, 56 percent of respondents reported seeing Nazi symbols in their community or on social media; this constant exposure to symbols of hate can lessen the impact of those symbols over time. Fifteen percent of respondents within the survey reported that “it is acceptable” to hold neo-Nazi views, while an additional 14 percent feel it is “somewhat acceptable” — meaning that just under 30 percent of respondents think it is OK on some level to hold neo-Nazi views. 

It is not difficult to see how the further we get from our knowledge of history, the more vulnerable we become and more apt we are to repeat it.

The Anti-Defamation League reports that anti-Semitism is on the rise, and assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews is at “near historic levels.” These acts of hate do not happen in a vacuum. If we do not understand the hatred that led to the Holocaust, how can we choose to act against it now?

The Holocaust is a history of ordinary people being subjected to devastating atrocities. Six million of those people — men, women and children — murdered for being Jewish. But some of the testimonies found in this history tell the story of ordinary people taking extraordinary actions. Woven between the testimonies of death camps, ghettos and deportations are a handful of lesser-known stories, and of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.

Testimonies of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” the official recognition given to non-Jews who saved Jews, show another side of the history of the Shoah. These stories not only serve to remind us that there are always choices, they also stand as an inspiration in today’s divided world, reminding us to lean into our humanity.

On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us vow not to be bystanders to hatred. Let us see these rescuers and all Holocaust survivors as our inspiration. And let us make humanity our legacy, coming to the rescue of our neighbors not just when it is easy, but whenever it is needed.

Greg Schneider is executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Also known as the Claims Conference, it negotiates restitution for victims of Nazi persecution, administers compensation funds, recovers unclaimed funds, and provides funding to institutions supporting Holocaust survivors.

Sidney Zoltak is a Holocaust survivor advocate, is a board member of the Claims Conference, a member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and past president of the Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants. He is the author of “My Silent Pledge: A Journey of Struggle, Survival and Remembrance” (2013).

Tags Antisemitism International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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