As promised, this continues my May series on issues related to the Shoah (both in terms of historical fiction and real life) which I’ve become aware may be viewed much differently by Gentiles. This post examines a couple of the issues I touched upon in the introductory post.

I was a pre-psychology major at one point, and so am familiar with the diffusion of responsibility theory. Its most famous example, of course, was on display during Kitty Genovese’s murder in 1964. Numerous witnesses saw or heard the attack, yet no one called cops. They thought someone else would report the crime, or dismissed it as “just” a domestic dispute (as though it’s ever okay to matter-of-factly witness an act of violence against anyone!).

In my Social Psychology class my junior year of university, we learnt about an experiment conducted with divinity students. Someone lay down and pretended to be injured on campus, yet all these guys who were studying to be priests kept on walking and didn’t try to help. They assumed other bystanders would assist.

So from a psychological perspective, it’s easy to understand why more bystanders didn’t do more (or anything) to protest or help during the Shoah. They feared negative repercussions (namely murder), had been taught to see Jews as an alien other, didn’t think it were their racket to be getting involved in, had enough problems of their own under Nazi occupation, felt they couldn’t do anything meaningful.

However, several special examples bear out the fact that not everyone silently stood by, and didn’t wait until the last minute to start speaking out:

Denmark: Smuggled almost their entire Jewish population (both native and refugees) into Sweden, with the rest sent to Terezin. Most of the Terezin group survived. (Interesting side note some folks may be unaware of: One of the people smuggled to Sweden was none other than the great scientist Niels Bohr, who was halachically Jewish in spite of his Lutheran identity.)

Bulgaria: The entire 50,000 strong Jewish community of Bulgaria proper was saved thanks to the heroism of Dimitar Peshev and Tsar Boris III.

Albania: Not only saved almost their entire prewar Jewish population, but also rescued countless refugees from surrounding nations. At the end of the war, the Albanian Jewish community was 11 times larger than it had been at the jump. This was all because of Besa, a national honor code which means “to keep the promise.” In practice, it translates to hospitality, welcoming the stranger, taking care of those most in need.

Italy: “Only” lost about 20% of their prewar Jewish community, thanks to the Italian people’s refusal to implement Nazi racial laws forced upon them. After Italy joined the Allies in September 1943, the Nazis stepped in and deported the Jewish community for them. Many, many good people saved the lives of their friends and neighbors, as well as people they’d never met before. Reason #88655061 why I’m so very, very proud to be part Italian.

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, and Nieuwlande, The Netherlands: These towns collectively received the Righteous Among the Nations honor from Yad Vashem, due to how everyone was a rescuer.

A sizable group of German Gentiles who stood protest outside a police station until their Jewish husbands were released. (Sorry, forgot the details!)

If this comparatively small collection of bystanders could take action and save so many people, imagine how many more could’ve been saved had similar actions been undertaken all across occupied Europe.

One thought on “Bystanders and the Shoah

  1. I wrote a post last year about a woman who smuggled children and babies out of interment camps and ended up eventually being caught and punished for it, but she survived and with no regrets. Those are the type of people we all need to strive to become, but it’s terrifying, having that much courage, acting when the cost could be so extreme we’ll never recover.


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