Why Did WE ALLOW the Killing to Happen?

Lecturer: Elly Dlin
Lecture 5: Why Did WE ALLOW the Killing to Happen?

"(T)he Jews of Minsk were surrounded by barbed wire and imprisoned in a ghetto.  Thousands of assimilated young men gazed at this new wall in amazement.  They regarded it as a crazy device of the Gestapo dogs which would not last long because on its other side lived tens of thousands of brothers together with whom they had built other, more solid walls. Together they had built Socialism.  And the thousands of Party members who remained in the city would surely come to the aid of the Jews.

The famine in the ghetto was terrible.  Children would slip out to search for a bit of bread or a potato.  Few would return.  They went to friends from school and from the youth clubs to ask for help, but they did not come back...(T)urning to old friends and acquaintances doomed them even before the Gestapo set about killing them...

It was not the Germans who caught the greater part of the Jews of Minsk who tried to escape.  They were led to their death by the people with whom they had built up Minsk.  The Jews who lie buried in those mass graves were not felled by German bullets alone.  They were cut down by their faith, a faith dearly cherished for twenty years, a faith in the brotherhood of people, in the solidarity of the molders of freedom, and in the new man."  (CATASTROPHE OF EUROPEAN JEWRY ).

"Why did WE ALLOW the killing to happen?" when WE are the bystanders - those who were neither perpetrators nor victims.  The bystanders include a very diverse group of people: from the most powerful officials in the Allied governments to the family of farmers next door, and from international humanitarian agencies to simple railroad workers.  The bystanders also display a wide range of responses: from enthusiastic support of the murders to active opposition to the Nazi regime, and from terrified inaction to indifference and to hatred.

Meaningful generalizations are difficult to draw and even harder to substantiate.  For example, how strongly do we consider "situational dehumanization"?  Were people "used to" seeing discrimination  against Jews in the way that we are "used to" seeing starvation in Africa and homeless in our city streets, and yet do nothing about it?

In the spirit of this lecture series, I will not summarize the vast literature on this subject.  Rather I will raise some issues by presenting a few real situations such as the opening piece on Minsk.  They fall into 4 categories: in Germany before the War, in the East during the War, Governments of the World, and the Righteous Among the Nations.

In Germany before the War

"In March 1935 a journalist reported seeing a bus boy in a Berlin restaurant go over to a young couple at the next table and discreetly place a teacup in front of them.  Inside it was a slip of paper that they read and, looking around embarrassingly, the two immediately left the restaurant.  Leaning over, the journalist picked up the note.  It said: 'We do not serve Jews here.'" (Gilbert, 1986 )

Did the bus boy have to deliver that message?  Did it make him uncomfortable or did he enjoy doing it?  Who wrote the note?  Was it on the boss' initiative as an expression of the mood of the times or did he get specific instructions?  From who?  A Nazi fanatic or a bureaucrat who was "just doing his job"?  Who else in the restaurant reacted?  Or cared?

When the Nazis entered Vienna in March 1938, the Chief Rabbi Dr. Taglicht, a man of 70 years, was pushed in to the street while wearing his rabbinical gown and prayer shawl.  He was forced to scrub the pavement - to the amusement of the spectators who gathered around.  In Dusseldorf doctors from a near-by hospital, together with lawyers and several judges, joined in the mob that destroyed the local synagogue.   Citizens of Baden lined up to kick and punch the Jews.  The Nazis turned out the Hitler Youth and the pupils of the local elementary school to watch.  Several teachers were heard promising treats to children who shouted "Death to Judas" as the Jews were marched to the trucks that drove them to the Concentration Camp at Dachau (Gilbert, 1986).

The enthusiasm with which spectators and passers-by joined in the orgy of destruction on Kristall Night prompted this editorial:  "It is a terrible thing for a power-mad dictator to seek to ruin thousands of innocent persons, but it is a far more terrible thing for a great people to give whole hearted assent to such efforts, and to find brutality amusing.  The smiles on those faces haunt us."  (Ross, p. 113).

"On 16 November 1938, a week after Kristallnacht, Pastor J. von Jan preached to his congregation in Swabia: 'Houses of worship, sacred to others, have been burned down with impunity - men who have locally served our nation and conscientiously done their duty, have been thrown into concentration camps simply because they belong to a different race.  Our nations' infamy is bound to bring about Divine punishment.'  Dragged out of his Bible class by a Nazi mob, Pastor Jan was brutally beaten, then thrown on to the roof of a shed.  The mob then smashed his vicarage, just as, a week earlier, so many Jewish houses had been smashed.  Pastor Jan was imprisoned" (Gilbert, 1986)

In the East during the War

"A middle-aged Polish woman wearing a big black shawl became the terror of Marszalkowska Street.  She didn't let a single Jew go by without striking them with a stick.  Her specialty was hitting women and children.  The Germans would look on...and laugh." (Gilbert, p. )

It was a particularly warm day in July 1941 when the 2,531 Jews from Zhitomir were shot.  The blood-splattered soldiers of Einsatzgruppen C worked mostly without shirts and some wore only bathing suits.  Civilians from the surrounding area - including women and children - came out to watch the show.  A Germany officer who happened on the scene wrote the following: "Right out in the open, as if on a stage, men murder other men...(A)ccording to the accounts of those soldiers, spectacles of this kind happen often...I have seen many unpleasant things...in the First World War, during the Civil War in Russia...(and now) during the Western Campaign...but I never saw anything like this." (Gilbert, 1986).

Survivors, when there were any, rarely received help from the locals. Under cover of night, Zvi Michalowski, who fell into the pit a fraction of a second before the volley of bullets, used his last remaining strength to crawl out from under the bodies. He reached a farm house where a peasant slammed the door in his face and shouted: "Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!" (Gilbert, 1986).

Particularly disturbing, the antisemitism of some appears to have INCREASED following the Holocaust.  Leopold Sucha had cared for a group of Jews in Lvov for nearly a year during the War.  Some months after liberation he was accidentally run over by a truck.  Halina Wand, one of the Jews that he saved, recalls: "As he lay on the pavement with his blood dripping into the sewers, the Poles crossed themselves and said that it was God's punishment for hiding Jews." (Gilbert, 1986).

To cover an unapproved absence from home, 9-year old  Henryk Blaszczyk made up a lie about being held in a cellar by Jews.  A search of the Jewish Community building revealed nothing - not even a cellar!  Still, Jews were dragged out into the street and handed to the frenzied crowd.  According to the report of one policeman:

"The military led Jews out of the apartments, and then people started hitting them with everything they could, sticks, irons...The crowd shouted: 'Down with the Jews, hit them for our children, long live the Polish Army.' They led the Jews out of the building to the square where the people murdered them in a cruel fashion.  The armed soldiers did not react, but slipped off somewhere to the side...(S)ome soldiers returned to the building to lead other Jews outside." (Gilbert, 1986)  42 were murdered that day.

Governments of the World

Before the War, Chaim Weizmann (later the first President of the State of Israel) rather sarcastically remarked that the world had become divided into 2 groups: the countries that want their Jews to get out and the countries that refuse to let Jews in.

Nativism and isolationism were increasingly strengthening in the USA. Racially-based immigration laws had been passed in the 1870s to keep out Chinese and stringent restrictions based on a system of limited quotas were legislated in the 1920s - long before Adolf Hitler threatened the lives of Jews.  In the 1930s the 76th Congress entertained over 60 further anti-alien provisions and, as the depression deepened and unemployment rose to an unprecedented 8 million people, the mood was decidedly against opening the doors wider to let in more immigrants.

Whereas it may be possible to overemphasize the extent of antisemitism in government policies, it is not possible to ignore it.  Public opinion polls consistently show that the American people would refuse to hire a Jew - even one who was an American citizen.  Jews were consistently near the bottom in every survey where lists of ethnic groups were ranked in terms of "desirability", and they even placed lower than Germans and Italians when these were the enemy in a shooting war.

Probably the most conclusive evidence regarding the influence of antisemitism is that humanitarian groups who struggled to aid Jews during this period consistently worked to DE-emphasize the Jewishness of prospective immigrants so as to lessen hostilities towards them.

Other Western countries don't come off any better.  The longest serving Canadian Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, knew that there were few, if any, votes in aiding Jewish refugees.  So he did nothing.  In his diary he reflected that "after I was out of politics altogether, I might sometime speak on the need of Canada... becoming a haven for peoples of all countries who were refugees from political persecution..."(Abella and Troper, p. 158).  King stepped down in 1954 - nearly a decade after the ovens of Auschwitz had been ceased.

The title of the book from which this quotation was taken is from an off-the-record comment by an anonymous senior Canadian official who, when asked how many Jews would be allowed in after the War responded: "None is too many."

"In my opinion a disproportionate amount of the time of this Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews." (Gilbert, AUSCHWITZ AND THE ALLIES ).  This from the same British government that, in the summer of 1939 refused admittance to German Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism because: "A great many of them are not in any sense political refugees, but Jews, who panicked unnecessarily and need not have left.  Many of them are quite unsuitable as emigrants and would cause a very difficult problem if brought here." (Gilbert, 1986)

In December 1941 the month that the first Death Camp began operation in Chelmno, near Lodz, 769 Jews sailed to neutral Turkey on the S.S. Struma. The Turkish government refused to let the passengers land without assurances that hey would be allowed to continue to their destination - the Land of Israel.  But in their effort to discourage this flow of Jewish refugees, the British government refused to grant them entry visas.  For 10 weeks the Jews remained in quarantine on the ship.  Overcrowded and with inadequate sanitary facilities, they waited and waited.  Finally the Turkish government grew impatient and, despite protests, towed the unseaworthy vessel out to open sea.  It sank within hours.  1 refugee managed to swim to shore while the other 768 lives were lost.

"Australia does not have a racial problem," declared a delegate to the Evian conference on refugees (July 1938), "Nor is she interested in importing one."  Reflecting the sentiment that Jews constitute a racial problem; few of them are a small problem whereas many make a big one.

Could Auschwitz have been bombed?  After May 1944 the unequivocal answer is "yes".   Allied planes repeatedly flew over the area and on one day in August 1944 127 bombers dropped 670,000 pounds of explosives on factories just 5 miles to the east.

Would the bombing of Auschwitz have saved lives?  This is harder to answer in a single word.  During May and July 1944, in the largest and most intensive killing operation of the whole Holocaust, nearly 440,000 Hungarian Jews were taken by train to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  When 1,000 were gassed in an hour we can only speculate as to the effects of disrupting this operation.  Less in dispute, survivors unanimously recall feeling abandoned, forgotten by the world, abandoned to rot in that Silesian hell.  Prisoners who heard aircraft overhead prayed for bombs to fall on the camp and the sounds of explosions filled them with joy.

So why was Auschwitz not bombed?  The real obstacle was the absence of a strong desire to rescue Jews.  Saving Jews was not a high priority for the Allies.  Killing them was of paramount importance to the Nazis.  The truth is that only a tiny fraction of the determination, energy and resources that the Nazis brought to bear to murder innocent people was expended by the Allies to save them. The Nazis saw the Jews as everything evil.  The Allies glanced at aerial photos of the Death Camps and saw nothing of any importance to them or their war effort.

Albert Einstein, a refugee from Nazism, said: "The World is too dangerous to live in - not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen." (FACING HISTORY AND OURSELVES, p. 267).

The Righteous among the Nations

The Nazis depended on the support of millions in order to murder millions. And many gave it, actively and passively.  Of the few Jews who survived the Holocaust, some did so on their own, while others were helped by good people - friends, neighbours and total strangers.  A special group of those "good bystanders" is know as the "Righteous Among the Nations," a term that appears in traditional Jewish sources.

This title is bestowed by Yad Vashem as a gesture of thanks in the name of the whole Jewish people.  A committee of public personalities that is chaired by a Supreme Court Justice determines that the nominee acted to save Jews: a) by their own free decision, b) in territories under the control of the Germans or their collaborators, c) at risk to their life, freedom and safely, d) without receiving any remuneration or reward as a precondition to the help, and e) that it be substantiated by the testimony of Jewish survivors and/or incontrovertible documentary evidence.

To date some 15,000 have been recognized, from Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved tens of thousands in Budapest to Karolina and Mikolay Kmita, farmers in Eastern Poland, who hid Zosia Holtz in an underground pit in the forest.  In the winter Karolina would wrap herself in a white sheet and, in the dead of night, half-walk and half-crawl to the hiding place. She held a basket of food in one hand and a branch in the other to wipe out the trail of footprints in the snow.  During blizzards she had to search for the pit for hours.  For 2 years she risked her own life and lives of her family in order to help others.  Would you have done it too?  Would I?

Final Word

The next lecture deals with the victims.  Whereas it is a tragedy that the world did not rally to save the Jews in the Holocaust, the world did precious little to help leftists or Jehovah's Witness or gypsies.  The world did little to help anyone in the Second World War, or Biafra or El Salvador or Rwanda.  It is a tragedy that the world does not do more to help innocent people in distress, but it does not.

Perhaps a greater tragedy than the fact that THEY did little to help US is the fact that WE were not in a position to help OURSELVES.  The meaning of the Holocaust to the victims - why were WE KILLED? - is the question to which we now turn.


Abella, Irving and Harold Troper, NONE IS TOO MANY, Lester and Orpen, Publishers, 1982.

THE CATASTROPHE OF EUROPEAN JEWRY, Rotkirchen, Livia and Yisrael Gutman, eds.  Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1968.


Gilbert, Martin.  THE HOLOCAUST, London: William Collins, 1986.

Ross, Robert.  SO IT WAS TRUE, University of Minnesota, 1981.

FACING HISTORY AND OURSELVES: HOLOCAUST AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR, Margo Stern Strom and Bill Parsons, eds., Watertown, MA: International Educations, Inc., 1982.





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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0