Holocaust Bystanders Could Have Made A Difference

By Michael Sloto
Miami, Florida

 The most important moral lessons of the Holocaust were taught by the witnessing bystanders. Some included Germans who allowed Hitler's rise to power. Others were political leaders from around the world who did not react early to the European persecution of Jews and other minorities by the Nazis. Many were citizens from countries around the world who failed to lobby their governments for more lenient immigration policies during Nazi persecution.

German citizens in the early 1930's lived in a troublesome economic climate. Having been defeated in World War I, Germany had the burden of war reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The worldwide depression brought inflation and unemployment to Germany. Instead of showing confidence in their government and working to gradually resolve the country's economic problems, the German people began turning to political groups like the Nazis that called for extreme change. The Nazi party was led by Adolph Hitler who blamed the Jews for the economic and social problems of Germany. His movement emphasized that Aryan Germans and Northern Europeans were superior to Jews, Slavs and other minority groups including Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, homosexuals, mentally retarded, physically handicapped and insane. The German citizens naively witnessed Hitler seize and maintain power. They were bystanders who listened to his promises for a prosperous society and national glory for Germany, but watched the Nazis practice terrorism and murder. The German citizenry was viewed as an easy takeover target by the Nazis, whose master propagandist. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, said, "We come like wolves descending on a herd of sheep"(Berenbaum 18).

Witnessing bystanders were not only German citizens who allowed Hitler to rise to power. They were political leaders around the world who watched Germany become a totalitarian state where the government permitted no opposition. In 1933, political leaders around the world should have realized that when Hitler ordered the Nazi party to take over the press, the radio and the schools in Germany, and then appointed Nazi governors to preside over all German states, persecution of the Jews and other minorities would soon follow, and it did. Economic persecution of the Jews officially began on April 1, 1933 when the Nazis instituted a boycott of Jewish businesses throughout Germany. The boycott was Hitler's response to foreign criticism and a possible American boycott of German goods. One week later, Hitler continued his economic attack on the Jews by passing the Civil Service Law of April 7, 1933 which required that all non-Aryans be dismissed from civil service, including notaries and teachers in state schools. It was the first of almost four hundred laws enacted between 1933 and 1939 which defined, isolated, excluded and segregated Jews.

In addition to the economic violence of the boycott and the Civil Service Law, Hitler inflicted intellectual violence upon the Jews and all races which were not included in his Aryan master race. On the night of May 10,1933, thousands of Nazi students and professors stormed universities, libraries and bookstores throughout Germany. They removed hundreds of thousands of books and threw them into bonfires in an effort to purify German culture. The authors of some books were Jews, including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freund. Books of non-Jewish American novelists Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis were burned. In the United States, Time called the book burning a "bibliocaust". Newsweek called it a "holocaust". American writers protested, but there was no organized move to stop Hitler. Hitler would start burning people eight years after the 1933 book burning, but the physical violence started well before that throughout Europe.

Of all the European countries, the most widespread violence against the Jews occurred in Poland. Jews in Poland were attacked on the streets and their homes and businesses were looted. Jewish children were placed in separate schools to prevent non-Jewish children from the harm of low Jewish morals. In October, 1938, the Polish government announced that all Polish-born Jews living outside Poland for more than five years would have their passports revoked and become stateless. Germany announced there was no place for stateless Jews in Germany and they were sent to the nearest railway station with but a single suitcase. Jews were forced over the German-Polish border at gunpoint. When he learned of his family being driven from Germany into Poland, a young man named Herszel Grynszpan, living in France, killed a German diplomat in Paris. Using the diplomat's death as an excuse, the Nazis started a campaign of terror in Germany leading to the "Night of Broken Glass". On this night, November 9,1938, hundreds of synagogues were set on fire, Jewish stores were looted, and Jews were beaten in the street. Violence against the Jews was seen in other European countries. In Rumania, no Jewish lawyers were allowed to enter the legal profession after 1934. In 1936, Rumanian students of an anti-Semitic organization called the Iron Guard, Bombed a Jewish theater. In January of 1938, Rumania revoked the citizenship of many Jews. In May of 1938, Hungary restricted to twenty percent the number of Jews allowed in certain professions. One year later, Hungary passed laws which prevented a Hungarian Jew from being a judge, lawyer, schoolteacher or member of the government. When Germany annexed Austria on March 13, 1938, one hundred eighty-three thousand Austrian Jews came under German control. Many were forced to turn their property over to the Gestapo, the German secret police. Several were taken to Dachau and murdered. The Great Synagogue of Vienna was desecrated and then occupied by the German army.

When it became clear that Hitler's obsession with racial purity had advanced to the intellectual, economic and physical violence practiced by the Nazis, immigration policies around the world should have been relaxed. Witnessing bystanders in any country not controlled by the Nazis could have lobbied their governments to open their doors to the persecuted Jews and other minorities. The one meeting of world leaders to discuss immigration policies, the Evian Conference of July, 1938, was of little help. The Evian Conference was the idea of President Roosevelt in response to increasing pressure in the United States to do something about Hitler's forced emigration policy. Roosevelt tried to balance pressure from American Jews to admit more immigrants and the domestic agenda which centered around the Depression. Although aware that the Nazi anti-Jewish policy was to make Germany "Judenrein", or cleansed of Jews mainly through forced emigration, Roosevelt was careful not to encourage any country attending Evian to receive more immigrants than were permitted under that country's existing law. To force other countries to expand their immigration quotas would have required Roosevelt to do the same in the United States. The immigration policy in the United States was shameful. A strict quota system according to the country of origin limited the number of Jews who could enter the United States. There were financial tests to prohibit entry to those who might need public assistance. A certificate of good standing was required from the police authority, which in Germany was the Gestapo. According to the Roper polls taken in the United States in 1938 and 1939, ninety-five percent of Americans disapproved of the German regime, but fewer than nine percent supported a change to let more refugees into the country. American Jews were afraid of stirring up anti-Semitism in the United States. England claimed to have no room for refugees and refused to open Palestine. The Australian delegate claimed, "We don't have a racial problem and we don't want to import one"(Gilbert 22). Canada, claiming it was still trying to climb out of the Depression, would accept only farmers. This proved no help to the urban Jews trying to leave Germany. Columbia and Venezuela were unwilling to help. Holland and Denmark offered to provide temporary asylum to a few refugees. The most generous offer came from the Dominican Republic which agreed to receive one hundred thousand Jews. The minimal assistance that came from the Evian Conference lead to the German Foreign Office boasting, "Since in many countries it was recently regarded as wholly incomprehensible why Germany did not wish to preserve in its population an element like the Jews, it appears astounding that countries seem in no way anxious to make use of these elements themselves now that the opportunity offers"(Berenbaum 50).

The refugees who were lucky enough to escape Europe were forced to begin a new life in a strange world. They were wrenched from their language, their work and their customs and most of all, from loved ones who did not survive. We must wonder today about the inactions of the German citizens who allowed Hitler's rise to power, about political leaders in the 1930's who did not react to the persecution in Europe, and about the civilian population, Jewish and non-Jewish, which was unable to liberalize immigration policies to prevent mass murder. It took all the might and energy of the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and others over a span of six years to defeat the German armed forces and their Fascist allies. In addition to the six million Jews who perished, almost thirty million non-Jews also died at the hands of the Nazis and in battle. If the moral lessons of the witnessing bystanders taught us anything, they taught us that what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust could happen to other minorities, for all minorities can fall victim to ignorance. Because of the witnessing bystanders, the world will never have the privilege to know those who perished, their offspring, or their possible contributions. The progression of prejudice in the Holocaust was best summarized by the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine a century before when he said, "When one burns books, one will, in the end, burn people"(Berenbaum 25).


Works Cited

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Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1993.

Chandler, Gloria, ed. The Holocaust Remembrance Project: A Teacher's Resource Guide.

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