More than half a million Hungarian Jews were exterminated between May and July of 1944. Amos Guiora’s parents were among the fraction who survived — no thanks to their gentile neighbors in Budapest and Serbia, who offered scant protection from the occupying Nazis’ killing machine.
Alexander Guiora escaped from a German work camp in Serbia, then led four other inmates on a desperate, 81-mile walk to Sofia. They traveled at night after discovering that civilians near the camp were more interested in taunting Jewish fugitives than in sheltering them.
In Budapest, meanwhile, Alexander’s 12-year-old wife-to-be narrowly escaped execution after being flushed from her apartment by Hungarian collaborators. She spent most of 1944 hiding from the occupiers and Hungarian neighbors wary of crossing them.
Now a retired Israeli Defense Forces officer turned University of Utah law professor, Amos Guiora, 60, has spent much of the last half-century thinking about the role bystanders play in perpetuating the suffering meted out by genocidal dictators and small-time criminals alike.
Last spring, after four years of research that included awkward encounters with some of the gentile families who turned a blind eye to the plight of Hungary’s Jews, Guiora published “The Crime of Complicity,” in which he argues that ordinary citizens who remain passive in the face of evil should face criminal penalties as well as moral censure.
In a phone conversation this week, Guiora said he didn’t anticipate the political upheaval of 2016, in which refugees and minority groups have become the targets of nativist resentment in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and other western democracies.
But his book has become a minor sensation in an America where policy makers argue about what should happen to undocumented immigrants and the sanctuary cities that seek to protect them. There have been favorable reviews in the popular press, radio and TV appearances, and even talk of a Broadway play. This Sunday afternoon, he’ll return to his native Michigan to speak to discuss individual responsibility in an appearance at West Bloomfield’s Holocaust Memorial Center.
Watching the watchers
In a pleasantly meandering conversation, Guiora, who grew up in Ann Arbor, described how what began as an attempt to delineate the legal obligations of people who witness a crime evolved into a more anecdotal exploration of the no-man’s land between indifference to suffering and collaboration with those responsible for it.
“I became obsessed with the role of the bystander, with understanding how a person who sees a fellow human being in harm’s way can just go on with his daily life,” he said.
Although the the impetus for his book was the indifference his parents encountered in their life-and-death struggles against Nazi persecution, Guiora said he soon became equally interested in contemporary examples of bystander passivity. He cited the college student who pretends to be asleep while his roommate forces sex on an nonconsenting partner and the five Florida teenagers who filmed a disabled man as he drowned in a retention pond last July as examples of the callous passivity he believes should be a criminal offense.
His conclusion is that even the most innocent bystander is implicated when he takes no action to help a fellow human being whose suffering he has witnessed in person. “The lesson history teaches is that silence can kill,” Guiora says. “Passivity doesn’t work.”
Echoes of intolerance
The museum where Guiora will expand on his theme of personal responsibility is an elegantly powerful testament set incongruously among the strip malls and professional office buildings of Orchard Lake Road. Visitors begin their odyssey in a sunlit, richly appointed library that celebrates the intellectual contributions of European Jews, then follow an ever-dimming passage that descends, literally and figuratively, to exhibits memorializing the mass exterminations carried out at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other death camps. Along the way, videos, posters and other artifacts from the 1930s document the German nation’s mounting intolerance of Jews, a government-led crackdown on Jewish travel, immigration, and access to public education and social services that met little resistance from Germany’s non-Jewish electorate.
Historical comparisons to that era are almost always overwrought, but it is impossible to retrace the events memorialized in the Memorial Center’s descending spiral architecture and not be struck by certain parallels to the present: the conviction that a proud nation’s economic stagnation could be traced to the influence of a globalist elite; the increasing hostility toward the independent press, and the rise of a propaganda machine that efficiently disseminated the ruling regime’s alternate version of reality; the demonization of minorities suspected of diluting Germany’s language, universities and cultural institutions.
When I last visited the Holocaust Memorial Center late last year, it was grasping for a way to acknowledge those parallels without insulting patrons who find any comparison between the rise of German fascism and the “America first” credo of the Trump administration insulting.
Eli Mayerfield, the rabbi and veteran educator who became the center’s executive director in January, says the invitation the museum extended to Guiora is consistent with its mission “to engage and empower the community” by remembering the Holocaust and the political conditions in which anti-semitism took root and flourished.
“There’s a national conversation taking place, and Professor Guiora and his book are integral to that conversation,” Mayerfield says. He says the recent episodes of white supremacist violence have intensified the center’s concern about a resurgence of anti-Semitism, but is not looking to draw a straight line between prewar Germany and modern Charlottesville.
“We’re not trying to convince our visitors what to think about these things,” Mayerfield says. “We’re trying to teach them that they have to think about them.”
When norms are elusive
Guiora, for his part, says it’s easier to demand that bystanders behave responsibly when the government stands ready to enforce social norms that are widely shared. He’s not arguing that people who witness a crime being committed have a legal duty to intervene themselves, he says, only that they’re obligated to alert someone with the means and legal authority to do something.
“I’m talking about the duty to call the police, who are usually the good guys in this context — not always, but usually.”
The dilemma for bystanders is trickier, he concedes, when it’s unclear on whose behalf how those in authority will intervene.
Suppose, I asked Guiora, that a child comes home from college one day with a classmate who faces deportation because her parents brought her to the U.S. illegally as a child. Do I have a moral obligation to offer the classmate a spare bedroom where immigration authorities will be unlikely to find her? If I extend such an offer, am I nobly defending a blameless victim, subverting the rule of law, or both?
“The easy answer is to take them in,” Guiora says. “And my personal reaction, after knowing what my parents endured, is ‘Thank God there are people who are doing that today.’ “
But he says codifying the responsibilities of someone considering such an intervention is hard, especially if defending a vulnerable victim puts the bystander or the bystander’s family in harm’s way.
“When I was researching my book in Budapest, I interviewed the daughter of a woman who took in a desperate Jewish child one night and put the child out the next morning when she realized that her husband, a local official imprisoned by the Nazis, might be executed if she was discovered to be hiding a Jew.
“The daughter considered her mother a heroine twice over — once for taking in a helpless child, and once for sending the child away to save her family.”
The dilemma facing many Americans bystanders alarmed about legislation and executive order targeting immigrants and other politically vulnerable minorities is how to intervene responsibly on behalf of those in harm’s way.
Is it enough to contest the elected officials promoting such initiatives in the public square and the election booth? Or must “resistance” extend to defiance of those responsible for enforcing the rules, even when such defiance puts the rebellious bystander at risk?
“There are many in our society who feel as though authority is not on their side,” Mayerfield says. That distrust, he says, “is just another one of those things we have to figure out.”
Contact Brian Dickerson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Amos Guiora, a professor of law at the University of Utah, will discuss “The Crime of Complicity” at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Holocaust Memorial Center, 28123 Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield. Admission is $10 or $5 for students and museum members. Those seeking to reserve seats should contact HMC at 248-536-9605, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
This article was posted here for the Detroit Free Press.