January is always a bleak month. It is, quite often, the most bitter few weeks of winter; the sun falls early and rises late. Depression, very often, takes a strong hold and for our community it is a reminder of death and sorrow.
For Jews, the end of January descends like a dark grey cloud. This year, Jan. 27 marked an anniversary like no other: it was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp where 1.5 million people were killed in its gas chambers, the vast majority of whom were Jews.
The architects of genocide designed this first modern factory whose sole purpose was the obliteration of an entire people. The Nazis, though, focused their animus and evil almost entirely on two people, Jews and Roma. They were to be wiped off the face of the earth. By the time the devil’s work was done the Nazis, using mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen), beatings, starvations and, of course, the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno and Majdanek, massacred six million Jewish men, women and children – two-thirds of European Jewry. In the same bloodlust, it is estimated that upwards of 500,000 Roma men, women and children met the same fate.
Let’s make no mistake. The Nazis were responsible for these genocides. The Nazis planned it with remarkable precision and carried it out with horrible, sick efficiency. Yet, it is clear in my view, that none of this could have been accomplished without, at the very least, the willing participation of local populations under Nazi occupation. Whether it be from France to Holland, from Latvia to areas of Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, there were those who were all too happy to help the Nazis with their Jewish problem.
They were haters who looked at Jews with disgust. Many envied Jewish families, others simply were driven by either nativist anger or classical forms of Christian-stoked biblical Jew hatred. My late father never forgave the Poles. He and his family had lived in the small Polish village of Bothki for generations. My paternal grandfather was the town miller. He, my father and his six brothers worked amongst both Jews and Poles. They knew each other, did business with each other and when the Nazis invaded Poland, these same neighbours, in sadly large numbers, betrayed their fellow Jewish citizens.
They weren’t all like this. Many were just bystanders who did nothing to help or anything to hurt. I understand these people, after all, to help a Jew in Nazi occupied Poland, at that time, would bring death to your entire family. Better then to be a bystander than a Nazi enabler.
What was missing from Bothki were too few “upstanders,” a person who comes to the aid of a fellow human being who is under attack or harassment. My father’s friend Julian was such an “upstander.”
A friend since childhood, Julian was a Byelorussian whose family moved to eastern Poland. Following the liquidation of the Bothki Ghetto, where my father became separated from his family, Julian found him hiding in the woods. He took him home. Together they built a small underground cellar where my father hid for months. I recall my father telling me that when he had lost all faith it was Julian who gave him hope, “we are friends, brothers,” he told him “as long as I will be alive, you will be alive.”
Julian was an “upstander.” He understood the risk, but he also knew and understood his moral centre. He chose to honour life and in doing so he helped defeat Hitler’s evil.
There were far too few “Julians” then and there are far too few “Julians” today. And today, our choices are not bound up in life and death. They are bound up simply in right and wrong.
At a time when anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism are at unprecedented levels, we must all commit to being upstanders. We must all be like Julian.