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As we observe Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, which lasts until sundown today, I reflect upon my familial history: two scenarios with somewhat varied outcomes.

When I was a young child, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon Mahler’s knee. Looking down urgently, but with deep affection, he said to me, “Varn,” (through his distinctive Polish accent, he pronounced my name “Varn”), “you are named after my father, Wolf Mahler, who was killed by the Nazis along with my mother Bascha and most of my thirteen brothers and sisters.” When I asked why they were killed, he responded, “Because they were Jews.” Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.

We later learned that Nazi troops forced most of my Krosno relatives into the surrounding woods, shot them, and tossed their lifeless bodies into a mass unmarked grave along with over two thousand other Jewish residents. The Nazis eventually loaded the remaining Jews of Krosno onto cattle cars and transported them to Auschwitz and Belzec death camps. The handful of Krosno Jews who survived liberation of the camps attempted to return to their homes that had been confiscated by the non-Jewish residents. No Jews reside today in Krosno.

More recently, on a snowy February morning in 2002, while in my university office organizing materials for that day’s classes, I received an email message that would forever poignantly and profoundly change my life. A man named Charles Mahler had been looking for descendants of the Mahler family of Krosno, Poland, and he had come across an essay I had written focusing on Wolf and Bascha Mahler.

Charles informed me that he had survived the German Holocaust along with his sister, parents, and maternal grandparents and uncle, but the Nazis murdered his father’s parents (Jacques and Anja Mahler), sister, and her two children, and other relatives following Hitler’s invasion and occupation of Belgium, their adopted home country.

My cousin Charles related their story in hiding from August 1942 until the final armistice in Europe. His father, Georges, altered the family’s identity papers from Jewish to Christian, and they abandoned Antwerp for what they considered the relative safety of the Belgium countryside. During their plight, members of the Belgium resistance movement and other righteous Christians shepherded them throughout the remainder of the war to three separate locations as the German Gestapo followed closely at their heels. On a number of occasions, they successfully “passed” as Christian directly under the watchful gaze of unsuspecting Nazis.

Though the majority of Jewish inhabitants of Antwerp ultimately perished, many survived. However, at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel) one will observe “Krosno” chiseled into the glass and the stone walls listing towns and villages where Nazis and their sympathizers decimated entire Jewish communities.

I have learned many lessons in my studies of genocides perpetrated throughout the ages.

Strong leaders whip up sentiments by employing dehumanizing stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups, while other citizens or entire nations look on, often refusing to intervene. Everyone, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a vital role in the genocides.

On a micro level, this is also apparent, for example, in episodes of schoolyard, community-based, as well as electronic forms of bullying. According to the American Medical Association definition: “Bullying is a specific type of aggression in which the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one.”

The problem of bullying and harassment should not be seen simply as involving those who bully and those who are bullied (the “dyadic view”), but rather as involving a number of “actors” or roles across the social/school environment. In one study, peers were present to witness 85% of the bullying incidents at school.

Some researchers have defined the roles various people play. Dan Olweus, international researcher and bullying prevention specialist, enumerated the distinct and often overlapping roles enacted in these episodes:

1. Those Who Bully: the person or persons who perpetrate the bullying episodes;

2. Followers/Henchmen(women): those who are active in the bullying process, though a follower of the main “ringleader” bully(ies);

3. Supporter, Passive Bully/Bullies: those who passively support, condone, collude, or encourage the aggression;

4. Passive Supporter, Possible Bully: those who are unsure of ways to actively assist those who perpetrate the aggression, though they are with those who bully;

5. Disengaged Onlookers: sometimes referred to as “bystanders,” aware of the bullying behaviors, do nothing, often stay away from the incidents;

6. Possible Defender: those who could intervene on behalf of the targets of bullying, but for many reasons may feel disempowered, unsure of ways to assist, fearful of being a target themselves;

7. Defender of those Who are Bullied: those who either work proactively, or actually intervene, defend, and protect the targets of aggression;

8. Those Who Are Bullied, The One(s) Who Is/Are Exposed: the targets of aggression.

One piece of my family puzzle met a tragic end, another partial segment survived. In both instances, the bystanders determined the balance of power: in Krosno, many, though not all, conspired with the oppressors, while in Antwerp, many dug deeply within themselves transitioning from bystanders into courageous, compassionate, and empathetic upstanders in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Each day we all are called on to make small and larger choices and to take actions. At a homecoming dance at Richmond High School in California on October 27, 2009, for example, up to ten young men grabbed a 14-year-old young woman who had been waiting outside the dance for her father, dragged her behind a building, and gang raped her for over two and one-half hours with approximately ten witnesses observing. Some even cheered on the attackers. No one notified the police. The perpetrators left the young woman in critical condition.

But then a few years during a horrendous traffic accident between an automobile driver and a motor cyclist resulted in the cyclist being thrust under the burning car, a group of stunned bystanders immediately and without hesitation turned into courageous upstanders by joining in unison, with flames raging around them, to turn the car on its end ensuring that others could pull the young cyclist to safety, thereby saving his life.

So which side are we on? This question brings to mind the old truism: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Today as in the past, no truer words were ever uttered, for in the spectrum from occasional microaggressions to full-blown genocide, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”


Warren J. Blumenfeld is an instructor at the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

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