On my mind today as we plan our 125km trek from our house in Toronto to Niagara Falls…
In a New York Times op ed published this week – during which world leaders are meeting to discuss the global refugee crisis – Nicholas Kristof honours some of the heroes of the second world war and asks the question “Would you hide a Jew from the Nazis?”
Kristof, like many, draws parallels between the situation in Syria and the holocaust and asks who is stepping up to the plate. I don’t agree that the two situations are directly comparable, for many reasons. But the most important similarity is that innocent people have been forced from their homes and are dying, with nowhere to go.
This is the only question isn’t it? How much would you risk your own life or the lives of those you love to save another? All good people like to think we would hide a Jew from the Nazis, but would we take that risk?
I don’t know. Do you?
(I mean if I wasn’t one of the Jews people would have to hide. Obviously.)
Discussing the article, my husband David and I went through a list of our friends, listing who we thought would help us if there was another Shoah. We came up with a pretty reassuring list. But some of the conversation went like this:
“(Name) would ignore our messages and claim she didn’t get them because there was a problem with her phone.”
“(Name) would get into huge arguments with the Nazis and he’d have to go into hiding with us.”
“(Name) would promise to help us but then cancel three times and change her mind at the last minute because she ‘can’t handle the stress.’”
“(Name) would be like ‘I really want to help but I’m out of town!'”
Funny not funny at all…
But all morbid speculation aside, in theory it’s easy to say you would be brave. In practice, it’s hard.
Kristof uses examples in his piece, two of whom are Polish farmer Josef Ulma and his wife, Wiktoria, who sheltered members of two Jewish families in their house.
“Someone reported them, and the Gestapo raided the Ulmas’ farmhouse. The Nazis first shot the Jews dead, and then took retribution by executing not just Jozef and Wiktoria (who was seven months pregnant) but also all their [six] children. The entire family was massacred.”
Unthinkable. And yet it happened.
I have some understanding of what it means to make this decision.
There is a Yad Vashem medal sitting on my mantlepiece. It was awarded posthumously to David’s Protestant grandfather, Henk Jager, who sheltered dozens of Jewish children in his house in a rural Dutch village.
A neighbouring family was caught doing the same thing, so the Nazis shot them and laid their bodies by the road as a warning. Henk, who had a wife and two sons, had to walk by them every day.
I bet the was fucking terrified.
Did he make the right decision? That depends on which son you ask.
Son #1 resented his father for putting his children’s lives at risk and thinks Henk should have put his family first and left the Jews to die.
Son #2, my father in law, was proud of his father.
Its notable that the two sons didn’t get along very well and that I think Son #2 was the nicer man.
Is one of them right and one of them wrong? I think it’s clear what I think. This is why I’m going to walk 125 km in an attempt to save people who need our help. I realize that there are dangers associated with this. I’m not one to downplay the threat of terrorism. But I don’t think locking them out is the solution.
And you know what would have been worse? If nobody had tried to help. If everyone had just quietly let the Nazis kill us off, that would have been worse.
And if more countries had opened their doors to Jewish refugees? That would have been better.
Does that mean I know what I would do when faced with the real question Kristof asks? No. I’m human. I’m not made of courage. And so I’m asking you:
Would you hide a Jew from the Nazis? Tell me. I’m listening.