In the morning, the Campo dei Fiori in Rome is blush with the colour and smells of fruit and vegetable stalls. In the afternoon, emptied of the stalls and washed cleaned, locals and tourists sit outside the restaurants people watching. And in the evening, young people congregate around the bars, flirting and laughing with each other. Overlooking this daily cycle of work and play is a monumental statue to the Dominican cosmologist and philosopher, Giordano Bruno. Found guilty of heresy, Bruno was handed over to the civil authorities. On February 17, 1600 he was burned at the stake. In his poem, Campo dei Fiori, the Polish poet, Czelow Milosz, meditates on the indifference of the bystanders who blithely watched as Bruno was consumed by flames:
Someone will read as moral
That the people of Rome or Warsaw
Haggle, laugh, make love
As they pass by martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
Of the passing of things human,
Of the oblivion
Born before the flames have died.
In The Other Schindlers, Agnes Grunwald-Spier recounts the stories of those men and women who helped their Jewish neighbours during the Holocaust. Sometimes this was inspired by religious belief as in the case of the nun, Soeur St Cybard (1885-1968), who saved a young five year old girl, Josie Martin, by taking her into a Catholic school and concealing her identity. Later Josie would write:
I can only surmise that Soeur St Cybard was a pious and sincere human being who practised her religious beliefs well beyond the dictates of her immediate superiors...I also wonder if I could have been a rescuer. When I think of that, I’m always struck by how heroic that nun was – not just for the obvious reason of risking her life by taking in the enemy or the perceived enemy. I also think of the upheaval it must have caused for this woman to take in a child!
Other rescuers had humanitarian motives such as Jaap van Proosdij (1921 -) who was only twenty one when he rescued 250 Dutch Jews. Reflecting on his actions, he said:
Why did I do it? Because it was the only normal thing to do. One can’t sit and watch when people are in mortal danger even when you do not know them...It is an important thing in my life to feel that I was useful somewhere...that I did not live just to enjoy myself. Nothing else I ever did was as important. A friend of mine said to me that the war was the time he really lived. For me, it was the time I lived the most intensely.
These histories of bravery and selfless concern for others are deeply moving. But, as Agnes Grunwald-Spier reminds us, these were largely isolated events before the general sea of indifference to the sufferings of the Jewish people.
What moves one person to compassion and action when others remain largely indifferent to the suffering around them? What makes one person a bystander and another a Good Samaritan? Has it something to do with categorising people as “them” and not “us”? Does the primitive tendency to stereotype the “other” feed into this indifference? Do some people possess a religious or moral integrity that goes beyond doctrinal formulations and deepens them? Are there some people who have an acute awareness of their interconnectedness with humanity, that, in the words of John Donne, “no man is an island, Intire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent. A part of the Maine…Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. (Devotions XVII) Where within us does the darkness of indifference give way, if at all, to the breaking dawn of active compassion?
In 2001, Professor Richard D. Heffner interviewed the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Weisel. Heffner asked: “You’ve spoken about those who put people in the death camps and brought about their deaths directly. You also speak about others who stood around indifferently. Do you feel that this is increasingly a theme in our times?” Elie Wiesel responded:
Oh, more and more. I have the feeling that everything I do is a variation on the same theme. I’m simply trying to pull the alarm and say, “Don’t be indifferent”. Simply because I feel that indifference now is equal to evil. Evil, we know more or less what it is. But indifference to disease, indifference to famine, indifference to dictators, somehow it is here and we accept it. And I have always felt that the opposite of culture is not ignorance; it is indifference. And the opposite of faith is not atheism; again, it is indifference. And the opposite of morality is not immorality; it’s again indifference. And we don’t realise how indifferent we are simply because we cannot not be a little bit indifferent.
J.D.Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. He would later observe that “anyone could turn out to be a Nazi –your neighbour, your babysitter, the man at the post office – anyone. And anyone could be a hero; you never knew until it happened who would be a hero and who would be a coward or traitor.”
And that is the rub. We remain largely hidden from ourselves. Only our actions or acts of omission reveal us in any concrete sense. None of us can predict the existential maturity of our moral natures until we act or fail to act. Above all, it is in the moment of tragedy or trauma that either our moral grandeur or failure is revealed to us. We see ourselves as we really are. Until we are faced with the suffering and fragility of another human being, those who are hunted and crucified outside the city walls, we do not know whether we will reach out to them or whether covering our own backs, protecting our reputations, parroting given ideological positions will be our main preoccupation.
Would I have been another Schindler, Soeur St Cybard, Jaap van Proosdij or just another indifferent bystander, rationalising my cowardice and ignoring those who were “other”?
The Other Schindlers: why some people chose to save Jews in the Holocaust, Agnes Grunwald-Spier, The History Press, 2010