Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Last week, I sat with Ita Gordon of the Shoah Foundation, discussing general matters regarding German resistance. Our conversation centered on those who claimed to have been part of the resistance, but who were not. That age-old “what-if” resurfaced.

What if every German who said they rescued a Jewish family had actually done so? What if every student had protested when the person sitting next to him in class had been kicked out of school? What if every baker had continued selling bread to Jewish Germans? What if every clothing store owner had kept on providing socks and shirts to Jewish customers? What if every landlord had ignored Hitler’s unconstitutional laws and left Jewish German tenants in their homes?

What if neighbors had banded together against Storm Troopers who showed up to collect Jewish German neighbors on Kristallnacht? What if neighbors had visited Jewish Germans who had been falsely accused and imprisoned in a show of solidarity? What if everyone had built Ernst Wiechert’s famous “wall of love” around Jewish German neighbors?

Thousands upon thousands stand around my house, a dark, loyal, steadfast wall. They demand nothing, they ask nothing. They are there simply so I will know that they are there. So that my house shall not be hemmed in by alien territory, solitude, or bitter desolation.

Not a wall built of power or authority, but a wall of love.

And could anyone perish of whom love has partaken?

The Shoah would have been stopped dead in its tracks if neighbors had looked out for neighbors.

Dr. Armin Ziegler – a German historian of German resistance – noted almost ten years ago that none of his fellow countrymen could claim they didn’t know. They could possibly claim they did not know about the concentration camps, although recent research into the scope of the KZ system renders even that argument implausible.

But (he said) they could not claim they did not know about the persecution of their Jewish neighbors. They saw (he said) prohibitions against sitting on park benches and shopping in stores. They knew that Jewish German students were no longer allowed to attend school with their children. They lived through Kristallnacht and witnessed Jewish neighbors dragged from their homes – German neighbors who happened to be Jewish. They could not have failed to notice when Jewish German friends suddenly were not there. And (he said) they did nothing. They were deaf and mute in the face of injustice, but not blind.

Dr. Ziegler’s comments take us right back to the conversation with Ita Gordon, in fact past it to our current day. What if every one of us would determine that when injustice befalls our neighbor, we would act? It is good and right and proper to worry about genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, and to take action, but if I fail to act when a person in front of my face is treated unjustly…

What if we all committed to acting like neighbors? Fred Rogers’ song may be corny, but corniness does not render his sentiment invalid. I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you. So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day. Since we’re together we might as well say: … Won’t you be my neighbor?

It’s not easy. And it may require a certain amount of personal inconvenience. Speaking for myself, I can be a coward when I am asked to leave my comfort zone.

But 12,000,000 to 15,000,000 Jewish Germans and Jewish Europeans, Poles, Roma, Sinti, Jehovah’s Witness, LGBT, socialists and Communists, and conscientious objectors remind us what happens when neighbors look the other way.

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