The 11th Commandment-“Never be a bystander”: Reflections of Human Indifference and Unresponsiveness to Atrocious Behavior and Why Speaking-Up Matters
By Harrison Vogt
In the poem Campo Dei Fiori, Czesław Miłosz describes a scene of human indifference and suffering during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The story depicts the contrast between non-Jewish residents of Warsaw enjoying their leisure time by “flying high” on a sky carousel and listening to carnival toons. Meters away the Warsaw Ghetto’s Wall kept in the suffering of its remaining inhabitants. At the time, the Warsaw was the site of the largest ghetto in Europe and it was in the middle of its liquidation. The Nazi Regime used any means necessary to halt the Jewish uprising by burning and systematically destroying everything within the walls of the ghetto. The backdrop of “that beautiful day in Warsaw” came with the smoke billowing up from the ghetto. This prominent destruction made it impossible to ignore the extent of human suffering within the ghetto. Regardless, those with clear evidence of something horrible occurring within their community went as far as to play while those in the ghetto were shrouded in their suffering. The story as told by Miłosz reflects the indifference of those who chose to ignore the human suffering and wrongdoing happening around them.
I reflected upon the poem of Campo Dei Fiori while visiting The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Amongst the hundreds of uniform concrete blocks dedicated to the 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, silence intended for reflection was broken by the laughter of children playing hide-and-seek. The overwhelming sense of being enveloped by the blocks and the silent thoughts about terrible history they represent was scattered by adults posing for photos, presumably for their social media pages. Despite the significance of the memorial, adults who should have the capacity to understand the atrocity of the Holocaust showed behavior more appropriate for a city park. I felt at odds with my expectations of the respect required at a memorial and the behavior that others showed while visiting. I was struck by human indifference at a place dedicated to an event so important to humanity.
Miłosz’s poem and my observation of those at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe draw attention to a daily act of indifference and the human tendency to do nothing in the face of others’ sufferings. This includes the citizens of Warsaw who chose to “fly high” mere meters from the ghetto wall or people who choose to pose for Instagram pictures at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. What is particularly concerning is the ease with which people can be indifferent.
There is a certain sense of numbness or ignorance that fuels unresponsiveness. If one is not directly impacted by the uncomfortable issues, their responsibility is absolved and they can live their daily lives as if nothing wrong is occurring near them. We are all guilty of ignoring what does not immediately affect us.
When I first embarked on my studies in Central Europe, I felt my lack of knowledge around Holocaust related issues absolved my responsibility to talk about them. I did not feel I had the ability to discuss the atrocity as I was never directly affected by it. At the same time, I found myself dismissing my responsibility for other societal issues. I justified this by explaining that I had “insufficient” knowledge about the issue or that I felt that I was disempowered.
I became conscious of this disengagement while hiking in the mountains of rural Poland and reflecting on massive environmental pollution and who is responsible. Feeling disempowered, I felt absolved of my responsibility for individual action. In other words, I found myself falsely justifying indifference and unresponsiveness. Given what I have written within this essay, I could not have been more wrong. My individual censorship could have the impact of letting atrocious behavior go unchecked.
What is the impact of a major section of society that chooses to live in leisure at the sight of a known wrong? What would the impact of one person speaking up be? In a speech on the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, given by Holocaust survivor Marian Turski, the concept of the 11th commandment was discussed. Turski argued the importance of not being complacent and not being a bystander. This is what freedom and democracy relies on. People must speak up. His speech calls out the citizens who choose to ignore the suffering of their neighbors. When we choose to ignore the plight of others, or the destructive actions of others, no matter how far away or small it may seem, suffering goes unchecked and the perpetrators of a plight are never held accountable.
- Turski, M. (2020). The speech by Marian Turski at the memorial ceremony on 27 January 2020 in Auschwitz. International Auschwitz Committee. Retrieved November 27, 2021, from https://www.auschwitz.info/en/commemoration/commemoration-2020-75th-anniversary-of-the-liberation/2020-01-27-marian-turski-the-eleventh-commandment.html.
- Milosz, C. (1943). Campo dei Fiori by Czeslaw Milosz. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49751/campo-dei-fiori.
Image 1: Office of the U.S. Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality. 5/2/1945-10/24/1946 (Most Rec. (1946). Es gibt keinen judischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr!” . National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved November 27, 2021, from https://research.archives.gov/description/6003996.
Image 2: Harrison Vogt, personal use
Image 3: Stanisław Poznański (oprac./edit.), Walka. Śmierć. Pamięć 1939-1945. W dwudziestą rocznicę powstania w warszawskim getcie 1943-1963, Rada Ochrony Pomników Walki i Męczeństwa, Warszawa 1963 (strony nienumerowane/pages unnumbered) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Warsaw_Ghetto_footbridge_05.jpg