When you breathe out, they scream; when you breathe in, they cry; when you blink, they cower, and when you are silent, they die.
Many early writers on the events we describe today as the Holocaust split the “players” into three distinct groups – perpetrators, bystanders and victims. No-one can help being a victim, the crimes of the protagonists pored over, again and again, and the shock of those who would stand by and only watch does not diminish over time.
Photographs and film footage remain to remind us of the multitude who would form a crowd to line the path trodden by the cowed and the terrified, pushed and kicked forward towards a terrible fate, its form unknown but its end not in doubt. It scars the eye to witness those who stood idle, curious, indifferent or full of an unspoken hatred, gazing, arms folded as the children and the aged are prodded with guns and bayonets, tears forming on the cheek, pupils stark, staring in a maddened fear.
We can ask, luxurious in the safety that is ours, far from the past so bloodied, how it can be that ten men with guns can kill ten thousand men, women and children. We know, though, weary and weighed with a heavy heart, that it is easy when thousands more will stand by, silent, unmoved, uncaring, lacking any twitch of muscle or grip of a clenched fist to be moved to compassion, driven by the measure of justice to act, challenge, resist – to resist the temptation to be a bystander only, a witness solely, a silence lonely in the echo left by the stamp of the killer’s boot.
We tell ourselves that it would now be different, if it was us, on the roadside, at the edge of town, if it was now, and others were marched by our side, trembling, in terror and despair, we would not simply stand by them and leave our voice unspoken; we would not be so slow, to be so still for so long as they are driven before us, filling our eyes with their tears and their cries. We would not dare to be a bystander to brutality, to the punch and the kick of the bully beating the broken. We would do better.
But this much I know. There are millions of bystanders lining the avenues and streets, the cul-de-sacs and the estates, poor and grand, across the depth and breadth of this bloody land. There are victims pushed, kicked, dragged, beaten, stabbed as they are tormented in a torrent of abuse that mutilates their every moment of a miserable life, one that is ended violently, viciously in a journey, a transport of terror, that leads only to chambers of murder. A Nazi Holocaust perpetuated daily on the fields of this green and pleasant land.
Every day many hundreds of thousands of farmed animals are taken by the truckload from the farm to the slaughterhouse; many people will be driving in their cars as they see the truck drive onward to its destination, witnessing the strained and stretched necks of the animals reaching for air, but only witnessing, never caring.
We all know the slaughterhouses, those great mansions of murder and destruction, are there behind those trees, down the end of that lane. We all know the fear and the horror endured by the farmed animals as they are dragged onto the trucks and then out into the killing line, awaiting their turn, trembling in terror; it has been reported often enough, openly enough, in enough newspapers enough times for everyone to know the violence and the cruelty that is the moment by moment agony of slaughter. But so many stand by them and do nothing for them. Idle, unmoved, silent.
Saying nothing, doing nothing. Bystanders in their millions making it possible for a few men to kill ten thousand in the blood-filled space of a few hours.
Those who stood idle in the Holocaust could also benefit after the trucks had left town, moving into the now vacant houses and shops, taking for themselves, satisfying themselves that they were on the right side. Those who stand idle in a land filled with slaughterhouses fill their bellies with the stolen flesh of the murdered, satisfying themselves that everything was necessary, that everything is right. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.
No-one can help being a victim. But everyone can choose not to be a perpetrator and not to be a bystander, not to be both or either. Act differently and the world can be different. We can save every potential victim if we choose to, if we want to, if we dare to.