It is only in retrospect that the early 1940s seemed like good years for my family. As a 16-year-old prisoner in Auschwitz in 1944, I would have given anything to go back a few years. To be at home with my family was my greatest wish, and to eat a meal cooked by my mother was my most persistent desire.
But from any perspective other than my barracks in Auschwitz, those years were a terrible period for us. In the time preceding our deportation from our home in Hungary, my family experienced many acts of anti-Semitism. A brick was thrown through our living room window. A man spoke at an assembly at my school, shouting that the Jews were responsible for all of the country's troubles. My sister's high school prom was ruined by a group of local hooligans who burst in shouting anti-Semitic slogans. The street became a gauntlet of threats and taunts.
All of our assailants felt empowered by the Nazi party influence in Hungary, but none of these actions were officially sanctioned by the government. They were the result of people inspired by racial rhetoric to take matters into their own hands.
I am reminded of these affronts to my family's freedom and safety as I read the news about the dramatic increase in racial hate crimes since the election (as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups). Some people now feel empowered to insult immigrants, African Americans and Muslims the way people in our town felt empowered to say hateful things to us. It felt terrible to be the target of such hatred, having done nothing to bring it about. And most of all, it felt incredibly lonely. The abuse that we experienced before we were deported took place in public, often in front of many onlookers. The failure of others to intervene--those who watched silently and then carried on with the business of their day--was socially isolating, and their silence dramatically increased our sense of fear and vulnerability.
It is critical in today's climate that we not be silent bystanders who simply witness the victimization of others. Social psychologists have studied for decades the circumstances under which people will intervene when others need help. They find that three factors are critical. First, when we feel empathy for the victim, we are more likely to help. Second, when we feel that we have the ability to help, we will feel more confident about stepping in. And third, when we recognize that it is our responsibility to help, we are more likely to do so. When there are many onlookers, this responsibility can be diffused in a crowd: everyone thinks that someone else will help, and so no one does, and since no one is helping, it seems like the appropriate thing to do is just to watch or walk by.
What this means for all of us is that if we witness someone who is abused because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, there are three things we can do:
1. Feel their pain. Imagine what it would feel like to be in their place. Even if you see that person as very different from you, we can all remember--or at least imagine--what it is like to be threatened, shouted at, or physically harmed. Act as if the victim is a family member or a close friend.
2. Feel confident, because it is not that hard to help. All you need is a few kind words for the victim. Simply walking up to the target of the attack and asking if he or she is okay can mean the world to that person, and this will likely encourage others to follow your example. Research on bystander intervention tells us that once one person helps, others follow. That first courageous helper sets the tone, makes clear that intervention is called for, and leads the way for others to join.
3. Recognize your responsibility. If you think that you can remain quiet because others will step up, the victim is likely to go unaided. Imagine you are the only witness--that unless you help, you are condemning someone else to suffer.
When my two sisters and my mother were in a concentration camp, they were marched through a German town every evening on their way to work the night shift in a munitions factory. They were often taunted by people on the street. Children would stick out their tongues. Passing soldiers would curse at them. On one occasion, Hitler youth wearing neatly pressed uniforms and ugly smiles shouted at them, and the women were surprised when an elderly German man shouted back at their persecutors: "Don't laugh at them! There is nothing for them to be ashamed of. It is not their shame; it is our shame!" The boys stopped and stared at the old man, uncertain of what to do next, then straggled off. My sisters always remembered that German gentleman who stood out in contrast to the malice all around them.
My hope is that if a woman is yelled at today on the street of your hometown for wearing a headscarf, she will find herself surrounded by others defending her right to dress as she pleases, and the perpetrator will stand alone, shamed. I hope that if you see an immigrant being told to go back to where he came from, you will stand with him in support of his right to be here. We must all be ready, always, to demonstrate what this country truly stands for.
What political leaders say is important, and I salute New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for saying, "Hate speech is reprehensible, and to the affected, we stand with you. To the perpetrators, we are better than this." But what matters most of all is how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives as we encounter one another in public spaces. And because there will always be those filled with hatred, who see it as their right to lash out at others who are different from them, it is the duty of the rest of us to have the compassion, confidence and sense of responsibility to intervene. Through our acts of intervention, we can truly make an impact on how we treat one another, how differences are respected, and how our freedom is maintained.
Written by Gene Klein (with his daughter Jill Klein, Author of We Got the Water: Tracing My Family's Path Through Auschwitz). You can follow Gene on Facebook at Gene Klein - Holocaust Survivor.