In an iconic scene in Steven Spielberg’s classic film, “Schindler’s List”, cattle cars filled to capacity with Jewish men, women and children, rumbled through the outskirts of German towns and villages, often with local residents gawking at the sight. The scene includes a brief moment when a young boy gazes at the train’s pitiful cargo and, with a grin on his face, the little boy slowly draws his pointer finger across his neck in a cutthroat gesture – a graphic indication that even among the very young, local citizens who observed Jew son trains knew that they were headed for death.
In fact, way back in 1946, sociologist Morris Janowitz wrote that “… even before the Allied occupation, Germans were aware of the existence and function of concentration camps,” and that “In every country they occupied … the Nazis found many locals who were willing to cooperate fully in the murder of the Jews.”
The Museum of Tolerance, the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center emphasizes that “Although the entire German population was not in agreement with Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, there is no evidence of any large scale protest regarding their treatment (and that) this was particularly true in Eastern Europe, where there was a long standing tradition of virulent antisemitism…”
That’s right. As a rabbi who lives and works In Europe I find it particularly disheartening to come to terms with the fact that the taunts and jeers, the physical assaults and the humiliations, the torture and murder of six million Jews happened on our soil. How sobering it is to internalize that not even a century ago thousands upon thousands of Europeans in towns, villages and hamlets throughout the continent watched the Nazi persecution of their Jewish neighbors and did nothing.
That’s why that for all the things said about the war on Ukraine – that the situation is dire and desperate, heinous and unjust – one more observation can be made; that is, the war on Ukraine has given Europeans a second chance to right a wrong- a second chance at redemption.
Long lines of Ukrainian refugees wait at the Polish border, some who’ve been rescued from bombed out shelters, others who’ve seen their homes turned to rubble, and all of whom travelled long hours, sometimes days to reach Warsaw – a World War II city often remembered for its rampant anti-semitism and home to the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, that for thousands of Jews was the second last stop before death in an extermination camp.
During the war years in cities throughout Eastern Europe, fellow countrymen and women were abandoned on sidewalks to die of starvation. Today, every effort is made to find food, shelter and clothing, water, toilet paper and even energy bars for Ukrainians who are fleeing the enemy’s wrath. It’s almost as though Poland can’t do enough and truly they can’t because no amount of relief supplies or the smiling faces of earnest volunteers can make up for what happened not so many decades ago. But that is no reason to diminish the opportunity that the Ukrainian crisis provides.
Queen Esther of Purim fame faced a similar dilemma. By not disclosing her Jewish heritage in a timely fashion, Esther’s lie by omission nearly got the Jews of Shushan killed. By the time she summoned the courage to disclose her true identity the persecution of the Jews had already begun. Although Esther almost waited too long, remarkably the Jews won the right to defend themselves and they did so with great success. Some would say that fate gave Esther a second chance.
The war on Ukraine, for all its horror, is Europe’s second chance. Will Europeans stand in solidarity with their Ukrainian brothers and sisters? Although our continent’s history of procrastination is undeniable, like Esther, may we Europeans take what seems to be a last chance opportunity to demonstrate that our collective identity matters. Like Esther it’s not too late to save the people, possibly just in the nick of time.