Should Standing by be a Crime? // Prof. Amos Guiora is using lessons from the Holocaust to say that bystanders should take action…or be punished.

Someone had informed on them.

The girl and her mother had been in hiding, in an attic in Budapest. Every day, an elderly Catholic woman would bring them food. But one night, it wasn’t the woman who ascended to the attic. It was members of the Arrow Cross, the anti-Semitic Hungarian nationalist party that terrorized the Jews of the country during World War II, in league with the Nazis.
The two women were hurried down the stairs, their captors telling them that it was all over. They would be shot in the courtyard.

Down in the open air, as the two were about to be executed, a second group of Arrow Cross members approached. “Leave them to us,” they said, and the first group complied.

But once they were marched from the courtyard, their new oppressors revealed their secret. They weren’t, in fact, members of the Arrow Cross. Instead, they were members of Hashomer Hatzair, the Zionist youth group, and they had stolen Arrow Cross uniforms in order to rescue other Jews.

Now the two women were free, but where could they go? As Prof. Amos Guiora of the University of Utah described it to me: “My mother and grandmother made an instant decision that they couldn’t go back upstairs. So they started running through the streets of Budapest looking for a safe house.”

Eventually they did find a safe house, and then they began the process of moving from one safe house to another, to yet another. It was still a perilous existence; they were caught and taken out to be shot a different time, as well. “I do not know how they were saved the second time, because my mother”—she is 85 and living in Jerusalem now—“unfortunately will not share with us the details,” Prof. Guiora told me.

But what she has conveyed to him is her memory of that run, from their first hiding place to the safe house they eventually found—that run through the streets of Budapest. “She clearly remembers Budapest gentiles looking at them. They were obviously Jewish, because they wore the yellow star.”

And yet, no one stepped forward to help them, even for a moment.

Prof. Guiora’s father, too, was a Holocaust survivor, and his story, as well, involved bystanders failing to act. In his new book, The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust, Prof. Guiora examines his own parents’ history, but he also discusses a legislative proposition—that bystanders should have a legal requirement to take action when they see someone who needs help, and if they don’t they should be punished.
Prof. Guiora’s book, and his activism, have led to a law that was introduced in the Utah legislature, one that raises the question: When should standing by be a crime?

Lost stories
Longtime readers of Ami’s Closer Look column may recognize Prof. Guiora as an expert on a specific area of law. A retired IDF lieutenant colonel, he served in a number of senior posts, including commander of the IDF School of Military Law and legal adviser to the Gaza Strip. Some of the legal issues that he faced there, in regard to Israel’s use of targeted assassinations, have been subjects he’s looked at in regard to drone warfare, which he’s written and lectured on extensively.

When I met him recently in Manhattan, I asked him whether his thinking on drone strikes had figured into his work on bystanders. He told me that, in fact, it had emerged from immersing himself in his own family’s Holocaust history—which he had never really known.
“The word ‘Holocaust’ was never used in our house,” he told me. Like many Holocaust survivors, his parents were unwilling to talk with him about their experiences during the war.

“When I was 12, my father took me canoeing. He told me, ‘I will tell you my story in one minute, then I will tell you your mother’s story in one minute, and this is the first and last time we will ever have this conversation.’

“That was it,” Prof. Guiora said.

That gap in his knowledge remained for years. It changed only recently, in reaction to a question he couldn’t answer.

“I run a lot, and I was training for the Salt Lake City Marathon. My running partner was not Jewish. When you train for a marathon the only thing to do is to talk to each other, because you are just killing miles.”

To read more, subscribe to Ami