Where is the rest of the world?

Monday, October 19, 2015

(New York Times article from 1943)

Yesterday I attended an event about the Shoah at a synagogue near our apartment. They showed a documentary about the experience of 6 members of the congregation during WWII in Europe. Some lived in hiding and some went to concentration camps. These stories were, as expected, heart wrenching. It was almost impossible to reconcile the 5 survivors in the room with the experiences they describes. They went through such horror, bestiality, and terror. All of them cried recounting what they went through. Can you imagine –seeing your mom shot in front of you, knowing that your little brother was being sent to death, seeing people beaten to death, living hungry and sick day after day for months on end. How could this happen? 

One of the survivors asked “where was the rest of the world?” 

That’s a question many (me included) have asked about that time period. Because people knew. Germans certainly knew, especially those living close to the camps. But American and British governments and citizens knew, too. So did, of course, all of the European governments that allowed transports of Jews and others to camps. Today we wonder why people stood by idly while this great catastrophe was going on. To be fair, many resisted and some hid Jews and others in their homes at great risks for their own life. And the others… well they waited. They had their own lives to deal with, their own issues, hunger, fears, and lack of power. Resisting could mean death. 

At the end of the war people claimed “never again!” Oh what a lovely sentiment! Yet genocide happened again (Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda) and government-sanctioned mass murders are still happening all over the world. Closer to home, refugees are trying to reach safe shores, to escape a life of fear or certain death. Maybe less tragic but equally perplexing, people in our own countries live in deplorable conditions –poverty, hunger, despair. We all know of it. Yet so few of us do anything. We have our lives to deal with, our own issues –and we don’t know what to do in the face of so much turmoil. Sounds familiar? But contrary to WWII, taking action will not condemn us to death.

Then and now the world stands idly by. I know and I stand idly by. I work for a humanitarian organization but I am not doing much otherwise to change inequalities and provide relief to those who need it. Oh I sign petitions, but don’t do anything that would cost me in time or energy –or money. 

This is a call to action. I know about people’s suffering. I can do something tangible. There is no excuse. I don’t mean to act as a hero –nor do I think that I alone can make a difference- but I cannot sit defeated because the issues are too big and the people too far away, culturally or geographically. I am thinking about what this action looks like for me and for my family. I’ll keep you updated!

Do you struggle with this –this knowing vs. doing dilemma? Have you taken steps to help those in need, whether at home or abroad?


  1. Yes, Johanna, I do. I believe I preached in a sermon once this year something to the effect of, "I do way more for the poor in my head than in my hands." Syria has broken my heart, and I am volunteering now, but it took too long. I was too wrapped up in me. Thank you for the honest words to get us out of our complacency.

    1. It is so hard to take time out of our busy lives to actually do things. It's so good you're volunteering. I inquired about it but never did anything. Uh. Soon...!