It’s been a month since Holocaust Memorial Day. Possibly you hadn’t noticed it back in January, and now wonder why I didn’t post this then. An extremely valid question to which the only answer is that I’d written about three sentences by 27th January, despite my best efforts, but it has weighed on my mind ever since. In particular, three stories I’ve been privileged to hear over the past few weeks, those of Corrie Ten Boom, Nadia and Rozin, have challenged me not to stand by.
I vaguely knew who Corrie was as I’d read her book years ago as a teenager, and had hazy recollections of the story – a Christian woman who saved Jews in Holland during the Second World War. Having booked a ticket, I was sceptical about attending – a dramatisation of her story – how would they pull that off without it seemingly a little, well, contrived?
It was a monologue by one elderly woman in a meeting room with a raised dias. The audience was spellbound. Each story held a challenge and honesty within it.
Corrie was a Dutch Christian in her 50s, living with an old father and her sister when the Jewish persecution began. They helped many Jews to safety, eventually being imprisoned in concentration camps; her father died in police custody, her sister in the camp. After her release, Corrie herself then took their story around the world, even to former Nazis, just as her sister had seen in a vision before she died.
One of the stories that struck me especially was this, when Corrie was trying to find a safe place for a tiny baby away from their own home beside the police station…
Colour drained from the man’s face. He took a step back from me. “Miss Ten Boom! I do hope you’re not involved with this illegal concealment…it’s just not safe! Think of your father!”
I pulled the coverlet back from the baby’s face. The man bent forward, his hand in spite of himself reaching for the tiny fist curled round the blanket. For a moment I saw compassion and fear struggle in his face. Then he straightened, “No. Definitely not. We could lose our lives for that Jewish child!”
Unseen by either of us, father had appeared in the doorway. “Give the child to me, Corrie,” he said. Father held the baby close, his white beard brushing its cheek, looking into the little face with eyes as blue and innocent as the baby’s…”You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honour that could come to my family.”
An honour to die for another. To risk your own life in order to offer someone else the possibility of safety and security. Is that something you’d consider?
Maybe you’d risk money, belongings, reputation. But life?
The challenge to not stand by is not an easy one. Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us that so many did stand by. Yet in this darkness shine stories of the Righteous of the Nations. So called because of their sacrifice and willingness to lay down their own safety for persecuted people in their midst.
Corrie herself was perhaps unremarkable, just a middle aged woman. But the Ten Boom’s decision to protect Jews being hunted is a story of forgiveness and of mercy, of pain and unbelievable suffering. It is a story of not standing by, of being involved, of being arrested and being prepared to die for what one believes.
More recently, I attended an event for the APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) for International Freedom of Religion and Belief. They invite visitors, some who have been persecuted themselves, to come and share their experiences. Their speakers on this occasion were two young Yazidi women; Nadia and Rozin. Nadia spoke on the horrors of capture, imprisonment and slavery at the hands of Daesh, and both women raised the plight of the Yazidi people. Their plea was that we should not stand by.
But one of the key things that struck me was that Rozin is a 17 year old Yazidi woman. She moved to the UK several years ago, but when she became aware of the impact Daesh was having on her people, she decided it was time to stand up. So at 17 she speaks on behalf of all those who cannot, while Nadia at 21 speaks about the most brutal of events to raise awareness. Their call has been to stand and speak out against evil at the very moment it is happening.
As Christians, this is exactly what God calls us to do in Isaiah:
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” – Isaiah 1 v 7
To defend, take up the cause and to plead is exactly what we are called to do in not standing by. It’s not easy. But take an interest. Choose the subject that stirs the fire in your belly to champion.
With the benefit of hindsight, we see people who stood by across history. Those who knew and did nothing, or simply didn’t notice. In a world bombarded with images, stories and plights, we can choose not to notice, choose to disregard these others. But occasionally we hear stories of Schindler, of Corrie, of Rozin, of Nadia. And we have to ask ourselves, which story do we want to be part of?
Don’t stand by.