Cowards and Accomplices

In light of her own family’s experience during the Holocaust, Judith Hertog considers her ethical responsibilities in today’s world.

Judith Hertog | Longreads | Month 2018 | 13 minutes (3,153 words)

The first thing I did when I learned the alphabet at age 6 was to spend a weekend writing out a stack of flyers that said, in large, uneven block letters: “Ret de weerelt!” a clumsily misspelled Dutch phrase that translates into English as something like “Sav the worlt!” I finally had a chance to express the urgency I felt when I discovered that, outside the idyllic life my parents had created for me in our small apartment in Amsterdam, the world was a dangerous and terrifying place where children starved to death in famines, innocents were killed in wars, factories poured chemicals into the water, and nuclear warheads stood ready to destroy everything in a flash. The world was in trouble and something needed to be done urgently.

So I copied the words “Sav the worlt” 50 times, folded my manifestos into paper airplanes and aimed them from our fourth-floor bathroom window down into the neighbors’ backyards at the center of our block. I assumed the neighbors were not aware of the state of the world, or else they would be busy trying to save it. I imagined my fliers would alert them to the seriousness of the situation and spark a worldwide activist movement under my leadership, even though I had not signed my name to the rallying cry or included a return address. Only when I saw the paper airplanes gliding into the neighbors’ yards, getting caught in tree branches or plunging into mud puddles, did I realize the futility of my act. I didn’t get any responses, and I never told anyone about it.

I recently thought back to this because I don’t know how I’d react now if I found one of my own paper planes in my yard.

I’m sitting here at the gym, waiting for my son’s tumbling class to end, and I just read a Facebook post by a friend in Gaza whose updates have become increasingly desperate amidst yet another Israeli bombing campaign on his city.

“Today I suffered a lot. I almost forgot what it means to be human. I was a THING,” he wrote. I have never met Mosab in person. A friend introduced me to him online because he is a poet who is trying to establish a library in Gaza, to take people’s minds off violence and desperation. I have sent him books and an occasional message to cheer on his project. But today I can’t even respond to his despair. Words seem inadequate. They can’t stop bombs from killing people. I should be back in Israel and doing something. But instead, I live in Vermont, where life is comfortable and my kids don’t have to face war. I’m aware the world is falling to pieces all around me. But for now, I just want to shield my children and keep them away from pain and evil. And I’m afraid I’ve become just as complacent as my old neighbors.

Nobody told me that this is what it means to be a parent: to have your soul placed inside another’s body. One mishap, and it can all be gone. My son is practicing his backflips. My heart stops each time I see his slender 14-year old body balanced in the air. He wants to become a circus clown, and I want him to live a life of razzle dazzle and applause. So I take him to tumbling class, even though I can almost see the world end just before he makes that last-second spin to land on his feet.

***

Here is another memory: I was about 8. It was already past my bedtime, but I snuck silently into the living room to observe my parents as they watched the news on our little black and white TV, which was so unstable that whenever a tram passed by in the street below, the image jumped, showing the newsreader’s head at the bottom of the screen with his feet above him. My parents’ faces tensed when an old man with a black turban and a long white beard appeared on the flickering screen, glaring menacingly into our living room. This must have been in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini consolidated his power in Iran. I knew I was supposed to be in bed, but my parents were so absorbed by the terror of the images that they didn’t notice me. Masses of angry people filled the streets of a city, probably Teheran, and roared in agreement when the Ayatollah called for the annihilation of America and Israel, the latter a place where we had friends and family, and where we lived when I was 4 years old. The river of angry people spilled out far beyond the frame of the camera, and I was afraid they would eventually reach Amsterdam and turn their rage against us because we were Jews. I knew this turbaned man had to be stopped, and I came up with a secret plan: In a few years, when I was old enough, I would get access to this Khomeini by using my womanly charms, and then I would cut off his head when he was distracted.

I had to live up to the courage of my namesake — Judith — the biblical heroine who saved her hometown from annihilation by the Assyrian general Holofernes, who besieged her city.

I had to live up to the courage of my namesake — Judith — the biblical heroine who saved her hometown from annihilation by the Assyrian general Holofernes, who besieged her city. The starving townspeople were about to open the gates and surrender, inviting rape, death, and destruction, when Judith slipped into the enemy camp, seduced the cruel general with wine and charm, and killed him when he drunkenly embraced her. From the time I first heard this story — my father used to put me to sleep with Greek mythology and Bible stories — I knew what was expected of me. I regretted having been born too late for an earlier opportunity to stop evil. If I had been born a generation prior, I would personally have prevented the Holocaust by seducing and killing Hitler.

My father also told me the story of the Lamed-Vavnikim: the 36 righteous people on whom, according to Jewish mystical tradition, depends the continued existence of humanity. The legend says that there must be, at all times, a minimum of 36 righteous people in the world who have the courage to promote justice and goodness. The fate of the world hangs in the balance, because if the number of righteous ones ever falls below 36, God will be so disgusted with humanity that he will destroy us all. Nobody knows the identity of the righteous ones in each generation. Even the righteous ones themselves don’t know. Anyone can unwittingly be the 36th. And if that person gives up, we’re all damned.

I felt a responsibility to the world. I was raised not only with these Biblical tales, but also with the example of my cousin Rudi, who helped organize a Dutch resistance group against the Nazis and who was executed in 1943 at the age of 25, along with 11 comrades. They had all been caught after a daring attempt to burn down the Amsterdam population registry, which the authorities used to track down Jews for deportation. My cousin was a hero, and I wanted to prove myself as brave as he.

I was born 25 years after the war ended. But I remember nights when I couldn’t sleep, clinging to my teddy bear, Pepe, as I listened to airplanes flying low over Amsterdam on their way to Schiphol Airport, bracing myself for bombs about to fall on the city. I had heard my mother’s stories about the bombardments and how she watched the dead cows float by as her father carried her through the floodwaters after the dykes had been destroyed. In my childish mind, past and present blended, and I imagined those Nazi armies and warplanes waiting in some dark corner of the world, ready to return any moment.


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In fact, I was lucky to even exist. Most of my father’s family didn’t survive the war, and he himself barely escaped. Immediately after my cousin had been captured, his mother, my father’s only sister, was arrested at her hiding place and put on a train to the Sobibor death camp. In a letter dated April 29, 1943, she wrote from detention in Amsterdam to a friend that she was about to be deported and asked if someone could bring her shoes, clothing, and a blanket, since she had been arrested without being able to take along any personal articles. I heard that my grandmother, distressed by the knowledge that her daughter was being sent into the unknown without shoes, voluntarily reported for deportation hoping to find my aunt. I don’t know if my grandmother and aunt saw each other again in Sobibor, but it is recorded that they were killed two weeks apart in May 1943.

My father had the luck of the reckless. He refused to put on a yellow star and wandered freely through the country with false papers that identified him as Mr. Loontjes. He smuggled weapons for the resistance, imagining that, despite his dark skin, small stature, and big, curved nose, nobody would recognize him as a Jew.

***

I learned early on that evil is always present. But as a child, one detail of my aunt’s story made no sense to me: When she was arrested at her hiding place in Amsterdam, in a street with multi-storied apartment buildings full of people, why didn’t the neighbors come out to help her? Did they just peek from behind their curtains as my aunt was dragged away?

On July 1st 1943, a little over a month after his mother and grandmother were killed in Poland, Rudi was executed. I have copies of his last letters, which he was allowed to write from prison the week before his execution. They are typed in uneven, blotchy print on paper so thin and translucent that in the scan on my computer screen I can see the backside of the pages shining through. They are, in fact, typed out by a lawyer who transcribed Rudi’s handwritten notes before sending them on to friends and family. In one of the letters Rudi advises his younger brothers, Eddie and Dorke, who had been saved just in time from deportation: “Leer te strijden tegen het kwaad, maar blijf nederig.” — “Learn to combat evil, but stay humble.” I still wonder what he meant. Is it an acknowledgement that — despite our best efforts — evil will never be defeated?

Much of my daydreaming involved scenarios where I would step up to combat evil and save the world. I planned relief efforts to end famines; I plotted revolutions against oppressive regimes; I had ambitions to become Prime Minister of the Netherlands so that I could end poverty and inequality; and, of course, I was still on the lookout for a tyrant to seduce and behead.

***

My first opportunity for heroism came when I was 10. Peter S., a classmate who I remember as having the physique of a grizzly bear, was bad-tempered and tended to take out his misery on smaller children. We were all careful to avoid Peter, knowing that a wrong glance or smile could turn him violent. But sometimes I had to share lunch break with him. Most children in my school went home during the two-hour lunch break, but those of us who lived too far away had to stay at school and eat a packed lunch under the supervision of a parent-volunteer. That particular day, the volunteer must have stepped outside, leaving some 30 of us unsupervised in the gym. I noticed that a circle of kids had formed to watch Peter push around a younger boy who had provoked his rage. The little boy was crying and froze as Peter shook a fist in his face.

“Hey Peter!” I said, “Only cowards pick on kids smaller than themselves!” and secure in the knowledge that girls don’t get hit, I stepped between Peter and the smaller kid. Next, I found myself curled up on the floor gasping for air and clutching my stomach. It hadn’t occurred to me that if you stand up to a bully, you should expect to be punched in the gut.

Eventually, it dawned on me that beheading one bad guy won’t stop evil, and that if I had seriously tried to seduce and kill Khomeini or Hitler, I most likely would have been raped and killed before I’d even had a chance to pull out my sword. Even Rudi’s attack on the population registry ultimately didn’t make much of a difference: the majority of Dutch Jews had already been deported, and it turned out the authorities had a duplicate archive in The Hague. Only in fairytales and action movies do heroes defeat evil and get cheered on by the masses. In real life, they usually end up with a bullet in the head and maybe a brief mention in the news.

***

All these many years later, I still despair, and I still want to fight evil. I’d like to burn myself up, like those Buddhist monks who sacrifice their life for the sake of others. I would like to disappear in flames and take all the world’s evil with me. But who would pick up my kids from school and bring my son to his tumbling class? I try to fit in my battle against injustice with the rest of my chores: I donate money to organizations that help the hungry, the displaced, and the persecuted; I sign petitions; I write letters to politicians; I’ve joined my local interfaith social-justice committee; and, occasionally, I find time to attend a demonstration. But the more embroiled I get in the demands of parenting and grown-up life, the more difficult it seems to save the world.

One detail of my aunt’s story made no sense to me: When she was arrested at her hiding place in Amsterdam, in a street with multi-storied apartment buildings full of people, why didn’t the neighbors come out to help her?

Now that I’m a fluent reader and can follow all the world’s suffering, injustice, and catastrophes instantly online, I realize my 6-year-old self underestimated the severity of the situation. I’m even less hopeful than I was then. People have tried to combat evil and suffering since the beginning of history, and with every problem we think we solve we create countless more.

A few years ago, I was moved again to send out a public protest letter. Four months before the Beijing Olympics, demonstrations against the Chinese government had erupted in Tibet — where I had lived and still had friends — and the army had been sent in to violently restore order. As the world watched in shock at the images of tanks and soldiers patrolling the streets of Lhasa, human rights activists called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, to which the International Olympic Committee’s president, Jacques Rogge, responded that such a boycott would hurt “innocent athletes.” Incensed, I sent a letter to the New York Times, in which I described China as a country ruled by a “brutally repressive regime,” where “the justice system serves the powerful and rich; corruption is rampant; and whoever speaks up is silenced.”

Just before I pressed the “send” button, I decided I needed to add an extra touch to boost the letter’s rhetorical impact. “If we don’t speak up, we are cowards and accomplices,” I added melodramatically, and sent off my letter, which, the next day, indeed appeared in the New York Times. As soon as I saw it in print I regretted having signed it with my real name. If I ever want to travel to China again, it’d be very inconvenient to be blacklisted by the Chinese authorities for criticizing the Chinese Communist party. The letter didn’t make much difference anyway. The Beijing Olympics were an international success, the Chinese Communist Party is now more powerful than ever, and nobody seems to remember the plight of the Tibetans. Even I try to forget about Tibet. It pains me to be reminded of how little I can do, and I’m distracted by atrocities and injustices happening elsewhere in the world.

When I was younger, I was under the impression that knowledgeable people knew who the bad guys were and how to deal with them. Now, I sometimes don’t even know anymore what is evil, what is stupidity, and what is simply a difference in opinion.

I feel insufficient. All I have to offer are little improvements and small gestures. Unlike my cousin and the biblical Judith, who were willing to risk their lives, I’m not risking anything. I can’t even decide which cause would be worthwhile sacrificing my life for.

***

But it turned out that my letter to the New York Times actually did take off, in a different, unexpected way

A few years after it was published, I suddenly found myself cited on the homepage banner of an Ethiopian online opposition newspaper, The Ethio Sun. On the left side of the banner was Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” On the right side of the banner was Judith Hertog: “If we don’t speak up, we are cowards and accomplices.”

I have no idea how the Ethio Sun came upon my letter, but it turns out that my slogan has become popular among activists in different parts of the world. It still floats around on the Internet and has been cited in support of a range of causes, from Democratic governance in Ghana, to Occupy Wall Street, to human rights in the Seychelles. It seems to be particularly popular among anarchist hackers. I am quoted on a page called “Hack This Site,” and a number of people with Guy Fawkes masks as their avatar have shared my words. Every once in a while, I Google myself to observe how my slogan has taken on a life of its own. I discovered I have been cited by a social-justice activist in Kenya, a Reddit user critical of the American Republican Party, a Nigerian social-media entrepreneur, an Egyptian computer programmer, a Malaysian bartender, someone in Georgia who calls himself “The Voice of Democracy,” and by a young Ugandan politician who ran a failed election campaign promoting Justice, Economic Empowerment, Democracy, and Rule of Law.

An Iraq War veteran in Wisconsin lists mine amongst his favorite quotes on his Facebook profile. He is a member of “Veterans for Peace,” and his page consists of a stream of anti-war memes and denouncements of politicians — left and right — who have supported wars and military funding. His background picture shows the silhouettes of a man and a small child fishing in the sunset at a beach.

As my slogan spreads across the Internet, I wonder who these people are who cite me as if I am some hero, using my words to call for protest against injustices I don’t even know about. I imagine their disappointment if they could see me here, sipping French-roast coffee while I watch my son suspended upside-down in midair.

* * *

Judith Hertog is an essayist, journalist, and teacher. She grew up in Amsterdam but immigrated to Israel as a teenager, and, after some wandering around the world, eventually ended up living in Vermont with her family.

Editor: Sari Botton