15 January 2021

When silence is complicity
in the face of terror and evil

The cell where Martin Niemöller was held in isolation in Sachsenhausen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Last night, as I was discussing the racist and antisemitic motives of the mob that stormed the Capitol last week, I concluded with wise words from Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author of Night, who said, ‘We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’

In a posting earlier in the day, the World Jewish Congress recalled that Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was born on that day, 14 January 1892. He was jailed for his opposition to the Nazis. He was one of the first Germans to speak out about compliance in the Holocaust, and is best known for a poem, ‘First they came for...’ It is a poem about humanity during a time of terror.

When I visited the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, I visited the cell where Martin Niemöller was held in isolation. The gates of Sachsenhausen, like the gates of Auschwitz and all other concentration camps, displayed the slogan, Arbeit Macht Frei … a slogan that was used by at least one of the main protagonists in the mob that attacked the Capitol last week. He wore a hoodie with the words: Camp Auschwitz, Work Brings Freedom, Staff.

Although the Holocaust ended almost 76 years, we must never forget it … Trump’s supporters who turned to insurrection and terrorism in Washington last week have not forgotten it. The words of Martin Niemöller and Elie Wiesel are reminders that when we are silent we are complicit.

The words I quoted from Elie Wiesel last night and the words attributed to Martin Niemöller, referred to in yesterday’s WJC posting, and in a version published by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, provide my Friday evening reflections this evening.

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Shabbat Shalom

Arbeit Macht Frei, ‘Work Makes Free’ … the slogan on the gates of Sachsenhausen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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