SALT LAKE CITY — How horrible was the Holocaust? Amos Guiora can’t answer that question definitively because he didn’t experience it personally, and his parents — who did — chose to tell him virtually nothing about it.
But he’s got a much better idea after spending the past four years working on his book, “The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust,” that was released last month by ABA Publishing, an imprint of the American Bar Association.
Amos is a law professor at the University of Utah, the latest stop for him in a life that has straddled his native Israel and the United States. His ties to both countries are tight. He moved to America at age 6, grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father was a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, earned his law degree at Case Western in Ohio, and spent 20 years back in Israel as legal counsel to the Israel Defense Forces before returning to America and joining the U.'s law faculty in 2007.
He has written a number of books dealing with such topics as tolerating intolerance, the limits of free speech, hate crimes and extremism, but it wasn’t until he was training for the Salt Lake Marathon four years ago that he decided he needed to write about the Holocaust.
His connection to the event that exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II, and persecuted millions more, is deeply personal. Except for his father and one uncle, everyone in his father’s family was murdered at Auschwitz. His father survived a work camp in Yugoslavia and a Nazi-ordered death march. His mother survived the war by hiding out in Budapest a la Anne Frank.
During a long training run in the Salt Lake foothills in 2013, he was reciting this history to a running partner, who stopped and asked: “How did all this happen?”
Beyond the obvious “why” answer — Hitler and the Nazis' disdain and hatred for the Jewish people — how is it that society stood by and allowed the murdering of millions to occur?
“That one question piqued my interest,” remembers Amos. “How did it happen? I realized I didn’t have an answer. That’s how the book began — on a run.”
To explore for insight, Amos dug into his family roots.
That wasn’t as easy as it looked, since in all his life he’d never once heard either of his parents utter the word “Holocaust,” a prohibition that didn’t stop just because their son now wanted to write a book about it.
Amos instead interviewed other Holocaust survivors, along with paying visits to places in Europe where the Holocaust happened. He visited the courtyard in Budapest where his mother and grandmother were rounded up and threatened to be shot. He went to his father’s hometown in northeastern Hungary, where 7,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz. When the war was over, five returned.
The process was as painful as it was enlightening.
“If not for this book, I wouldn’t have known anything, not a thing, about that part of my family history,” says Amos. “In the end, the whole point of the book became a way to honor my parents.”
Both his father and mother, as it turned out, were saved by the actions of others. Alexander (Shony) Guiora escaped his Nazi captors with aid from Yugoslavian partisans. Zsuzana (Susie) Neuser was able to effectively remain hidden in an attic until the Nazis were defeated, in part because of the kindness and assistance of sympathizers, including a Swedish diplomat who provided false papers.
If not for the actions of these bystanders, Shony and Susie wouldn’t have each eventually made it to Palestine, where they met, fell in love, got married and helped establish the new Jewish state of Israel.
It should come as no surprise that Amos Guiroa’s views about the importance of bystander assistance is as profound as his disdain for bystander inaction — a sentiment that emerges loud and clear in “The Crime of Complicity,” where, as the book’s title suggests, he contends that individuals who see others in distress and fail to respond are complicit in the crime and should be held accountable in the eyes of the law.
“The duty to act on behalf of the vulnerable victim I propose is a legal, not moral, obligation,” he writes.
His ultimate goal is to lobby the Legislature to make bystander intervention a law.
Whether he’ll actually pull that off — whether he can prove effective in mandating bystander intervention any more than the world could have mandated bystander intervention during the Holocaust — remains to be seen.
But given where he’s coming from, it’s no wonder that he’s trying. If not for the intervention of bystanders, the law professor wouldn’t be here to pursue the cause.