Amos N. Guiora is the author of the new book The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust. His other books include Cybersecurity and Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism. He is Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.
Q: You write that this book ended up going in different directions than you initially expected. What were you thinking you would write, and why did that change?
A: When I began the project, I began it as a traditional law book, and in the first and second drafts, I found it to be boring for the writer. How do I make it more interesting?
I was preparing for a marathon with my running partner. You have hours to kill. The more stories I shared with her, the more I realized there was a story to tell here, and simultaneously to this, my father, a healthy 86-year-old, fell. I realized he was cognitively impaired, and that I knew very little about the Holocaust and my parents’ experiences.
I put it all together and I thought, why not write something that’s law-based but tells a story about my parents as a way to honor my parents and use their experiences as a way to address a very important legal question. It came out to be personal, historical, legal, but not [only] legal.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I thought long and hard about the title. There’s great significance to titles. I came to the conclusion that the bystander commits a crime, and the crime he commits is complicity. Why not address it head-on, and point the finger at the bystander. There’s a [recent] story in Detroit about a child drowning [that exemplifies this].
Q: You propose criminalizing bystander complicity. How exactly would that work?
A: Take the case in Detroit. Those standing there with a cell phone in their hand are in a position to dial 911, alert law enforcement. Failing to do that is a criminal act. I went back and forth on the extent of liability. I decided the most appropriate punishment was a financial penalty…
Q: How do you apply the lessons from the Holocaust to today’s world?
A: …I’ve been an autodidact on the Holocaust. [The top Nazis] don’t really interest me. The lesson learned is that if not for the bystanders, I don’t think the evil that was perpetrated would have been perpetrated. The Eichmanns of the world benefited from the complicity of bystanders. That for me is the lesson.
I think it absolutely applies to society today…the failure to act on behalf of a vulnerable victim significantly endangers the vulnerable victim. That to me, for me, is the primary lesson to be learned.
As my father was dying, I said, I’ve got to finish this before he dies. I’m in a race against time. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed; he died before I finished. But out of nowhere, all the wires for three days, two years ago, recrossed, and I was able to interview him about this stuff. It was out of nowhere.
He did not allow me to videotape him; he was conscious of how he looked and would not allow me to tape him. I feverishly took notes as he spoke for three days. He disagrees with my theory. When he was on the death march, the villagers didn’t owe any duty to save him. My mother also disagrees.
Q: So that was the only time he talked about it?
A: Except when I was 12 years old. We were canoeing…he told me his story and her story and took me home…
You write a book like this, you uncover family stories, how he escaped and how he was saved. It’s a lovely story but it’s not true. He told me he was liberated by Tito’s [forces] and a Russian jeep showed up to save him. That’s not true. He hiked through the mountains, with no coat. He never shared that with me.
I know because I met with a Hungarian historian who asked how my dad got through to Sofia. I said a Russian jeep. He said that’s not true, he walked in horrible conditions. I said my perception of my father was that he couldn’t make his way from the living room to the front door without my mother. It turns out not to be the case.
I was a rude 15-year-old, and I said [to him], You never play golf. He said, I survived the Holocaust, don’t you think that’s enough? The book is an attempt to honor my dad through the lens of the bystander. There’s a lot of personal [information] in it.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just had [another] book out [recently] on cybersecurity, and one on Earl Warren. This one took four years to write, longer than the previous ones…there was so much family history in it.
It begins with the drowning of my cousin. It has never been discussed. It’s an unimaginable family tragedy. The first picture in the book—my mother took that picture the day before he drowned. The question of the bystander for me is not an abstract academic question, it’s deeply rooted in me. A child drowning is so awful.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the book?
A: Whether people agree or disagree with my conclusion, I leave to the reader. What’s important is that the issue be discussed. I try to make it accessible through the personal stories of my parents.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Amos Guiora will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York on May 22.