I was on holiday in Bruges last week. Holiday reading, apart from two Inspector Maigret novels, brought along by my husband, included Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar, published in 1939, and (the more interesting, because it concerns recent history) Forgotten Land: Journeys among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont, published this year. On my tiny transistor radio, where I could only pick up Radio 5 very faintly, I also learnt about the tragic death of the little Polish boy, Daniel Pelka, which has dominated the news.
When I returned home I found an email from a friend, the grandson of Hungarian Jews from Budapest, many of whose relatives died at Auschwitz, who was incensed that the head of Coventry social services had merely admitted there had been a “systems failure” in the case of Daniel Pelka. My friend wrote, “The only “systems failure” was that the responsible adults in the child’s life were too bound up with “systems”, too reluctant to take positive action to save this little boy’s life.”
It is easy to pass judgement on others’ moral failings. I have never, thank God, been in the position of a social worker faced with a heavy caseload of potentially or likely abusive situations and had to make impossible choices. Nor, like Thomas Man, did I live in Nazi Germany, and have to make a decision to speak out against obvious outrages or remain silent. In Lotte in Weimar, Mann, who chose permanent exile rather than live in the Third Reich, uses the person of the German literary hero, Goethe, to give an explicit warning about what was happening to the Jews in Germany. In contrast, according to Max Egremont the grand old Junker families of East Prussia had “welcomed the Nazi revival of national pride, the tough anti-Communism and early diplomatic and military successes.”
They did not protest against the monstrous regime they had helped to elect until it was too late. Those brave enough to do so, like Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian peasant farmer, or Hans and Sophie Scholl, the Munich students, were summarily executed. In this country we do not pay with our lives for speaking out against injustice or (as in the case of Daniel Pelka) sheer evil – but we are still reluctant to do so. Why is it so hard to accept our personal responsibility for the way society behaves? In his email my friend, an agnostic, comments, “It must always remain our individual responsibility to take or refrain from actions as our consciences dictate, whatever the “system” would have us do.” Commenting that “the Nazis had excellent systems for ridding the world of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled”, he concludes that “as individuals, we must govern ourselves by a higher consideration: what is right or wrong in any specific situation and act accordingly, outside of the “systems”, if need be.”
He himself plans to go to Auschwitz and, as the representative of his family and despite his own lack of religious belief, recite the Kaddish, the ancient Jewish prayer of mourning for the dead, on behalf of his own murdered relatives. In our country, we need to mourn the avoidable death of a small boy and, rather than listen to another public enquiry intone the ritual statement that “this must never be allowed to happen again”, examine whether in our own lives and for the sake of a quiet life we are prepared to let things pass that we know to be wrong or to challenge them.