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“What Harm Can There Be in One Little Question?”: How the Horrific Grows in Small Steps

How the past can guide us through turbulent and dangerous times

"Jews had lived for centuries as full citizens of Holland, experiencing little of the discrimination so prevalent in some other European countries." (Photo: Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images)

"Jews had lived for centuries as full citizens of Holland, experiencing little of the discrimination so prevalent in some other European countries." (Photo: Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images)

He asked that they not answer the question. “What harm can there be in one little question?” his colleagues replied.

He argued with them to no avail. In the end they all answered the question. Within the next four years, over 100,000 people were murdered. Because of that one little question.

The man was L. E. Visser. When Nazi Germany invaded Holland on May 10, 1940, he was President of the High Court of Holland. Visser was also Jewish. The people he argued with so forcefully were his fellow High Court Justices. The question was “are you Aryan or non-Aryan?” It was called the Aryan Attestation.

The question was “are you Aryan or non-Aryan?” It was called the Aryan Attestation.

Jews had lived for centuries as full citizens of Holland, experiencing little of the discrimination so prevalent in some other European countries. Many Jews considered themselves fully Dutch, and only secondarily Jewish.

When Germany invaded Holland, they hoped to win many of the Dutch people as allies. So, in a speech the first month of the invasion, they promised that Dutch law would be maintained. That promise was short lived.

In October of 1940, the Germans distributed their Aryan Attestation. All Civil Servants were to fill one out within 8 days. People (both Jews and Aryans) discussed and agonized over whether or not to answer. What harm would it do to answer? What were the possible penalties if one refused to answer? What were the possible penalties if one was caught lying?

Visser argued that to make any distinction among Dutch citizens (based on religion or any other reason) was in conflict with Dutch law and tradition – and thus in violation of the German’s promise that Dutch law would be maintained. What might have happened if the entire Dutch High Court had ruled on the Aryan Attestation in this way?

In the end, Visser’s fellow Justices signed Form A (for Aryan).

In November the Germans began dismissing all Jewish Civil Servants – including the President of the High Court, L.E. Visser. In January of 1941, all Jews were required to register (including full Jews, half-Jews and quarter-Jews).

From there followed an increasingly onerous series of restrictions, all designed to separate Jews from the larger Dutch population. Jews could not attend school with non-Jews. Jews were barred from public parks, restaurants, hotels, theaters, beaches, swimming pools, concerts, libraries, museums, and more. Eventually all Jews had to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothes.

Deportations to Death Camps began in July of 1941. In the end over 100,000 Jews were deported from Holland to their deaths.

Visser spent his remaining time on Earth fighting a losing battle for the rights of Dutch Jews. He died of a heart attack in February 1942, before the worst of what was to come.

As I write this article, the Trump regime wants to add one simple question to the census – Are you a US Citizen? What harm can there be in answering this simple question – if you are living here legally? If you are a citizen?

Our government has already ripped children from the arms of their parents, who come asking for asylum in accordance with US and international law. Our government is already deporting legal residents with minor legal blemishes from decades past. Just Google “legal immigrants deported.”

For me, the question is: What are the potential dangers in asking such a question, in separating people into categories based on citizenship – especially under a regime that has repeatedly shown itself as hostile to everything it deems “foreign” (generally non-European in origin)?

There are times when the future course of history hangs on the actions of an individual – sometimes an “ordinary” person, sometimes a person who has achieved stature, recognition and even power in their society.

And what are the potential dangers, for those of us born into citizenship, of turning away (due to naiveté or something worse), – to our hearts, our souls, the future of humanity – of failing to notice and take seriously all that is going on and the possible consequences. 

Trump has nominated his choice for the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Anthony Kennedy. The future of decades of legal decisions widening our nation’s concept of Human and Civil Rights hangs in the balance. Yet the course of history may still be malleable. There may still be creative ways to stem this dark tide.

There are times when the future course of history hangs on the actions of an individual – sometimes an “ordinary” person, sometimes a person who has achieved stature, recognition and even power in their society. It takes a person (and/or many people) acting with moral courage, integrity, and creativity. Since the Trump election, we have already seen a multitude of such people – both named and un-named.

Visser and his fellow High Court Justices had achieved stature and power. They were the final arbiters of Dutch law, which the invading Nazi’s had pledged to respect. What might have happened if all the justices had refused to identify themselves as Aryan or non-Aryan, ruling that this question was contrary to Dutch law? How might the flow of history have been changed? How many of the over 100,000 Dutch Jews who perished in the Holocaust might have been saved?

More importantly – how may learning from this history show us ways we can respond today?

There are ancestors (if not of blood and DNA, then of spirit and soul) who call out to us to learn from the lessons of their lives. There are future generations calling out to us to listen to those ancestors and heed those lessons.

At this moment in time, what legacy can we leave for those who come after?

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Dianne Monroe

Dianne Monroe

Dianne Monroe is a Life Mentor, Experiential Educator, writer and photographer, living in Santa Rosa, CA. Visit her website, email her (dianne@diannemonroe.com).

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