The Bystander

It’s now fashionable in some quarters to blame two groups for the Nazi Holocaust: the perpetrators and the bystanders. Yet I discovered from personal experience that the bystander — whether in Nazi Germany, Bosnia, Northern Ireland or any other place where there is totalitarian rule, civil war or extensive terrorism — is often in an agonizing moral dilemma, and we need to be aware of this before passing judgement.

In 1972 Fr. Lev Gillet, a near-starets, urged me to go and work for peace in Belfast. I did as he suggested.

It wasn’t normally possible to be accepted in the ghettoes on both sides of the politico-religious divide, but as an Orthodox I was privileged: Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh then often appeared on television, so he was a figure known to the public in Belfast. As a member of his flock I was accepted as a Christian who was neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant. People were also willing to confide in me, but only after rigorously checking that I had no connection with the media and didn’t intend to publish anything I was told. (I’ve waited 25 years before writing this, so that no one I knew then will be put at risk).

My work was dangerous: a 60-pound bomb was removed from my dustbin, only to be followed by another one 60 hours later. I wasn’t brave to remain there, because I simply didn’t feel physical fear for myself.

On the evening I arrived, I was taken to a secret meeting in a monastery. About 20 people were there, virtually all working class, roughly half were Catholic, half Protestant. A Catholic named Liam raised the matter of Niamh, mother of five young children, whose husband had been killed by the IRA the previous year, and who herself had been missing for three weeks. The police and army had been unable to trace her, but the group at the monastery were sure the IRA had captured her too. Liam, who took up her cause, was himself the devoted father of six small children; he had been repeatedly “warned” by the terrorists that there would be reprisals against his family if he didn’t withdraw from the peace movements, and his little daughter had just been beaten up. The stress was telling so heavily that he was clearly close to a psychiatric breakdown.

I left the meeting in the same car as Liam. After a time he said quietly, “Please drop me by that fish and chip shop; I’ve arranged to meet two of the Provo [Provisional IRA] leaders there at eleven, to see if I can negotiate Niamh’s release.”

Soon after I went with Dougal, a Protestant surgeon, on visits to ghettoes in both Unionist and Republican areas. He was also a devoted family man whose wife was expecting their fifth child. There had been anonymous telephone calls and letters from the terrorists, threatening harm to his family if he didn’t withdraw from his peace work, and bricks were hurled through his windows. He told me this was the normal experience of anyone involved in the peace movements, and children could indeed be harmed to “punish” a parent.

My principal brief was to try to recruit women for the peace movements. One person after another told me, “I’d join in myself, but there’s the children to think about.”

I was childless myself, but I became haunted by thoughts of my five-year-old nephew, James. He was safely with his parents in Bristol, but suppose he had been with me in Belfast? I forced myself to think of James killed by a bomb — James blinded or with his hands blown off — as the result of my activities. I made myself be fully honest, and I knew I would put James first and give up the peace work.

It was then impossible for me, with any integrity, to go on asking other people to put the children of their families at risk when I knew I wouldn’t do so myself, and so I left Belfast.

There are those who do risk their small children’s safety in order to work for peace. When asking fellow Orthodox how they react to this, I find some venerate such people as saints, others condemn them as wrong-headed. Probably we should beware of drawing simplistic conclusions.

I’d like to ask readers to stretch their imaginations, to try to empathize with people who face the terrible moral choices of bystanders living in such situations, and to pray for them. Where appropriate contacts exist, it may also be a source of strength to send friendly personal letters of moral support.

Anastasia Heath is a member of the Orthodox parish in Oxford, England, and active in the editorial board of the quarterly magazine Forerunner, published by the Orthodox Fellowship of Saint John the Baptist.