Who: Fred Grünfeld, associate professor International Law
Book: The Town beyond the Wall (1962), Elie Wiesel
Target group: UCM and Law students
“It was right here at the old synagogue. Yes, I remember now. A Saturday. The police had herded all the city’s Jews into the building. The house of prayer and meditation had become a depot where families were separated and friends said farewell. (…) It was then that I saw him. A face in the window across the way. (…) The face is neither Jewish nor anti-Jewish; a simple spectator, that’s what it is.”
Elie Wiesel is a Jewish writer, who was born in Sighet, Romania, in 1928. In 1944, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. Wiesel remembers the deportation as if it were yesterday, as is apparent from the quotation above, taken from the novel The Town beyond the Wall. Elie Wiesel survived Auschwitz and eighteen years later wrote this book, in which a young man named Michael returns to the village where he was born. He goes in search of the spectator, the bystander, who saw how his family were led away and did nothing.
The book could be autobiographical, but it isn’t, emphasises Fred Grünfeld, originally a political scientist and working at the Faculty of Law. Wiesel only returned to Sighet for the first time after the book was published.
The Town beyond the Wall is Grünfeld's favourite book. He quotes from it in his lecture notes for Maastricht College students and Law students who take a block on the violation of human rights. He also quotes from it in the specialist literature that he has published, and the book Evoking Genocide, in which scientists and activists, and hence also Grünfeld, reveal which book, work of art, or film has influenced them in their field of research.
Why does he recommend it? Grünfeld: “There are criminals, victims, and bystanders. The role of the bystander is very difficult. You can hate criminals, you can pity victims, but what about the third party? Students learn that the bystander is not neutral. He is someone who stands up for the victim and is therefore a saviour. Or conversely, someone who watches without getting involved, more or less giving his approval and in that way allowing terrible things to happen.”
In The Town beyond the Wall, the main character Michael searches for the man who - during the war - only watched from behind his window while Jews were herded together on the market square. “Michael starts a conversation. He despises the man. Hate alludes to something of a personal relationship; contempt is much worse.”
According to Grünfeld, bystanders need not be individuals, but can be groups, like associations, a church, or a trade union. In large conflicts in which genocide plays a role, such as in Rwanda or Darfur, the role of politicians, states and international organisations like the United Nations also needs to be looked at.
In this column lecturers recommend a novel that throws a different light on their field than textbooks do