‘So I didn’t stand up  and I didn’t ask why’

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Published: 9/12/2019 9:29:27 AM
Modified: 9/12/2019 9:29:17 AM

“So I didn’t stand up. And I didn’t ask why.”

These lyrics by Mike Stern from his song “Stand Up,” hit me like a ton of bricks on Aug. 9. They were sung by that venerable folk singing duo, Annie Patterson and Charlie King in another of their great performances, this time at the Great Falls Discovery Center. King and Patterson have frequently recorded and performed together. Their 2019 Midwest tour celebrated the release of their new CD, “Step By Step.”

King is known for his political satire and ability to find songs that explore struggle and the human experience. Pete Seeger called him “one of the finest singers and songwriters of our time.”

Patterson and her husband, Peter Blood created the songbooks “Rise Up Singing” and “Rise Again” and have performed at home and abroad.

Stern’s song was inspired by Martin Niemöller, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor. He is best known for his opposition to the Nazi regime during the 1930s and for his widely quoted poem “First they came ...” The poem has many different versions.

A popular version of this poem is emblazoned on a granite memorial at the New England Holocaust Museum in Boston. Inspired by a group of Holocaust survivors who found new lives in the Boston area, the New England Holocaust Memorial was built to foster reflection on the impact of bigotry and the outcomes of evil during World War II and to this day.

Here is the Niemöller poem inscription:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

In 2017 Boston politicians and religious leaders gathered together to mourn and decry the vandalism at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, the second time the site had been attacked that summer. Looming over the solemn gathering were the brazen anti-Semitic slurs and chants that echoed hundreds of miles away the same weekend when neo-Nazis and other white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va.

“What did we see over the weekend in Charlottesville?” asked Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, referring to the vandalism. “What do we have to think about this? When we see those clownish figures in their Nazi uniforms pretending to be human, pretending to be something more than they are, pretending to be important. It’s important to remember what that represents.”

Where, Shrage asked, “is the Franklin Roosevelt who led our country against Nazism. Where is our president? Where is the condemnation of evil?”

Stern wrote “Stand Up” in 1985. I think King and Patterson have updated Stern’s lyrics to resonate with Trump’s present persecution of anyone who is not white with a few notable exceptions such as Sen. John McCain, Robert Mueller, Hillary Clinton, et al.

Here are the Stern, King and Patterson lyrics I heard at the Discovery Center:

“First they came for the Communists

Then they came for the Jews

But I wasn’t a Communist / And I wasn’t a Jew

So I didn’t stand up

And I didn’t ask why.

Then they came for the unionists & they came for the priests

But I wasn’t a unionist & I wasn’t a priest...

So I didn’t stand up

And I didn’t ask why.

Then they came for the pacifists

And they came for the gays

But I wasn’t a pacifist & I wasn’t gay...

So I didn’t stand up

And I didn’t ask why.

By the time they came for me

There was nobody left to even try

Now they come for the Muslims

For the poor and the refugees

Though I am not a Muslim

I’m not poor, I’m not a refugee

Now I will stand up

And I will ask why!

When someday they come for me

I hope there’s someone standing by my side

Yes ​we will​ stand up

And we’re gonna ask why

And if someday they come for you

There’ll be lots of people standing by your side

A world of people standing by your side!​”

I can’t say more effectively what these lyrics are asking of each of us.

People are beginning to stand up. And to ask why.

John Bos resides restlessly these days in Shelburne Falls. He invites comments and questions at john01370@gmail.com.


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