When threats are made, the lesson is to listen

Once again it would seem that the world has heard the threatening words of the leader of a nation, but seems reluctant to take decisive action. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has stated clearly that it is his intention to “wipe Israel off the map.” He has stated that the Holocaust never happened. And now Iran has made clear its intention to develop a nuclear bomb.

The United Nations has debated the issue of Iran’s desire to obtain nuclear weapons but so far has been unable to stop Iran from proceeding with its plan. Many say that Iran would never be crazy enough to actually use a bomb. As the United Nations wallows in seeming impotence at a critical turning point in history, I am reminded of another organization, begun with high hopes at the conclusion of World War I, the League of Nations, which failed to respond to another threat of destruction.

What the government of Germany was threatening to do to the people of Israel 60 years ago, we were told by the civilized world, was inconceivable. When one man tried to alert the world, the world failed to listen. He has been mostly forgotten, but his effort to make people understand the coming Holocaust deserves to be remembered.

The shot that Stefan Lux fired while sitting in the press gallery of the League of Nations on July 3, 1936 was intended to shake the conscience of the world. The actual result was that Lux’s self-inflicted wound ended his life and nothing was achieved by his death. Aside from a 10-minute delay in the League of Nations meeting and a brief mention in the press, the name of Stefan Lux has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Lux was a Jew, born in Vienna in 1888. During World War I he served in the army as a volunteer, was wounded twice and at the end of the war still had a single bullet remaining in his lung. After the war, Lux became a writer and a reporter. With the rise of Hitler, Lux became very concerned about the apathy of the world in the face of the rising tide of hatred and the real threat of another war.

He also was devastated by the plight of the Jews in Germany. The Nuremberg Laws, passed on Sept. 15, 1935, classified Jews as subhuman, and the world was silent. Lux could not comprehend the apathy that surrounded him at the League of Nations.

He resolved to go to the League of Nations to expose the crimes of the Hitler regime to the world. He wrote, “this is a terrible disaster. My undertaking [to expose the Nazi and Fascist threat] has failed … mainly because of this climate of impotence and apathy. One cannot expect anything from here even with the best documentation.”

Lux had become a regular in the League’s press gallery. On the morning of July 3, 1936, Lux, seated in the press gallery in full view of the delegates, arose and shouted out to the League’s Secretary General Avenol, by name. “This is my last act… My letter …” he said and then shot himself in the chest. After a 10-minute delay in the proceedings, the president of the assembly, Paul Van Zeeland announced, “The incident is in no way related to the discussion.” The meeting continued as if nothing had happened.

Lux was still alive when taken from the gallery. Brought to a hospital, he was tended by the chief rabbi of Geneva, Salomon Polikof. Lux said to the rabbi, “I was not a practicing Jew, but I want to die as one. My Hebrew name is Shumel Moshe Ben Abraham. I want to be buried among Jews.” Lux died and was buried the next day. It was reported that in his eulogy, Polikof pointed out that Lux had “given his life like a soldier in an ultimate effort to arouse the conscience of humanity.”

Lux wrote letters to King Edward VIII of Great Britain, British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, the Times of London and the Manchester Guardian. His outrage is best expressed by these excerpts from his letter to Eden:

“A man who is about to die, of his free will and after careful deliberation has a right to be heard … There is one problem of the greatest urgency and importance … This unique problem is Germany … The fact is that Germany is rearming in defiance of its international agreements … I am crying it out loud; you are dealing with a band of criminals in Germany [who] are morally and mentally depraved individuals with all the characteristics of bandits of the worst kind … I appeal to you with my last breath, Sir Eden, to face the facts, to take initiatives to react. If your Cabinet fails to understand that such exceptional danger requires exceptional measures — then take these facts before your King, before your whole nation. It is my profound hope that this miracle will take place; that the death of a barely known writer will help to bring out the truth and to shed some light … Stefan Lux.”

Lux was 48 years old when he died. He left a wife and a 12-year-old child, and a world unmoved by his action. July 3, 2006 will mark the 70th anniversary of his death. Lux was forgotten in death. His tragic action to alert the world failed. What he did, by his willingness to sacrifice himself that others might live, deserves to be remembered.

There is an important lesson to be learned from the tragedy of Stefan Lux. When a clear, precise threat is made, the world must respond. If the world, as represented by the United Nations, fails to act, then Israel must and will act. Never again can we ignore the threat of destruction.

John Rothmann is a talk-show host on KGO-AM 810 News Talk. He has been the chair of the S.F. Yom HaShoah Program Committee since 1984.