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So I Didn’t Stand Up, And I Didn’t Ask Why

Niemoeller Memorial
Niemoeller Memorial (Photo: John Bos)

“So I didn’t stand up. And I didn’t ask why.” These words, these lyrics by Mike Stern from his song Stand Up, hit me like a ton of bricks this past August 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 in Turner’s Falls, MA.

King and Patterson have frequently recorded and performed together. Their 2019 Midwest tour celebrated the release of their new CD, Step By Step, which includes songs that celebrate the centennial of Pete Seeger’s birth. King is known for his political satire and ability to find songs that explore struggle and the human experience. Seeger called him “one of the finest singers and songwriters of our time.”

Annie Patterson & Charlie King

Annie Patterson & Charlie King (Photo: John Bos)

Patterson created the songbooks “Rise Up Singing” and “Rise Again” with her husband Peter Blood and has performed all over the U.S. 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.

As a “national conservative,” Niemöller believed in upholding national and cultural identity. Initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler who preached Aryan cultural superiority, he became one of the founders of the Confessing Church. The Confessing Church was a movement within German Protestantism during Nazi Germany that arose in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi Protestant Reich Church.

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, Virginia, “How can this be in this country, in this city, so near to the graves of patriots who fought for freedom and liberty in this place?” said Barry Shrage, former president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, referring to the vandalism.

“What did we see over the weekend in Charlottesville? 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?” The parallels to Make America Great Again are chilling. 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 Senator 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

John lives in Greenfield MA and is a peer news author for Citizen Truth. He is a columnist for the West County Shelburne Falls Independent, a monthly op ed contributor for the Greenfield Recorder and a contributing writer for Green Energy Times in New England. His op eds have been published in the Springfield Republican, the Montague Reporter, the Worcester Telegram and the Daily Hampshire Gazette. He invites comments and dialogue at [email protected].

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