To Save a Life

How do you explain goodness, really get at the essence of what it is? Its properties are as mysterious — as unexplainable — as what motivates people to indulge in the worst sorts of evil. Goodness may, in fact, be even more resistant to explication than its opposite, since we've all been moved to hatred and so can tap into that emotion fairly easily. Perhaps we would not act upon it or go as far as some of the more deplorable individuals who've cropped up throughout all of history, but still, we've all known deep anger and hatred.

Yet how many of us have been truly good, have done something purely altruistic in our lives, something untainted by any measure of self-interest? True selflessness — as all honest people will readily admit — is rare indeed.

The mysteriousness of goodness and its unfortunate scarcity in much of human endeavor are repeatedly present — though often only by implication — in a new book, The Righteous Among the Nations by Mordechai Paldiel, which has been jointly published by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and Collins Publishers.

Beginning in 1963, Israel's Yad Vashem museum, which is dedicated to the remembrance and study of the Shoah, initiated a project of recognizing those gentiles who had saved Jewish lives during the Nazi onslaught. As of January 2006, some 21,310 people had been honored as the Righteous Among the Nations. Paldiel's massive compilation, running to nearly 600 large pages, considers 150 of these astonishing people.

The volume deals with well-known rescuers such as Varian Fry, Jan Karski and Chiune Sugihara, all of whom worked through, around or against governments to help those in need. For the most part, however, the rescuers profiled in these pages are everyday people who reacted on impulse, most often saying, "Yes, come in," to desperate people, despite the inherent danger to them and their families.

There are so many fascinating tales here that it's difficult to know where to begin. But one of the most remarkable tells of Leokadia Jaromirska, a Polish woman who decided to shelter an abandoned child she ran across one day.

Leokadia's husband, Bolek, was arrested early in April 1940 by the Gestapo for political activities. Alone and frightened, Leokadia took solace in the small child she found on the way to work one October morning. She named her Bogusia, loved her deeply, pampered her as best she could under the circumstances and kept her close by her side through all of the dislocations the war threw in her path.

Once the Nazis were finally routed, Leokadia's husband returned from Auschwitz. Even worse for the Polish woman, Bogusia's father, Geniuk (Gershon) Jonisz, returned as well. Bogusia's real name, as it turned out, was Shifra, and her father wanted her back, expecting to take her with him to Israel to start their new life together.

This is a story that confronts in its outlines of near Greek tragedy all the difficult questions about human loyalties: Who has the greater claim to the child, the biological parents who had to give her up through no fault of their own, or those who provided nurturance? After so many years of absence and change, is Leokadia's husband expected simply to accept Bogusia as his own and love her with the passion that his wife so easily tapped into? And, after that same number of years, is the still very young child called Bogusia expected to love and accept, immediately and unreservedly, the stranger who calls himself her father and leave her "mother" behind and go off to pre-state Palestine?

This is not simply a story about a woman who had the decency and courage to accept and care for an abandoned child. It is a tale about all the essential things in life — love, hate, passion, forgiveness, understanding and, most assuredly, it is a tale about how people manage to survive the desperate choices they are forced to make through sheer circumstance.

'Things Had to Be Done'

Two other extraordinary individuals were André and Magda Trocmé, who led the people in the village of Le Chambon in Northern France to assist Jews in their flight to Switzerland.

André Trocmé, a descendant of an old Huguenot (Calvinist) family, was the pastor of the predominantly Protestant community of the town, and he and a network of family and friends helped thousands of Jews escape. The success of the plan depended upon this tight network of individuals who sheltered the Jews in specified houses until it was safe to transport them out of France.

One villager, when questioned about her actions during the war, responded, "How can you call us 'good'? We were doing what we had to do. Who else could help them? And what has all this to do with goodness? Things had to be done, that's all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people."

The individuals portrayed throughout The Righteous Among the Nations are, like the citizen of Le Chambon quoted above, self-effacing and make of their bravery something simple. It is hardly a sign of heroics, to their way of thinking. But in light of their humility, we can only ask why so few others joined them in this cause.

The Righteous Among the Nations is an oversized, quite hefty tome and cannot be read like a normal book, if only because of its size. And so, for that very reason, it may seem absurd to suggest reading another book after taking in these nearly 600 large pages. But it might make sense for readers to supplement their reading since the reason why these individuals did what they did is not more actively pursued in this work. For some insights on these matters, I suggest turning to When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland, one of the most important studies in Holocaust historiography by one of the subject's most important scholars, Nechama Tec.

Tec, who as a young girl passed as a Polish Christian during the Shoah (the experience is described in her first book, Dry Tears), notes in When Light Pierced the Darkness that many Jewish lives were saved in Poland, and many Polish names appear along the Avenue of the Righteous, which may mean a great deal or simply that there was a large concentration of Jews in Poland before the war, and so more possibilities for rescuing people.

Tec also states that we will never know whether the Nazis designated Poland to be the center of Jewish annihilation because of the country's large Jewish population or because the Germans counted on, if not actual support, at least indifference on the part of the Poles. Tec's research shows that only a very few Polish rescuers were themselves free of what she calls a "diffuse cultural anti-Semitism."

Of these anti-Semitic rescuers, Tec — who continues to do her groundbreaking work at the University of Connecticut — found that most were devout Catholics, and all were highly nationalistic, intellectual and socially prominent. As nationalists, they were willing to concede that the Nazis were a greater threat to Poland than the Jews. Appalled by Nazi barbarities, they wished to dissociate themselves from the Germans — and one way was to save Jews. "Paradoxically," Tec concludes, "whereas before the war Polish nationalism was in part responsible for Polish anti-Semitism, during the war … it could lead to the protection of Jews."

Tec identifies several characteristics common to the majority of the rescuers she examined. They shared a high level of independence and self-reliance; a commitment to helping the needy that began long before the war; and a matter-of-fact attitude toward rescue, considering it mere duty, much like André Trocmé and his wife, and the devoted villagers of Le Chambon.

With so much already written about the Holocaust, there is perhaps no more important endeavor at this point in history than to continue to profile and study those who saved lives, for perhaps by reviewing these acts of goodness, we will not only honor such individuals, but learn more about what inspired them to act as they did.



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