The Courage to Care II

What compelled them to disregard danger and torture—even death—and choose humanity? What moved them to put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of saving one Jewish child, one Jewish mother?

Always there is the question of why, why did the rescuers act the way they did, and why were there so few. As they recounted their experiences, the majority struggled to understand what they did given the enormous risks they were taking. Here is how some of them answered:

Odette Myers (France)
The rescuers usually say, “It was nothing. Why all the fuss? It was the natural thing.
She speculates that because the rescuers were not so formally educated, they had to do their own thinking and that led them to respond quickly without deliberating about ethical principles.

Max Rothschild (Netherlands)
“…why did I do it? And I don’t let anybody step on anybody else’s toes. I have no philosophy. I don’t belong to a church. But when I see injustice done, I do something about it.”

Herman Graebe (Poland)
“I cannot explain exactly why or how I did these things, but I believe that my mother’s influence on me when I was a child has a lot to do with it….She said, take people as they come, not by profession, not by religion, but by what they are as persons.”

Johtje Vos (Netherlands)
“We were hiding 36 people, 32 Jews, and four others who also were being sought by the Gestapo. We had made a tunnel underground from our house to a nature reservation and when we got a warning or had an inkling that the village was surrounded, they all went in there.…we did it because we believed it was the right thing to do.”

Marion Pritchard (Netherlands)
“It did not occur to me to do anything other than what I did…I think you have a responsibility to yourself to behave decently. We all have memories of times we should have done something and didn’t. And it gets in the way the rest of your life.”

Gaby Cohen (France)

I do not have a scientific answer for why those who helped did it. I have asked myself that question over and over. For those of us who were young Jewish people at the time, it is not difficult to give an answer as to why we took the risks. We young Jews felt that it was our duty to help the helpless, to help those who were even in more danger than we were. But for the Catholic and Protestant families who took risks to help our children, it is not so easy for me to answer why. …What we know is that many people did it, they helped, even though we cannot say why.”

John Weidner (France)
“I only knew what I had to do, what my conscience and ethics compelled me to do. And I can tell you that I found a lot of people in all kinds of places---small people, of low social position; big people of high social condition; educated and uneducated—who were ready to help because they had pity and love and compassion in their hearts, and who thought, “It is my duty to help the Jews.”

These are the straightforward answers of a small sample of rescuers. While their behavior was of large significance, the reasons they offer for doing so seem nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, they were far more than that.

In an essay at the conclusion of The Courage to Care, Elie Wiesel poses the reverse question, Why were there so few rescuers? He asks what happened to those well-educated liberals and humanists who write eloquently about injustice and the many Nazi collaborators? “Why did they choose to remain insensitive to the plight, the tragedy, the murder of Jewish men and women and children?”

He has no answer. The question is disturbing and difficult and there are no accounts in this volume that give any hints as to what motivated their behavior. A companion volume of the non-rescuers and collaborators would be instructive.


barbara harshav said...

You might be interested in a book titled "Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed," by a philosopher. It's an account of a continued rescue in a Huguenot village in France. There is also an incisive essay by Saul Friedlander in the very first issue of a now-defunct journal called something like The Jerusalem Review, which appeared in 1975 or 1976. (If you google Friedlander -- worthwhile -- you should find it.) It might help you reach an answer to your second question about why there were so few.

Stefanie said...

You may find a book I just read a review on over the weekend worth a read: Eyal Press's "Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times"

Richard Katzev said...

Barbara: Hi. Thanks for your suggestions. I will track them down.

Richard Katzev said...

Stefanie: Many thanks. Breaking Ranks was the title of a book I read and blogged about. It was an account by and about Israeli Refuseniks. Maybe your suggestion is of a similar nature?

Stefanie said...

The book is about people who somehow manage to say no conforming, the ones who refuse to go along. The author's premise was that we know so much about how to convince people to conform (like in the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgrim Electric Shock Experiment as well as in totalitarian societies, etc) but we don't know much about what makes people say no (like the people you mention during the Holocaust who at their own personal risk, helped the Jews).

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you for suggesting it yesterday. I plopped it in my Cart right away.

Stanley Milgram. Yes, his work is grim but his name is gram.