ISSUE 40
WINTER 2002/03
Peace Matters index
 

 

 

   

good deeds

 
 


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- states of concern
- militarism watch
- holocaust memorial day
- good deeds
- resource wars
- alternatives to war


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Once introduced into public life, evil easily perpetuates itself, whereas good is always difficult, rare and fragile. And yet possible.
Tzvetan Todorov


WE FIND what we call 'evil' fascinating. We're deeply interested in wickedness, crime and what is, on our particular terms, immoral. But what we ought to be much more interested in is 'good', and learning everything we can about it. Human goodness is every bit as complicated as its opposite.

Of course there are people doing good deeds, unrecorded, everywhere and every day. It's bad deeds that get the press coverage, and they (or rumours of them) are daily hunted out to satisfy the media's consumers. It's usually only the more conspicuous acts of goodness that can from time to time nudge violence, crime and duplicity off the front page.

However, scientists and thinkers have begun to draw more attention to our better side. Altruism, many now agree, is part of our make-up: it helps the species to survive. So we need to study how altruism works, and discover what encourages - or stifles - unselfish impulses. During the Second World War, for example, many civilians readily helped and tended victims of the war and its inescapable deprivations. Their acts were inspired by such things as shared suffering and natural humaneness. But if, in particular, we consider the period of the Nazi pogrom against Jews, it looks as though altruistic responses can quickly be subdued by fear. Though not the main victims of Nazi brutality, many non-Jewish citizens living under the Nazi regime found that the instinct to survive invoked the opposite of altruism.

Yet even during that time many thousands of people - over 19,000 of them are listed by name in the archive of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum - acted with generosity, kindness and compassion at great risk to themselves. Their motives were as varied as the people themselves. Under threat, altruism can be kick-started and kept running by characteristics and feelings not always thought appealing: stubbornness, perversity, resentment, bloody-mindedness. Equally, many people helped Jews to survive because they regarded it as their moral duty, or because they detested bullying, or because their religion taught compassion for others, or because it was one way for civilians to oppose Nazi rule. Some may even have found it exciting, or a fulfilling way of taking responsibility for others that pre-war existence may not have offered. Either way, the relatively few rescuers who have said anything about their motives have simply said 'We did what was right'.

For every Jew who was saved, there were many people, beside the now publicly recognised rescuers, who helped simply by looking the other way and saying nothing. In Belgium, occupied by German forces during the war, over 4,500 Jewish children were hidden by non-Jews; 3,000 of them were saved because communities did not report or otherwise betray the children's presence among them.

Belgium's National Agency for Children found homes for these children in all kinds of places: with non-Jewish families, in convents, in boarding schools and orphanages, and even in nursing homes. With the help of the Belgian resistance movement, the Agency was sometimes able to rescue children even as they were being rounded up for deportation and death. The children were given new identities and birth certificates. Their real details were kept in secret locations, so that they could be traced after the war. One of these children wrote later: 'My foster parents not only saved my life but gave me unconditional love and were ready to risk everything for me.'

Such warmth and generosity wasn't uncommon towards adults either. In Italy, a Jewish family was able to rent a small home in an isolated village, but 'no questions were asked', the landlord said it didn't matter if the rent wasn't paid - and added that if the family had no food, they would be the invited mealtime guests of each village family in turn.

In Lithuania, an iron foundry manager allowed one of his Jewish workers to build a hideout for himself, his wife and his mother, in the factory loft. It was tiny, but the factory foreman supplied bedding, electric light and heat, water, and even a radio. He continued to look after them, providing food and other necessities regularly. What the little family did not realise until later was how many problems the foreman was having - and how he was keeping his worries not only from the hidden Jews but also from his wife, who felt he was risking their own child's life. 'I still cannot imagine,' said the Jewish worker, 'how we would have coped without his extraordinary moral fortitude.' The foreman even managed to take the elderly mother to live for a while with a sympathetic family elsewhere: she was in great distress from claustrophobia.

In Amsterdam, a young medical student, together with her mother and grandmother, hid over a hundred Jews, five at a time, on the top floor of their home. Each group of refugees was then moved on secretly by night to safety in Spain or Switzerland. Only once did the women speak to each other of the risk of being killed themselves. 'We knew we couldn't just stand by while Jewish people were killed.' They spent time with their guests, and 'tried to make their terrifying lives just a little more bearable'. The young woman was arrested and interrogated nine times, once beaten unconscious, but she did not speak. What she did do was seize opportunities to steal non-Jews' identity cards, which the Dutch underground movement altered for Jews to use. 'She even scared the Gestapo! She once seized an officer by the arm and accused him, "Didn't I see you looting from the apartment next door?" '

There were other kinds of considerateness, too: when a Catholic woman, deeply attached to the little Jewish boy she was bringing up as her son, wanted him to be baptised a Catholic, the young parish priest (one Karol Wojtyla) told her it would not be right or fair to do so as long as there was a chance of the boy finding Jewish relatives after the war (which indeed the boy did).

In Budapest, a Protestant pastor gave Jewish children refuge in the Good Shepherd children's homes he ran. The children were given false school reports and forged baptism certificates, and other helpful documents written on Red Cross letterheads. 'The most difficult thing,' wrote the pastor, ' was to teach the small children their new names and what they were to say about their parents....How much fear and terror these little ones had behind them, and how much more they were still to endure!'

This pastor got to know several German officers stationed in Hungary. When they visited him, the Jewish children would come to sing for them. The major in command of the sector was, the pastor recorded, 'sad and resigned, fully aware of the futility of war'; and he once told the pastor that he knew who the children were but detested racism of any kind and wished them all well.

There were other German soldiers who resisted Nazi anti-Jewish policies. One was in charge of a farm labour camp near Drohobycz, where many of the workers were Jews. When deportations began, he hid some of them in his home, and protected others by insisting that their labour was essential. With the help of his wife in Berlin and false papers he himself prepared, he helped teenage girl labourers to escape to domestic jobs with German families.

Another German major ran a large repair workshop for military vehicles in Vilna. When he saw the terrible conditions in the Vilna ghetto, he arranged for many Jewish workers, with their families, to live in a labour camp next to his workshops. Here they were protected from SS raids. 'He saw to it that we were treated decently and had food.' When the SS took over the workshops in 1944, the major publicly announced the change, making sure that the workers were subtly warned; 'he didn't have to, but he did.'

Most of the Germans sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, like the iron foundry manager in Lithuania, were civilians. The manager of a textile mill in Bialystok kept in touch with the Jewish resistance movement and when the ghetto was closed he hid Jews in his factory and his home. 'I am ashamed of being a German,' he was once heard to exclaim. In Bedzin, the owner of a factory making German uniforms intervened to save Jews during SS raids; he also smuggled them out of the ghetto hidden under layers of clothes in his trucks. (He was found out and hanged by the SS at the end of 1943.) The manager of a construction company in eastern Poland took great risks to protect many Jewish workers, whom he supplied with forged papers; he later testified against 'The Final Solution' at the Nuremberg trials. Of himself he said only 'I did what anyone could have done, should have done'.

There were kindnesses within the concentration camps too. Jewish women slaves in the camp at Deblin described the two soldiers who supervised them as 'decent men' who allowed them to work indoors when it was cold. In winter the women smuggled in potatoes and lumps of coal, to make a primitive hot meal for themselves. One of the supervisors spotted this, and quietly provided a stove and matches. 'With a wink he gave us an order - "lunchtime potato stealing" - and added softly "I have a wife and two children. But this damned war ". Then he was gone.' An SS woman guard saved a boy from deportation, telling his sister 'I have a young son just like him'. A slave worker in Dachau's Camp Four, with no electrical skills and under daily threat of death, in desperation volunteered to work for a German electrical engineer. The engineer chose ('you learn quickly') to keep him on. 'In this way he gave me a chance to live,' said his Jewish apprentice. 'That man still had human emotions and didn't just obey orders. I worked well for him, and he had sympathy for me and treated me compassionately.' In the last days of the war, when surviving Jews were sent on death marches from the camps, some escaped and found shelter or assistance from Germans: a hiding place for the night, hot coffee and food, and clean water to wash wounds.

And there were acts of rescue in the heart of Germany, Berlin. In the late 1930s, a countess (who had a brother in the SS) worked with members of a local Swedish church to smuggle Jews out of the country. She forged visas and ration books and other documents; she drove lorries carrying vegetables - with Jewish refugees hidden among them. When war began the countess hid Jews in her own home. One remembered hiding in a specially hollowed-out sofa when the SS made their frequent visits. The countess warned the SS that she would insist on compensation; 'I said I wanted that in writing, and watched them as they backed down'.

The Dean of the Protestant Church in Berlin set up a rescue operation in 1935. 'This valiant man preached against Hitler's Jewish policies by day and operated escape routes for the Jews by night.' In 1942 a Catholic woman rescued a woman who had just given birth: using the young mother's photograph she herself applied for travel papers; when the clerk looked quizzically at her face and then at the photograph, she said with bright-eyed confidence 'I looked different when I was pregnant'. With the papers and the rescuer's ID card, the mother and child were able to leave Berlin unmolested. When they got on the train, a German soldier leapt up to give her his seat.

Many Berliners helped Jews in ways like these. One said, 'We did it to defend democracy and to fight against discrimination - of which the Jews were the greatest victims.' Another was a blind factory owner who took on Jewish workers - many of them blind, deaf or mute; he was a pacifist.

In 1939 a British man single-handedly organised the passage of eight train-loads of Jewish children from Prague to safe homes in Britain. He told no-one at home about this enterprise; he was nearly 80 before his wife found a scrap-book containing details of the evacuation. 'It was just nine months in a very long life,' he said recently (a short film about him was shown for the first time in Britain in September last year). But he still thinks about it: 'I think about how many more we could have rescued'. One of the children, for whom he found a foster home in Liverpool, has now co-written his biography. 'It was one of the most important moments of my life to be able to thank him for my life,' she said. 'He showed me more than anyone I know about the power of humanity.'

Many rescuers and rescued have told how the crossing of their paths in those days has enriched their lives, despite the horrors and deaths they were unable to prevent. What is clear to anyone hearing their stories is this: doing good in a time of evil requires a particular strength of character, commitment and determination. Is it something that can be learned?

Tzvetan Todorov, writing about Bulgaria's resistance to the Holocaust, has said: 'The people were opposed to anti-Semitic measures, but a community is powerless without leaders, without those individuals who exercise public responsibility, who are ready to accept the risks that their actions entail. All this was necessary for good to triumph.... It seems that, once introduced into public life, evil easily perpetuates itself, whereas good is difficult, rare, and fragile.' That is certainly true when a regime is authoritarian, brutal or corrupt. How true is it when leadership is apparently benign? Do we let ourselves grow lazy, unobservant, and more selfish then?

We have to ask ourselves this question: what could, would, should we do when our governments commit wrongs and abuses? What, indeed, would any of us have done if we had lived under the Nazi regime? Then, among the many - the betrayers, the condoners, the prejudiced, the fearful, the uncertain - there were the few who stood up for humane and decent values. As one survivor said, on behalf of all the Jews who survived: 'Each one of us is living proof that even in the hell called the Holocaust there was goodness, there was kindness, love and compassion.' These are things we must be prepared to give, unconditionally. The 'will to good' has a reconciling power - a power that doesn't corrupt those who have or choose it.

Margaret Melicharova

Book: Martin Gilbert: 'The Righteous: the Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust' (Doubleday 2002)
Film: 'Nicholas J Winton - Power of Good', directed by Matej Minac (shown as part of the New Europe Film Season at the Barbican Screen, September 2002)

 
     

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