The Fragility of Goodness

Probably one of the worst times in human history was the Shoah (Holocaust) when compassion and concern for those in some way different from the majority seemed to have vanished. While it is true that most European Christians under Nazi occupation did not significantly intervene to aid their fellow Europeans who happened to be Jews - most were apathetic to their fate, too many collaborated energetically with their murderers - still there were those who helped, who saved lives. Because there were so few who did intervene on behalf of their Jewish neighbors, and they did so under threat of the greatest risk to themselves, the question of who these good and brave people were - what led to their being able to take such action - does not leave our ethical imagination, but rather accompanies us always. This is a crucial question for the ethical development of all humanity.

What do you think enabled the rescuers to act as they did? How might such behavior be encouraged today in our interactions with others?

During the Shoah, the Nazi regime effectively monopolized all social discourse. Differing opinions or dissenting views were discredited or marginalized by the majority. But core aspects of both Judaism and Christianity resist such absolute state power over human beings.

The all pervasive visual character of classical Jewish texts - as well as the layout of many of Christianity's sacred works -presents us with a format that breaks the monopolizing single body, single column, single - as Genesis  11 represents it - tower.

Indeed, this is one of the readings of The Tower of Babel drama - that what the Divine saw in its building which called to be disrupted was the striving for one language; not meaning Hebrew or whatever other of our human languages per se, but rather a drive ~ for perfect understanding between people!

But what could be wrong with that?!

It is certainly true that understanding one another is a vital & at times even wonderful event. But if communication were such that we all understood one another with really absolute clarity of comprehension, then meaning would be a one-dimensional totalitarian truth that every person would merely accept - without having to strive for genuine understanding and thus without having to add himself/herself to its ongoing development.

These pages that give us multiple towers, columns, voices & views - teach us diversity, nuance; inclusion of a differential that celebrates the impossibility of THE One & Only ~ Final ~ Meaning, Final Answer. Indeed, this impossibility is associated by such pages with nothing less than the sacred.

We are struck by two countries - two societies in their entirety, that organized their political and religious leaders and lay adherents, labor unions, people of all walks of life to protect their Jewish neighbors. One was Denmark and the other was Bulgaria. In her monumental study Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt spoke to the wonder before such outbreaks of goodness - how when the Soviet army was advancing toward Bulgaria 'not a single Bulgarian Jew had been deported or had died an unnatural death - I know of no attempt,' she wrote, 'to explain the conduct of the Bulgarian people, which is unique in the belt of mixed populations.'  ~ And then there was Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant farming village in the mountains of south-central France - whose pastor organized from the church pulpit the entire community of five thousand who consequently saved the same number of Jews; a feat accomplished not by hiding them, but by integrating them into every aspect of their public lives. 'Not a single Jew who came there was turned away, or turned in. But it was not until decades later that the villagers spoke of what they had done -- and even then, only reluctantly.'

Some research studies, as well as individual stories, accounts rendered by people who have acted to help others in need - including the homeless, the hungry, those isolated and alone, facing different kinds of threats and dangers for a variety of reasons - in a variety of circumstances - some evidence suggests that these are people who in the earlier stages of their lives had known personal hardship, crisis, trouble.

And yet it is indeed complicated to identify the causes, the experiences that forge the spirit in people that moves them to act on behalf of their fellows.

Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust~ by Eva Fogelman (Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, 1994)

For some further reading see:

The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust ~ edited by Carol Rittner & Sondra Myers (New York University Press, 1999)


The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness ~ edited by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 2010)

What other resources exist in your own religious tradition that resist the lure of power? Have there been times in the history of your own community when it instead succumbed to the temptation? How can religious communities be encouraged to promote humanity and resist the corruption of power?

The very same experience can affect different people in different, even opposing, ways. One person experiences suffering and from undergoing that they emerge with a sense of identification with others in need, while another person takes from the same experience a drive to see to it that he or she is not alone in such indignities – by feeling confirmed in what they have had to confront by seeing others likewise having to struggle and suffer!

Shimon ben Azzai - known simply as Ben Azzai, a teacher of the first third of the second century - during the Mishnaic period - in the Land of Israel - reflects his awareness of this disturbing alternative response to suffering - in his teaching:

'This is the book of the lineage of Adam - in the image of the Divine He made him - the human being' (Genesis 5:1) Ben Azzai has said: This is a great principle in the Torah, such that you not say, 'It being the case that I have been disgraced - let my fellow be disgraced with me. Since I have been accursed, let my fellow be accursed with me.' - But rather know! Who is it that you are disgracing? None other than the One of Whom it is said 'In the image of the Divine He made him' [ - It is the Divine Whom you disgrace - since your fellow, every fellow human being is in His image]!

Midrash Genesis Rabbah - section 24, passage 7/8

See if you can investigate what kind of experiences might contribute to the development of compassion and caring, identification and a sense of responsibility to help others who are in need. You might interview people in your community who are such activists. Also in books and in film, think of such defenders of human dignity - whether historical or storied - and see what experiences, influences, personal backgrounds might be identified as making the difference - as conditions that form the ethical conscience and the will to act upon it in one's actual lived life with others.

For more - see:

The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust By Tzvetan Todorov (Princeton University Press, 1999). And see the film The Optimists: The Story of the Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust - Information at

A Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews during World War II by Emmy Werner (Basic Books, 2004). And see the film The Power of Conscience: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews

And see Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon & How Goodness Happened There by Philip Hallie (Harper, 1985, 1994)

For the opposite - representative of the fate of the overwhelming majority of European Jewry under the Nazis and their more than willing collaborators, see the meticulous study - Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan Gross

And yet despite widespread anti-Semitism in Poland before and during the Holocaust, many individual Poles saved their Jewish neighbors. Indeed, Poles constitute the largest national group within the Righteous Among the Nations recognized by Yad Vashem - Israel's Holocaust Memorial Museum. See the book They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland by Bill Tammeus & Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn (University of Missouri Press, 2009)