‘Beautiful Souls’

Former freedom fighter, journalist, family man and lover of Israel left big shoes

Is the name Charles Varnadore familiar to you? His name was not known to me and probably not to any readers of The Jewish Voice. His Aug. 4 obituary in the New York Times tells the story of an ordinary person who observed major safety lapses at the atomic energy lab in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Varnadore not only understood the morally correct viewpoint in a hostile environment, he actually took action. For this, he suffered significant consequences.

How about Paul Gruninger? Another name unknown to me and I suspect to you as well.

Eyel Press tells Gruninger’s story in a short but powerful book “Beautiful Souls” (196 pages, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2012) that depicts tales of behavior in response to moral dilemmas and delves into reasons and situations influencing the decision to act.

The Holocaust has stimulated an enormous body of literature about how such evil could exist, how some persons could commit such atrocities and how others could be complicit and/or just stand by. Less has been said about factors that influence some individuals to resist and act on their moral convictions. There were, of course, many collective actions taken by groups of varying size. But the issue of a single person acting according to conscience is less well addressed. Of course, the consequences of “acting out” during the Holocaust carried consequences of a different magnitude than in other situations.

“Beautiful Souls” tells four stories. Gruninger was a Swiss border guard who knowingly broke Swiss law in 1938 by falsifying documents that allowed Jews to enter Switzerland illegally. He was a policeman, sworn to uphold the law in a country known for respecting and obeying the law. Despite being a police officer, he broke the law, knowing that he would face punishing consequences, and he did. When he was interviewed later in life, he expressed no regrets. Now recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” Gruninger was exonerated posthumously by the Swiss government.

Aleksander Levtic was a Serbian soldier who, at great personal risk, saved enemy (Croatian) soldiers’ lives.  And there is the tale of Avner Wishnitzer, an elite Israeli soldier who refused to act against civilians. Finally, Press relates the travails of Leyla Wydler, a businesswoman who would not be complicit in or ignore fraud committed within the large financial company for which she worked. As we read these very personal stories, we cannot ignore the humanity of the protagonists and the underlying values motivating their behavior.

Most of us are never tested in this manner. Would we defy authority to do what is right? We may really answer that question only if and when we are actually confronted with a choice.

Group behavior often does not reflect the behavior that each member of a group might exhibit individually.  Education about the Holocaust includes teaching about intentional dehumanization of the victims. Perpetrators of the evil try to convince the “mob” that the victims are not true persons; they are rats, vermin, etc. Thus, they deserve to be mistreated or killed. This approach is not unique to the Holocaust. Remember the genocides in the Balkans, in Africa, etc.? But some individuals remain unconvinced and refuse to follow the group action and even may be proactive in opposing the group.

The author illustrates how an individual behaving alone may act radically different than as a member of a group. A Swiss police official was responsible for enforcing the border control from a command center in a large city. While on a personal visit to the actual border, this official (like Gruninger) falsified documents to allow Jews into Switzerland illegally, but when he returned to his command post he continued his role in enforcement. Years later, he admitted that when personally looking into the eyes of the refugees he could not ignore their plight.

Rather than analyze these situations from the viewpoint of an overarching psychological theory, Press starts with the personal story and enhances each narrative with evidence from psychological theories and experiments. The reader not only empathizes but also gains insight into emotional and behavioral factors playing on these courageous behaviors.

Can the protagonists in these stories teach us any lessons? Can such knowledge help us when confronted with analogous moral dilemmas?  Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is the knowledge that others have stood up for what they thought was right and, in spite of adverse personal consequences, have not regretted their actions. Additionally, understanding the dynamics of group and individual behaviors may facilitate our decision-making process if we become enmeshed in a moral quandary. Sharing the dilemma with trusted friends or advisors is another method of coping.

Would we, as individuals, recognize our own moral challenges and act according to our conscience? I think that people who read this book and think about these issues might well be a bit more prone to do just that. And if that is so, then the suffering of Vanadore, Gruninger and all the others who paved the way will not have been in vain.

Herb Rakatansky, M.D. , (herbrak1@cox.net), clinical professor of medicine emeritus, Brown University, lives in Providence.