3. A Mystery
Monday the 15th of August it continues to rain, though in no way rivaling the record downpour of the day before. That evening, ET comes home buoyant and energized, announcing that we need to leave immediately to catch a screening at the Walter Reade. I learn that the documentary we are about to see is called The Rescuers. The audience, an admixture of older Jews and well dressed black people, heightens my curiosity about the film.
The Rescuers features an anti-genocide activist named Stephanie Nyombayire who lost much of her family in the 1990 Rwandan massacres. Under the guidance of Martin Gilbert, a British scholar, she documents the stories of twelve diplomats who defied orders to arrange exit visas and escape routes for European Jews threatened with extermination during World War Two.
The film’s underlying question is one I often ponder: What makes some people act, even at great risk, with such sustained and selfless virtue in order to save others? What is the mystery of goodness and can it be transmitted or reproduced? The flipside question – what makes others capable of such boundless evil – is ever-present, even if not explicitly pronounced.
In Paris, on July 16th, 1942, my husband ET and his mother were saved from extermination by the warning of a hotel concierge. So many others were not. I find myself asking the same question that underscores The Rescuers: What moved the concierge working that day at the hotel to warn my mother-in-law so that she might escape la rafle in time? Was it something about this particular woman with her young child that inspired his empathy? Did he sense something obscenely immoral in this arbitrary segregation of those who would live and those who would die? What made this concierge a rare humanist while others in his position did nothing or worse yet, denounced?
Call it courage, call it humanity, call it fear of God or basic instinct. I think back to the insularity of the orthodox wedding. Would the more “pious” of Jewish communities act with selflessness to rescue members of other races and religions? Is not reciprocity a fundamental value?
I agree with the narrator of The Rescuers: There’s a mystery to goodness. But even without fathoming it, it is something that each of us can model.
Pass it on, pass it on