Many years ago, I reported on a conference at Princeton bringing a handful of Righteous Gentiles, who had risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Nazi era, together with a few dozen Holocaust scholars.
In essence, the scholars were trying to figure out what made the rescuers tick. Was there some common characteristic or background that impelled them to stretch out a hand to the hunted and despised, when most everyone else kept their hands in their pockets and looked the other way?
The search for answers proved frustrating. Among the rescuers, the professors concluded, were devout Christians and atheists, people with happy and unhappy childhoods, businessmen and peasants, idealists and cynics. Even some confirmed anti-Semites hid Jewish children.
It was even more difficult to pin down the motivations of the “altruistic personality.” Typical was the experience of one researcher, who arrived at the home of a farmer who had hidden dozens of Jews for years, and asked, pen poised to record an eloquent response, what made the farmer undertake such an extraordinary deed.
The man paused for a while and then slowly replied, “It wasn’t anything unusual. I saw somebody who needed help. So I helped.”
This response surfaced from the recesses of my mind last week, when I spent more than two hours at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, talking with the wife and son of Liviu Librescu. Marilena and Arye Librescu were accepting a Medal of Valor that evening on behalf of her husband and his father.
Professor Librescu, you recall, died while trying to protect his students at Virginia Tech from a lone gunman, who killed 32 people during an April 16 rampage. The 76-year-old aeronautical engineer was shot to death while trying to block a classroom door against the gunman, giving his students a chance to escape.
Librescu was an accomplished researcher and teacher, but “he was the most humble person I ever met,” said his son, Arye, who lives in Israel: “If my dad believed in doing something, he went ahead and did it, and he didn’t care what other people might say about it. What should be done had to be done, he felt. In that sense, he looked at life in black-and-white terms.”
Marilena Librescu, who like her husband spent some of the war years in the Ploesti ghetto in Romania, recalled how the then-12-year-old Liviu supported his mother by tutoring other children in math.
“He was a man who liked to help everybody,” she said. “I’ve had letters from his former students all over the world, and so many wrote, ‘I’ve lost my second father.'”
From the way Liviu Librescu lived and died, he reminded me instantly of the word-shy farmer — a quiet man who, as a matter of course, acted heroically. I use the word hero sparingly, for over the years, it has been cheapened by constant abuse and overuse.
For instance, I recently received a letter from a Jewish charity offering me the title of “hero” if I sent a check of $50 by return mail. But that’s only the most obscene example of the word’s corruption.
Most often, the term is applied to those serving in a country’s armed forces, particularly to (winning) generals who ply their trade in safe quarters well behind the frontlines.
Among favorite media clichés, besides “there are no atheists in foxholes,” is the reflexive labeling of anyone injured or killed during warfare as a “hero.”
I’ve served in three wars — as combat infantryman during World War II, as squad leader of an anti-tank unit in Israel’s War of Independence and in a cushy editor’s job during the Korean War — so trust me when I say that it’s all a crapshoot, and those who don’t come back in one piece or alive were simply unlucky or in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I dare say that the same applies to the victims of mass persecutions, genocides and wars, from the Holocaust to Darfur. They suffer and continue to suffer terribly, but it was a passive fate imposed among them. No less an authority than Elie Wiesel told me, “It was pure chance who lived and who died in the camps.”
I propose abolishing the word “heroic” for all instances of purely physical courage and for most cases of moral courage. What I mean is that most everybody is capable, once in a lifetime, of taking a great physical risk or saying yes when everyone else is screaming no.
But to quietly risk your life day after day and, even more, to stand steadfastly against public opinion in wartime month after month, that alone deserves the appellation of heroism.
Surely, there are single individuals in every country and in every time who fit that description, but the only group of people who have fully lived up to that standard during my lifespan are the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust era.
This in no way diminishes my admiration for the many thousands of brave Jews, from individuals in concentration camps to partisans who fought in the forests or the men and women of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance.
What gives an extra measure of merit and gratitude to the non-Jews is that they were not bound to us by ties of kinship and common fate. They had a choice, and they chose to stand with us — and often to die with us.
At the Princeton conference, I met a Polish Catholic woman who worked as a maid in a house occupied by Nazi officers. In the basement of this house, she hid a small group of Jews. Day after day, she brought them scarce food, washed their clothes, removed their excrement, smuggled out their bodies when they died and buried them.
Would you be able to do the same? For myself and for 99.99 percent of the human race, the honest answer is a categorical no.