Why People Behave Righteously
What makes people good? So much has been written about what makes people commit terrible acts — was it deprivation, childhood trauma, personality disorder? But should we instead be reflecting on people who are good, even when doing “good” is against their own interests?
World War II brought out the absolute worst of humankind — and also the very best. We all know about the cruelty and depravity, but what about those who Yad Vashem calls the “Righteous”?
In September 1943, German forces took over the Greek island of Zakynthos. The German commander ordered that the Jews be identified so that they could be transported to concentration camps in Poland. The mayor, Lucas Carrer, was instructed to draw up a list of the Jews.
The mayor went to Bishop Chrysostomos for advice. The Bishop told the mayor to burn the list. The mayor tried to negotiate with the Germans to spare the Jews, but to no avail. In the end, he handed the German commander a piece of paper with one name on it — his own. He then proceeded to warn the Jews that they were to be deported, and told them to hide in the mountains, where Greek islanders would take care of them. Most of these Jews survived the war unharmed.
The mayor and the Bishop had everything to lose and nothing to gain by this extraordinary act of moral courage. Why did they act the way they did?
When the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, Dr. Józef Bellert opened the Polish Red Cross Camp Hospital, and was the administrator. There were more than 4,500 patients, including 400 children, mostly Jewish survivors. Their condition was so grave that descriptions are too terrible to report.
Dr. Bellert and 38 volunteer doctors and nurses were supposed to stay for a short time to lend assistance. Instead, they remained for eight months, and nursed as many as possible back to health. It was the largest hospital in Europe at the time. Of the more than 4,500 desperately ill patients, only 180 died.
The Greek bishop and mayor made a decision that could have easily cost them their lives. Dr. Bellert and his colleagues spent eight months of their lives to care for strangers who were at death’s door. Can we even begin to imagine the sacrifice and selflessness of the bishop, the mayor, and Dr. Bellert and his colleagues?
The case of US Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds is one of the most striking, as it directly involved an imminent threat to his own life. Edmonds and his men were captured in 1944 and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. The Jewish soldiers were told to “fall out” (separate themselves from the other soldiers) after morning roll call.
Edmonds, an American Christian, told his troops that they would all fall out. All 1,275 soldiers stood at attention in front of their barracks. The camp commander thundered, “All of you can’t be Jewish!” and Edmonds responded, “We are all Jews here.” The commander pulled out his gun and pressed it against Edmond’s forehead: “You will have your Jewish men step forward or I will shoot you on the spot.”
Edmonds replied: “If you shoot, you will have to kill all of us, and you will have to stand trial for war crimes after we win this war.” Following an excruciating pause, the commander put his gun in his holster and walked away.
Mordechai Paldiel, head of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, wrote that searching for an explanation of the motivations of the Righteous is like saying: “What is wrong with them? Are we not, in a deep sense, implying that behavior was something other than normal? Evil instincts are taken for granted; altruistic, humane behavior appears to need special explanation.”
Paldiel is correct. We need to change our way of thinking. The evil that was perpetrated was not only inhumane; it was not normal. It was the righteous who were normal. It is not good people who need to explain their actions, but rather the evil ones.
The good people serve as a reminder, again in the words of Paldiel, “that it is possible for human beings, in situations where civilized values are being undermined, to find the strength of character to resist the evil impulses of the age, and to rescue the victims of barbarity.”
When we view the actions of the mayor, the Bishop, and the American soldier not as extraordinary, but as expected and normal, we will have taken a giant step toward a truly moral society.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.