Volume:4, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2012

The Mystery of Goodness
Locke, Hubert G. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: Holocaust, World War II, rescuers, perpetrators, mystery of goodness, community behavior.
SYNOPSIS: The author tries to find the roots of the acts of goodness demonstrated during WWII in relation to the Holocaust and presents his point of view on the topic. He indicates the lessons to be learned from three quarters of a century ago, and shows how important it is to uncover as many insights as we can from the deeds of those who rescued or attempted to rescue Jews and Gypsies during the Nazi’s occupation of Europe and Russia.


Almost three quarters of a century have passed since the earth-shattering events that we know as the Second World War took place. After so much time has transpired, it is probably not surprising to find that various and sundry scholars have begun to take a second – and in some instances, a third and fourth – look at that period and are finding that some of our early or initial conclusions about people and circumstances of that era may not quite be what we thought.

We Americans have long pictured ourselves, for example, as the grand heroes of that epic struggle. Even though America entered WWII over two years after it began, we like to think of America’s entry as the tipping-point in the conflict, with the defeat of Germany hinged to the invasion of Europe in June 1944. But the British historian Norman Davies points out that equally, if not more, critical battles were taking place on the eastern front where the German and Soviet armies collided. And, he notes, while the U.S. lost 143,000 soldiers in the fight against Germany, the Soviet Union lost eleven million.

Similarly, if there is one heroic figure who stands out in that awful period, it is most likely Winston Churchill. Churchill rallied the British nation in the fall and winter of 1940-41 when rockets were raining down on London and its populace was frantically packing their children off to the relative safety of the English countryside and the Midlands. His famous speeches are still considered among the finest expressions of hope and courage in the English language. He has been called, “of all the towering figures of the 20th century, both good and evil, … the most valuable to humanity” 2.

But like all iconic figures, Churchill proves also to have feet of clay. He turns out not only to have had immensely enlarged notions of British imperialism – which were already enormous – but also ugly ideas about race – admitting, for example, that he “hated people with slit eyes and pig tails” and expressing his nostalgia for the empire’s “jolly little wars against barbaric people”3.

Then there is the matter of military strategies employed by the Allies during the war. Few would – or should – quarrel with the belief that WWII was, as one scholar, puts it, “a just war against morally criminal enemies” 4. But this same scholar describes the practice of what was called area bombing – in which, for example, the British Royal Air Force indiscriminately bombed urban areas in the hope of damaging Germany’s economy and morale – as a “moral crime.” What is the difference, he asks, “between bombing women and children and shooting them with a pistol? … The anonymity of the act of killing from 20,000 feet?” Perhaps the most pertinent and frightful example of this was so-called Operation Gomorrah – the weeklong air raid on Hamburg in July 1943 that killed some 43,000 civilians and destroyed virtually the entire city. So it is that scholars are having second thoughts about some aspects of that enormous conflict that have long been taken for granted.

There is, however, one matter about which there is not any dispute; in fact, if anything what we are discovering is how much we may have underestimated its presence in the midst of the horror that engulfed most of the European continent during World War II. And that is what some are beginning to call the mystery of goodness that was displayed by women and men – some in pivotal positions where their efforts made the difference between life and death for hundreds; others whose acts saved but one family or even a single child. But they are on a growing register of people whom we remember for having rescued European Jews from the great annihilation that we have come to call the Holocaust.

In what follows, I want to be certain that I am not misunderstood. When I say that we may have underestimated the extent of the acts of goodness demonstrated during WWII, it should not be taken as diminishing, for one moment, the extent of the evil that occurred or the enormity of the catastrophe that was the Holocaust. So enormous is the latter, in fact, that many have come to feel that little, if anything, was done to save European Jewry from destruction. Given the sheer numbers of those who perished, it is understandable that many would feel and some would insist that a negligible few came to the aid of Jewish citizens who were taken by the trainloads to the gas chambers of Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz. But if there are lessons to be learned from three quarters of a century ago, it is as important that we try to unravel and uncover as many insights as we can from the deeds of those who came to the aid of their Jewish and Gypsy neighbors or those whom they did not know at all, as well as trying to fathom the minds of those who participated in their destruction.

Recently, during the Seattle International Film Festival, a documentary entitled The Rescuers was given its Seattle premiere. In brief, it tells the story of a young Rwandan woman who lost members of her family in the genocidal outburst that occurred there in 1994 and who goes to London where she makes connection with Sir Martin Gilbert, the British historian who has done so much to shed light on what transpired during the Holocaust. Together, this young woman and Sir Martin go on a quest to try and understand as much as they can about the rescue of Jews seventy years ago, in the hope that they – but especially the young Rwandan woman – can learn something about what it might have taken to save Rwandans during the catastrophe there.

Their efforts at discovery center on a group of diplomats – not a group in the sense that these people were organized in any fashion or even that they knew one another but rather the fact that each of them was in the foreign service of his/her country. In this respect, they were people like Raoul Wallenberg who went to Budapest at the behest of the War Refugee Board – that terribly belated effort of our own nation to respond, at the height of the unfolding tragedy, to the desperate plight of European Jews caught in the vise of the genocidal campaign being waged by the Third Reich. Wallenberg went to Budapest under the aegis of the Swedish government; his story is well-known: he issued hundreds of Swedish passports randomly to Hungarian Jewish citizens, ushered hundreds of others into apartment buildings in the city over which he erected the Swedish flag and declared that their occupants were protected from molestation by diplomatic protocol. Stories recount how Wallenberg would go to the train depots where Jews were being herded into cattle cars for transport to the killing centers. Wallenberg would arrive and snatch people from the trains saying, “This one and that one are Swedes.”

Wallenberg was not the only diplomat to act so courageously. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, lists dozens of other diplomats including Roberto de Castro Brandao, the Brazilian diplomat in Marseilles, Frank Foley, a British passport officer in Berlin who forged passports to Britain and Palestine, Prince Constantin Karadja, the Romanian diplomat who is estimated to have saved 5100 Jews from deportation, Carl Lutz, the Swiss Counsel in Budapest, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese diplomat in Bordeaux who is said to have signed over 30,000 visas and Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese counsel to Lithuania who issued passports to some 2,000 Polish Jews.

Other diplomats risked their lives and frequently the censure of their own governments to aid those in peril. Why? Why did or why should people act as these heroic figures did? Why did not only diplomats but also pastors and priests, nuns, postal and railroad workers, merchants, salespeople, housewives defy the government and its network of informers and spies and unimaginable sanctions to rescue the condemned? Surprisingly, not a great deal of attention has been given to this question. I think we’ve failed to plumb the depths of this query for several reasons:

First, there is an almost irresistible urge to try and fathom the minds and behavior of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. We are drawn to Hitler and Himmler and Goebbels because we cannot imagine humans thinking and acting as they did. So repulsed are we by them that we seek to know all we can about them. We find what we like to call the darker side of human nature fascinating; could it be because we sometimes catch a faint glimpse of our own impulses in such creatures?

For whatever reason, our attention for the past three-quarters of a century has been riveted on the major figures in the drama of World War II. And that suggests the second reason that I think lies behind our failure to ask more and learn more about the heroes of that historic moment. Most of us like to think that history is made by the footprints of larger-than-life figures who stride across the stage of world events. This is largely why the Second World War is often told as if it were the stories of Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Mussolini and Roosevelt – those whose decisions or quirks or follies or determinations affected the lives and fortunes of millions in that era.

This notion of the “great men of history” or the leaders who shaped the era often extends to our notions of how goodness should be seen or assessed in that period as well. When one asks about heroes of that period, for example, Pope Pius XII generally gets a bad evaluation – primarily because people begin with the assumption, for which I must add there isn’t a great deal of evidence, that if only the Pope had spoken out, much larger numbers of Jews might have been rescued! Critics and supporters of the pope have quarreled for decades, and every year there are several more books out either accusing or defending Pius XII for his role during the war.

In the process, we overlook the lesser figures – ordinary men and women whose efforts were pivotal in the rescue of countless numbers of those condemned to destruction. And that brings us to what, in the film shown several weeks ago, is called the mystery of goodness. The truth is we just do not know what impels people to do the right thing! We have some clues, to be sure: we know the importance of family life is in shaping the values of those who were rescuers as well as, in many instances, the influence of religious beliefs and values on their determination to offer aid. We know that others acted out of deeply held political convictions about equality and the sacredness of the human person.

But not all rescuers were motivated by religious beliefs and not all were good liberal democrats! Some were dedicated communists, some never set foot inside a church and others did not come from strong, loving families. The best work, in fact, that has been done on this whole issue, that of Oliner, fails to come up with any clear notion of anything that people who were rescuers had in common, other that the idea of something called altruism or a behavior “directed toward helping others that is voluntary and accompanied by no external reward5. But that only succeeds in describing what people did, not why they did it.

Clearly, we need much more work on this business of what causes people to act courageously on behalf of others. We need, in brief, to try and unravel this mystery of goodness if we are to have a more decent and humane world. One useful insight is offered by Jonathan Glover, who has written Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century. He finds that “most people calibrate their conscience against a level of minimum decency expected of people in their peer group or culture. When the level drifts downward, people can commit horrible crimes with the confidence that comes from knowing that ‘everyone does it.’” But the converse also holds. When the level of what is considered human decency ascends, people can do marvelous deeds with the same confidence, knowing that ‘everybody does it.’ 6

Nazi Germany is a prime example of the first observation about the level of decency drifting downward. But on the other end of the scale we have the community of Hugenots in Le Chambon, France, as an example of what happens when the level of what is considered to be the decent thing to do rises. Both these circumstances speak to the importance of group or community behavior in perpetuating either evil or goodness among peoples and in societies. When we can develop similar understandings about the mystery of goodness as it relates to individual behavior, we will be well along the path to progress in the human experience.


1 Locke, Hubert G., John and Marguerite Corbally Professor and Dean Emeritus, Graduate School of Public Affairs, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

2 Johnson, Paul (2009). Churchill. Viking Adult.

3 Toye, Richard (2010). Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company.

4 Grayling, A. C.  (2006). Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan. Walker & Company.

5 Oliner, Pearl M. (2004). Saving the Forsaken: Religious Culture and the Rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe. Yale University Press, p. 8.

6 Glover, Jonathan (2000). Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century. New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press.

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