The Hand of Compassion: Portraits of Moral Choice during the Holocaustby Kristen Renwick Monroe
Through moving interviews with five ordinary people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, Kristen Monroe casts new light on a question at the heart of ethics: Why do people risk their lives for strangers and what drives such moral choice? Monroe's analysis points not to traditional explanations--such as religion or reason--but to identity. The rescuers'… See more details below
Through moving interviews with five ordinary people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, Kristen Monroe casts new light on a question at the heart of ethics: Why do people risk their lives for strangers and what drives such moral choice? Monroe's analysis points not to traditional explanations--such as religion or reason--but to identity. The rescuers' perceptions of themselves in relation to others made their extraordinary acts spontaneous and left the rescuers no choice but to act. To turn away Jews was, for them, literally unimaginable. In the words of one German Czech rescuer, "The hand of compassion was faster than the calculus of reason."
At the heart of this unusual book are interviews with the rescuers, complex human beings from all parts of the Third Reich and all walks of life: Margot, a wealthy German who saved Jews while in exile in Holland; Otto, a German living in Prague who saved more than 100 Jews and provides surprising information about the plot to kill Hitler; John, a Dutchman on the Gestapo's "Most Wanted List"; Irene, a Polish student who hid eighteen Jews in the home of the German major for whom she was keeping house; and Knud, a Danish wartime policeman who took part in the extraordinary rescue of 85 percent of his country's Jews.
We listen as the rescuers themselves tell the stories of their lives and their efforts to save Jews. Monroe's analysis of these stories draws on philosophy, ethics, and political psychology to suggest why and how identity constrains our choices, both cognitively and ethically. Her work offers a powerful counterpoint to conventional arguments about rational choice and a valuable addition to the literature on ethics and moral psychology. It is a dramatic illumination of the power of identity to shape our most basic political acts, including our treatment of others.
But always Monroe returns us to the rescuers, to their strong voices, reminding us that the Holocaust need not have happened and revealing the minds of the ethically exemplary as they negotiated the moral quicksand that was the Holocaust.
Honorable Mention for the 2005 Giovanni Sartori Book Award, Qualitative Methods Section of the American Political Science Association
"The Hand of Compassion is a compelling and powerful read, a terrific book filled with moving narratives of risk, loss, and sadness, and at the same time, the rescuers' affirmation that all human beings deserve the right to decent treatment. It is an analysis that takes social and political theory out of the text and places the reader in the midst of human suffering and courage."James M. Glass, Perspectives on Politics
"Approximately two-thirds of this volume is devoted to personal narratives of five rescuers, based on interviews conducted by Monroe. The autobiographies of the rescuers are substantial additions to the body of Holocaust testimony. To her credit, Monroe is an unobtrusive interviewer and a light-handed editor who allows the stories to unfold in illuminating detail."Choice
James M. Glass
- Princeton University Press
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Read an Excerpt
The Hand of CompassionPortraits of Moral Choice during the Holocaust
By Kristen Renwick Monroe
Princeton University PressKristen Renwick Monroe
All right reserved.
You don't walk away. You don't walk away from somebody who needs real help.
Q. Why don't you just tell me the story of your life, from the beginning.
That's just what I want to tell you. My father was-I can tell you without bragging-a very wealthy man. He was the head of General Motors for Europe. He also handled imports of food. We had bags of candies, almonds from Paris, stuff like that, you know, wholesale.
We had German citizenship. But Hitler took it all away from everybody who didn't like him. Hitler didn't like people who didn't like him. Later the [Dutch] queen had me come and made me an honorable citizen. Now I am American. I was Dutch. But before that I had German citizenship. I was born in Germany in 1909, on April the third. I was raised in Germany actually but I didn't speak German. I spoke only French. I had a French governess. The war broke out in 1914, and my mother said, "Don't speak [French] on the street." But I had to go, like a kid does, and say something to a French girl. Then some German kids came and slapped me half to death.
So, I spent all of World War I in Germany. I was a kid, just a little kid, five years old. Nineteen hundred nine I was born and 1914 it started so I didn't know anything about it. Then I was sent to Geneva to school.
My father was in the import business. He called me in one day. "What do you want to be?" he asked. "Because I have now money, and I can pay for it. But money comes and goes. What you have in your mind and your head will not be taken away from you."
I can hear him like it's yesterday! That's my father. [Margot pointed to a large oil painting hanging over her mantel.] I was sent to England to learn English. And it so happened that every morning I went to Pittman's College. I went down in the ground, on that underground [subway]. I had already a penny in my hand for a paper. Now I liked the rag paper, which was the Daily Mirror. It wasn't a fine one. It wasn't the Times. And I sit in that underground and I read the paper. Now, this is something you can tell to your children. I found the thing that was for my life in that paper. A story about William of Burleigh.1 Burleigh had a son. And the son said, "Father, what is diplomacy?" Burleigh took his little boy on his knees-I know it as if I read it today!-and said, "There was a sheik in Arabia who dreamt that he lost all his teeth. So he had a dervish come to interpret the dream. And the dervish said, "It's very simple. All your sons will die before you." This dervish he had beheaded. Then the sheik had another dervish come and asked him, "What does it mean? I dreamt I lost all my teeth."
This dervish said, "Go down on your knees, oh high ruler. And thank the almighty Allah that he will give you such long life that you will even so live to see the lives of your sons." To this dervish he gave gold, silver, and jewels. And so Burleigh said, "This, my son, is diplomacy."
When I came home, back to Germany, my father had at home a little room with a lot of books, a library you know, and a couch. And he always called me when he had something serious. So he called me. "Yes, Dad?" I was always scared, because there was always something I was afraid of. But my father never struck me or anything. He was wonderful. He said, "Did you make up your mind what you want to be? I told you I can pay for everything now, but you never know. You can lose your money. It's the same old story." Anyway, "Yes, Dad," I said. "I want to go into diplomacy." That was the thing of my life!
Next thing I know, I was sent to Italy to learn Italian. I was at the University of Florence. I was in Italy when I was about seventeen years old. I was still young. In Italy, at the big exam, there was a big round table. I can see that stuff now like it was yesterday! There was a big round table, and lots of professors around, for the oral exam. When it was through, one of the professors said, "Child, have you ever thought of writing?"
"You should, you know. And I want to give you advice for your life."
"What?" I was curious.
He said, "Never, never go for your second thought. When you have an idea or a thought or you feel something, stay that way. Never change it. Never."
That advice saved the lives of a lot of people during the war. I didn't know my father knew that. I never told him. But one time when I came during the war to my father in the middle of the night and said, "Oh, my God. The Germans are watching this man. They promised me they wouldn't hurt him. But I got to go to this man and warn him."
"Sit down. Tell me something. When they promised they wouldn't hurt that man, what was your feeling? Did you think they speak the truth? Or did you doubt them?"
"I believed it."
"Then don't do a thing," he told me.
I didn't know that my father knew me so well. I didn't do a thing. And the man was never touched. Can you imagine? Because that professor said, "Stick with your first impression. Don't change it." Isn't that funny? I think it's important. I didn't know how important it would be later on, see. I just thought, "Oh, big deal." You know how it goes.
Can you imagine, how it goes in life sometimes? Little things!
So anyway, then I came home to Germany. I was home a very short time. All my friends go tennis playing. Go swimming. They do everything. Why can't I? My father said, "When you finish learning, you can."
And you know what happened? I had to finish learning. I went to Spain. I was at the University of Madrid. Then, I tell you what happened. In Germany, the League of Nations started a collegium in Heidelberg. I went there. You could study what you wanted. The exam was set for people to go into business consultation, economics, and stuff like that. And politics. Well, I went into politics. Only 302 students made it for politics and I was one of them. You had to know a minimum of four languages. I don't mean knowing just a few words of a language. No, you had to really know them. I was fluent in German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish. Oh, my gosh, this is an awful long study to get into the diplomatic corps. You wouldn't believe how long. You had to know about all the English history. All the Chinese history. You had to know about everybody. It was interesting. But to learn it so thoroughly wasn't so good. I didn't think that was so interesting. But you had to. Then I got married, to a guy I wasn't so happy with.
Q. When did you get married?
I don't know the year. I don't want to remember it, because I got divorced from him. We were married eight years, I think. He had an affair with the maid. It was kind of funny. I caught him coming out in the morning in his underpants from the maid's room. It was something like that. I can't remember. I just don't want to remember.
But with him I had two little girls. We'd already gone away [from Germany] because of Hitler. The war hadn't started. It was in 1935, I think, that I went to Holland. I was still with my husband then. I remember because I divorced in Holland. With him I went to Holland. Because in 1936 my second little girl was born.
Oh, I don't want to talk about him. I think he was a banker. Why should I tell you all what happened? I can't even remember it. Anyway, then he came out with the underpants, and the hell with it! I divorced him. That was in Holland. Then he went with that very maid, he went into hiding. He hid, like a lot of people, who were Jewish.
Q. Your first husband was Jewish?
Yes, my [first] husband was Jewish, and he hid with that girl, the maid. And I was out. So I had separated from my husband by the time the war started. Oh, yes. Separated, but not divorced.
After the Kristallnacht my father came to Holland. When they talk about the Kristallnacht, I tell you what they did. They threw pianos out of the fourth-floor through the window. They threw little babies, in their cribs, through the fourth floor windows. I can't tell you what these Germans did! But I can tell you one thing; the Japanese were worse than the Germans, if there is any such thing that can be worse. I saw things that you wouldn't believe. I can't even talk about it. I have never told him [my second husband]. I never had told him anything about what was going on.
So my father left Germany right after Kristallnacht. He had an apartment near me. In Amsterdam. I was living by myself. Not divorced, but separated, and living with my two children. I had a maid, who watched after the children.
I went to Czechoslovakia around 1939. I was in Prague when the Germans came in. Somebody came to me and said, "Listen, I need somebody I can completely trust. You're the only person I can think of. Would you go for me to Czechoslovakia and do something?"
"Yes, why not?" I went to Czechoslovakia and there was just one hell of a mess. There was an American, in this fabulous hotel where I'm staying. He calls me up in the morning at 6 o'clock and says, "Come on down, quick. The Germans are walking in."
I said, "Yeah, my foot. Let me sleep." I didn't know the Germans are invading in reality. I thought my friends were twisting my leg because we were always doing funny things to each other, practical jokes. Yes, it was in March 1939.2 God, I can remember that, how they walked in. I tell you what happened. I stood in front of the hotel with a lot of women. They were so mad, these women. One of the women went up to a car that drove by and slapped the German. The German pushed her back and she fell on top of me and I fell back. There was a guy from the hotel, in uniform from the hotel, and he caught me. It was terrible.
Then the Germans wanted the hotel. People came and said, "What are we going to do? They want the hotel?"
"Well, I tell you what. Everybody has a couch. Let's bunk together." Because a lot of people who had fled Germany and were not yet citizens in England had no passport. I went downstairs and told the Germans, "I speak English. I can help you."
"Good. We can use you." So they used me to translate [when they interrogated people]. And I translated wrong. I just lied like you wouldn't believe. I did not tell them the truth.
After the Germans came in, my stuff was at the airport. But I couldn't get out. I don't know how, but I got out by train and I got back home after a while. I was a mess. God, what a mess. An American from New York said, "I came for the mess and a fine mess I'm in."
And I said, "You ain't kidding." It was terrible what a mess we were in. So the Dutch, when they knew what I had done [translating the languages in Czechoslovakia], they asked me if I would help. They said they wouldn't acknowledge me if something happened. But I said, "Fine."
Q. So once you were back in Holland [after the Germans declared war in 1939], did your husband have any contact with your children or with you at this point?
I don't know. Could be. I know that once when I was taken to prison, somebody went to him and that girl he was hidden with and said, "Your wife is in prison. You have to come and help your children." And he said, "I'm not going to endanger my life for the children."
That's the kind of guy he was. But my father took them. My father came in the middle of the night. He had a feeling something was wrong. He put them in a convent with the nuns.
Q. And your children are, of course, part Jewish?
Yes. But God, those Germans took little kids whether they were Jewish, Catholic, or anything else. They couldn't care less. They just killed everybody.
So let's see. It's 1939, and I went back to Holland. The Germans came in May 1940.3 Boy, that was something! My doctor killed himself. A lot of people killed themselves.
Q. How did you get started helping save people?
I was living in Amsterdam. I helped right away. Well, my father helped more than I. I didn't do so much. My father was in chemical stuff. He had ties to the _________ Works, which were very well-known. They have some in the States, too. He called and told me he had a chemist who is Jewish. "Can you help us?" And we took in the chemist and his wife. We had a lot of people hidden upstairs and so forth.
But, darling, I can't tell you how I got started [helping people]. I can't tell you the whole thing. Because first of all, I think of it all the time. I can't sleep. It's too much for me. I can see things that I can't even talk about, it was so bad. I know that they came in the houses with guns. They didn't bang on the door. They tore the whole door down. They turned the couches over. They cut them open. They broke the sliding glass doors open. You wouldn't believe what happened. I don't believe it and I was there.
But I remember like yesterday! Yesterday! Once I was taken and third-degreed. You know what happened then. The Germans are always so thorough.
I know the German mentality. That was what the Dutch wanted: my knowledge of the German mentality. I know them so well. What had happened one time, the guy comes in and I had a lot of [clandestine] stuff, and my little daughter was in bed already since it was in the night. I stuck this clandestine material under her cot. I thought, "Oh, my God. I hope she doesn't say anything."
The kid didn't open her mouth. I take a book like this and I start to talk, just reading any words. And I read and read and read in Dutch. The German stood behind me and said, "You're reading very well."
"Yes," I told him. "But you don't come so close because the doctor says he doesn't know what the kid has. It could be something that you can catch."
I know that the Germans are deadly afraid of any germs. So he stayed away. The kid wasn't sick! She just was in bed for the night. And all [the material] was in Evelyn's bed. Can you imagine? Everything was in her bed. Evelyn still remembers that.
Q. You were in the Resistance too? You weren't just hiding Jews?
How did I know I was in the Resistance? I came in by mistake! I don't know how I got started! I don't know. I just helped when I could. The Dutch were not like the Norwegians. The Norwegians had that Quisling. The traitor! The Dutch weren't traitors! There was no one traitor there. And the ones that were, were already killed by the Dutch. It was terrible. I tell you. As if we would want to be one of the master race!
One time, we had a man planted into the Gestapo. It was a policeman, a Dutch policeman. One day I had to contact him. So I call him up at Gestapo headquarters [for Amsterdam]. A man answers and I said, "Is Mr. _________ in?" You know, referring to my friend.
"No, he's not in. You got a message?" this voice asks.
I said, "Yes. This is Margot. Would you tell him please dinner is at eight." You know, that was code. That was the end of the conversation.
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