In honor of the International Holocaust Day I would like to go back to the idea of courage which our Red Room friend Tracy Ewens brought up in her insightful post “Strong Fiber."
I often think about courage especially in the context of the Holocaust. In my youth there was no doubt in my mind that had I lived in the time of the Holocaust I would have been one of the few brave women and men who had risked their lives to hide Jews. But once I had children of my own this certainty has started to dissipate. It was a disturbing feeling, still I realized that the responsibility of a family and having too much to lose would have prevented me from doing the right and human thing.
Contemplating on the right thing I usually remember two sources which are significant for me: the first is the Halachic principle of “your town’s poor come first.” The meaning here is that you first have to take care of those who are the closest to you; your first obligation is to them. Metaphorically your town’s poor could also be your children and your family. It is hard to forget the wonderful scene from Mary Poppins in which the mother fights for women’s rights but neglects her own children.
However, as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow stresses, in taking care of our town’s poor first, we should never lose sight or close the door on the rest of humanity.
In light of this Halachic principle, the sacrifice of non-Jews who did hide Jews during the Holocaust is even more heroic and admirable.
The second source is literary and, although it approaches the issue of doing the right thing from a totally different angle, I find it equally effective. Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility starts when Mr Dashwood dies and his son John inherits all his wealth. The son made a promise to his father to take care of his step mother and half sisters, but his wife Fanny Dashwood dissuades him from doing so. Austen brilliantly presents John’s conversation with his wife in which she slowly and methodically builds a case why not only does he owe those poor women nothing, but actually they are in debt to him.
This scene is ironical and almost absurd, but it is also familiar and truthful. Thus, whenever I find myself in a situation when such rationalizations are resonating, I ask myself: “am I being a Fanny now ”?
Not finding justifications why I shouldn't do the right thing is not much, but it's a start. So today instead of lamenting my lack of courage, I shall remember the brave men and women, from different countries in the continent, who hid Jews during the Holocaust all the while not convincing themselves why their action wasn't necessary. And I will be forever grateful for what they did for my people and for the rest of humanity.