Beautiful Souls, by Eyal Press

Few and far between

What does it take for a human being to stand up to evil, to say no to cooperation with corruption, to step in to stop violence? Despite the fact that many people admire those who stand up to dictators, bullies and thieves,  the answer, according to this book, is "just the right circumstances.” Author Eyal Press travels around the world to interview a few “beautiful souls” who did resist evil: a man who served as a Swiss border guard in 1938, letting Jews escape Nazi Germany; a Serb who saved Croat prisoners just after the shelling of Srebrenica; an Israeli soldier who refused to take part in harassing Palestinians; and a woman who lost her job at the Stanford Financial Group at the time the financial giant was running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors. The stories are vivid and harrowing, but not the straightforward  tales of idealism and superior empathy that you might expect.

What Press found was that his heroes did not usually act solely from a sense of morality or fellow feeling. These are not the saints or the super-athletes of empathy one might expect. Instead, they acted from a mixture of idealism about their government and from (frankly) personal peculiarities. The Serbian man, who saved a hundred Croats by claiming they were Serbs, was the kind of guy who doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him. Dig into his character, and he's almost boorish about lacking interest in the agendas of others. This is interesting, but Press digs deeper, into the web of his Croatian acquaintances and his girlfriend. Each layer reveals a seemingly different person -- one who cares deeply about those he loves, but not about ethnicity. Put this person in the right place, and he becomes an unlikely hero.

The same goes for Press's other subjects. Each is utterly ordinary, neither an activist nor political nor religious. But happenstance moved them and their oddities into the crosshairs of destiny. Take the Swiss border guard. Unlike other Swiss officials faced with an influx of Jewish refugees before the war, he found himself face to face with human suffering. And he could not bear to turn people back to their doom. It was his sense of fulfilling his country's ideal of hospitality to strangers that moved him, not abstract notions of the refugees' humanity. He thought (wrongly as it turned out) that anyone would do what he did. Yet his actions saved hundreds.

Press's most thought-provoking chapter concerns Israeli soldiers refusing to move Palestinians out of their homes in the West Bank. The Israeli army actually has a "black flag" policy that can protect such soldiers from dismissal or abuse. This seems exemplary. But Press tells of soldiers from the other side of the political divide who, egged on by conservative rabbis, refuse to move Israeli settlers out of their homes. The question: how does an army, which relies on discipline to allow the will of its government to be done, deal with soldiers who pick and choose which orders to obey? The question is particularly sensitive in Israel, which suffered under a Nazism whose soldiers claimed they were just following orders in executing the Holocaust.

"Beautiful Souls" is not a feel-good volume intended to salve the feelings of the reader. This is not a book in “Chicken Soup” mode. It is a serious, sometimes moving and often disquieting study of the seemingly very few souls who bother to lift a finger for others in times of peril. It also details the peril of standing up for righteousness. Most of Press’s interviewees were treated shabbily during and after their truth-telling. The public, which supposedly celebrates acts of goodness, is often hostile to those who blow the whistle on evil. After reading the book, those of us whose goodness is untested might not presume so easily that we would rise to the occasion when the time came.