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The Hand of Compassion

The Hand of Compassion: Portraits of Moral Choice during the Holocaust

Kristen Renwick Monroe
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    The Hand of Compassion
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4957-4
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. Stories That Are True
    (pp. 1-8)

    The speaker is Margot, one of the German-born rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe interviewed as part of the research for this book. Her words come not from one of our formal interviews but from an ordinary telephone conversation, long after our explicit relationship as subject and interviewer had ended, after we had become friends. I must have been working on the computer when Margot called for I later chanced upon Margot’s words, typed hastily and stored in an unnamed computer file.

    I include this story because it reveals a glimpse of the shock and pain Margot still feels about...

  6. 1 Margot
    (pp. 9-54)

    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...

  7. 2 Otto
    (pp. 55-100)

    I’m born on thirtieth of December 1907, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, as a German. You may know that at that time, nearly four million Germans lived in Czechoslovakia. Our family was not Sudeten German. The Sudeten Germans lived near the border, in the mountainous area of Sudeten, as these mountains are called. They were in Czechoslovakia since seven hundred years. They were not Teutonic. But my family came for the same reasons. We were called into Czechoslovakia with the industrial revolution. Both my grandfathers came as engineers and became entrepreneurs. And so we were second-generation immigrants.

    So. My grandfathers came around...

  8. 3 John
    (pp. 101-138)

    I am a Dutchman, born in Brussels, Belgium. I lived in Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and France before I came to the United States. I traveled a lot because I was the son of a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who was assigned to several places. I lived a good part of my life near Geneva in a Seventh-day Adventist college where my father was teaching the Bible in Greek. So I know the border between France and Switzerland very well.

    When we were living in Switzerland, there was a law that the children had to go to school every day of the...

  9. 4 Irene
    (pp. 139-164)

    I am a survivor. I am alone.

    I was born in May 5, 1918. In Poland. In the little town of Kozienice.² I was the first child. And my own life was saved when I was very young. It was a beautiful spring day, and somehow I had crawled out from the house. Nearby was a little brook, full of snow. I was just running for that brook, downhill as fast as I could go. Our dog knew that it was a danger for me because of the brook. He ran after me and with all his little power, he...

  10. 5 Knud
    (pp. 165-186)

    I was a recognized rescuer of Jews. But since the Danish people as a whole saved Jews—a unique phenomenon and one very specific to Denmark—we never received any individual honors. The Yad Vashem put up a special monument for the entire country.¹ There is a hospital in Jerusalem and a special forest planted for the Danish rescuers. So we have been honored plenty.

    There are some people today who claim that there has been too much emphasis in speeches, books, and TV on the Holocaust horrors and the Nazi concentration camps. But witnesses to what happened over fifty...

  11. 6 The Complexity of the Moral Life and the Power of Identity to Influence Choice
    (pp. 187-210)

    Most of us, at some time in our lives, come face-to-face with that most basic concern of ethics: how we treat others. We find guidance from religion or philosophy in the form of general principles, while literature and biographies provide more concrete intimate illustrations of how our fellow human beings wrestle with moral dilemmas, illuminating the pitfalls and rewards of the moral life in a manner we can relate to our own lives. At a more personal level, we learn about morality by observing the behavior of those around us, although here both social convention and the particular nature of...

  12. 7 How Identity and Perspective Led to Moral Choice
    (pp. 211-238)

    Why did identity so effectively influence moral choice for rescuers? To answer this question, we must explore the rescuers’ moral psychology. We must ask how their minds worked and what made someone like Margot and the other rescuers we have met different from other people. Is it simply that rescuers had an altruistic personality? If so, what produced this personality? Was there an altruistic perspective at work, in which external stimuli triggered the altruistic parts of rescuers’ identities? If so, what activated this perspective and how did it relate to identity? What role did an underlying worldview and self-concept play...

  13. 8 What Makes People Help Others: Constructing Moral Theory
    (pp. 239-256)

    Stories are a rich source of information about how people think about moral issues.¹ Can they also inspire us to think more deeply about these issues? Are there broader theoretical implications to be gleaned from what we have learned from the rescuers, as Otto suggests? In this chapter, I present initial thoughts of a more theoretical nature about the process by which identity and perspective work through the moral psychology to influence our treatment of others.² To do so, I present the outlines of a moral theory intended to fill a gap in existing ethical theory. The theory is empirically...

  14. A Different Way of Seeing Things
    (pp. 257-266)

    If there is one point I hope to convey in this book it is the power of identity to shape our most basic political acts, including our treatment of others. How we see ourselves, and how we see others in relation to ourselves, has profound implications for our behavior. This often works in subtle and unconscious ways.

    I have delayed publishing this book much longer than I should have. I began my interviews with some of these people in 1988. Even allowing for the everyday distractions of life and the demands of scholarship, sixteen years is a long time. I...

  15. APPENDIX A Narratives as Windows on the Minds of Others
    (pp. 267-286)
  16. APPENDIX B Finding the Rescuers
    (pp. 287-290)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 291-330)
    (pp. 331-354)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 355-361)