The Chesed of “Not Heroes” (A Book Review)

Quite a few years ago, I ran across this radio interview of Mark Klempner, about his book, The Heart Has Reasons: Dutch Rescuers of Jewish Children During the Holocaust. I began an email correspondence with the author, partially to ask if he could be a resource for my daughter who was writing an essay about the Holocaust. Throughout the ensuing years, we maintained a “social media relationship” but, for reasons that absolutely confound me now, I did not read the complete book.

I am happy to report that is no longer the case. I have finally read the book, and I encourage you not to make the same mistake I did and let years elapse between hearing about it and reading it.

Holocaust RemembranceThe book profiles ten Dutch people who saved children during the Nazi occupation of Holland. The three things that struck me most about these accounts were:

Persecution’s Insidiously Subtle Beginnings

Rescuer Kees Veenstra recounted that at first the Germans “said to the Jews, ‘Nothing will happen to you. You only need to register.’ This didn’t seem unreasonable, because non-Jews also had to register. But when you registered, they would stamp a big black J on your identification card, and once that was on there, you couldn’t possibly get it off.”

Rescuer Hette Voûte says, “Early in ’42, I remember suggesting to one couple that they go into hiding, and they said, ‘No, we’re young. If we have to work in Germany, it won’t be a picnic, but we’ll get through it.'”

As history demonstrates, the subtle beginnings bloomed into full-scale persecution, death, and cruelty. By protecting Jewish children, who were often literally handed to them by their fleeing parents, these ten people saved lives.

This Is Not Heroism

The author puts this “not heroism” in an easily understandable term when he says, upon meeting one of the rescuers (Gisela Sohnlein) to begin the interview, “my ‘ego-meter’ registered zero.”

I was struck, in so many of the book’s passages, by the rescuers’ insistence that they were not heroes.

When asked “Why did you help the Jews?” Heiltje Kooistra responded, “Would I have done the same for another group? One helps where there is a need.” Similarly, Clara Dijkstra responded to the same question by saying, “It was only human.” Kees Veenstra insisted, “Just because I risked my life a few times does not make me a hero.”

Mieke Vermeer, discussing her teen years when her mother was the first of her parents to decide to help, said, “She believed she had a duty to care for not only her own children, but other people’s children, too, if they were in danger.”

Rut Matthijsen says, “before the war, we didn’t give much thought to what religion someone followed. We were all just people, Dutch people. Then the Germans came and made a strict division between Jewish and non-Jewish. Years later, when I went to Israel to receive the Yad Vashem award, I was asked, ‘Why did you help the Jewish people?’ the emphasis being on the word Jewish. But that was Adolf Hitler’s emphasis. I helped them because they were people.”

Why Doing Nothing Was Something

To be absolutely, perfectly, completely honest, one of the reasons I feel so strongly as a parent about Holocaust education is that I want to raise children who grow into adults who would “do something” in the face of persecution, cruelty, and evil of any kind. One concept that appeared several times in The Heart Has Reasons, however, was the fact that not everyone “does something” and that “not doing something” is not always a disservice. One rescuer pointed out that someone without the courage to take risks, who tried anyway, could end up endangering sophisticated rescue operations.

Mark Klempner coalesced some of the rescuers’ opinions regarding the “view that the inaction of their bystander neighbors possessed some merit. If someone suspected that you were harboring Jews and yet did not inform the Nazis, that person was, in a way,  helping the Resistance.” Other examples included a baker who gave extra bread to one of the rescuers to feed the people she was hiding, as well as policemen who warned rescuers of raids.

Having pointed out those three observations, I have a few closing thoughts:

One word stuck with me between the day I finished this book and tonight when I sat down to blog about it. It’s a word I would probably pronounce wrong, a word I was not familiar with until I read this book, but now will not leave me or my consciousness: chesed.

Chesed is a Hebrew word meaning lovingkindness. Dutch rescuers, represented by these ten individuals, demonstrated chesed in the most practical and life-affirming of ways, sacrificing their safety and, at times, their lives, in a manner that Mark Klempner describes as “righteous, but not self-righteous.”

Rescuer Mieke Vermeer quotes Solzhenitsyn: “the line separating good and evil doesn’t move along national borders, or between political parties, or social classes. It passes through every human heart — through all human hearts.”

The Heart Has Reasons makes it simple to keep sight of the line of “good” and “chesed” passing through ten human hearts. It’s a line I hope to carry forward in the way I live and parent.

ADDENDUM 3/24/13: In correspondence with the author about this post, he pointed out that the way people who did less than they could have was seen by the rescuers through the rescuers’ particularly non-judgmental filters. He wrote me: “the rescuers’ generous positive regards towards people who did just a little bit says more about the rescuers than about the almost-bystanders. To me, it indicates how appreciative and grateful the rescuers are/were. As for those almost-bystanders, I would hope they have asked themselves, “Why didn’t I do more?” The rescuers let them off easy because the rescuers are very loving, non-judgmental people. But considering the enormous number of innocent people who were slaughtered, historians tend to judge them more harshly. But one of the great lessons meeting the rescuers reinforced in me is that loving not judging is really where it’s at.” The last thing I want to imply is that doing nothing in the face of atrocity is advisable. And I appreciate Mark Klempner’s additional clarification.

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10 thoughts on “The Chesed of “Not Heroes” (A Book Review)

  1. Visiting from Mom’s Monday Mingle. Glad to discover your website. I hope you’ll share it at this week’s Friday Flash Blog on The Jenny Evolution (www.thejennyevolution.com). Would love to have you join our community.

  2. Although the word was new to me, the sentiment is not. My grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide by the Turks, which Hitler referred to when questioned about his decision to go after the Jews. He was famously quoted as saying Who today remembers the extermination of the Armeinans – as if to say it’s no big deal, if the Turks can get rid of them and nothing was done about it, I can get rid of the Jews.

    Similar to your story, there were many Turks and others who stepped up to help where they could. I still think how strange it is that my great-grandmother gave up a baby to a priest to try to save her before being forced out on the marches. That means my grandfather had a sister he never knew – did she survive? Did she live out her life there or end up here? She could have been our next-door neighbor for all we know. [#TALU]

  3. Wow. After getting to the meaning of chesed I got goosebumps re-reading your title and the title of the book. I am going to look this up. I have been on a non-fiction cultural kick this year. Thanks for sharing this with TALU.

  4. We never know what we are made of until we come into hard times, and I fear we are entering such times in the United States. That is why it is so timely for you to repeat this post. In turn, I wanted to add that, a year or two ago, I read a book by a child (now elderly, of course) who had been hidden and cared for and he interviewed other children who had been in hiding. Some were hidden by the most altruistic of rescuers but there were also those children who were only sheltered because someone in the Resistance was paying the family to do so. In some cases, these “hidden” children were abused. It doesn’t minimize what those brave Dutch families did – it just shows, even more,how complex history can be. Again, I hope we are never tested in this way.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Alana. You rightly point out that there was much complexity around the situation back then. I pray our country will find reserves of compassion and acceptance that seem to be buried right now.

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