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.

Holocaust RemembranceHolocaust Remembrance


Books From My Perspective (A Mama Kat Writing Prompt)

What are you reading?

Thank you, Mama Kat for yet another week that includes a prompt I can write to somewhat easily. Maybe I’m guilty of shirking from a challenge but I am finding challenges in plenty of other areas of my life, so I’ll take a softball when it’s thrown to me  (such as “What are you reading?”).

It may be an easy question to answer, but it’s not simple because I have several books going at one time and one I am looking forward to at least as much as the ones I am reading now so it is going to get a shout-out as well!

What I Am Reading On Paper

I am reading an Advance Reader’s Edition of True Believers: A Novel by Kurt Andersen.

true believers best

Thank you, Random House, for the Advance Reader’s Editions that randomly pop into my mailbox. These always go to the top of my reading list because I want to return your generosity with a blog mention. I am moving so slowly through True Believers, however, that I will probably be the most extreme outlier in your marketing plan! This book follows protagonist Karen Hollander through her childhood filled with James Bond-esque outings with her peers, through a trajectory that briefly sees her considered for an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, to the process of writing her memoir, which results in more than one coming-to-terms moment with old truths, fragile trusts, and a perspective that has been turned inside out. I am enjoying the read. I guess the good thing about me taking so darn long is that the book and its author get a mention from me on Facebook and Twitter every Friday when I share my “Friday Reads.” Maybe that exposure counts for something!

What I Am Listening To on CD

I am listening to The 6th Target by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro.

Sixth TargetEver since I began driving my father-in-law’s car last October after his stroke, I lost my ability to listen to iPod books in the car (because I don’t have an iPod adapter in this car), so I have had to go relatively “old school” and listen to cd’s. I got this one from PaperbackSwap. This is (I believe), number six in the “Women’s Murder Club” series. In this book, Detective Lindsay Boxer searches for a criminal who opened fire on unsuspecting civilians while pursuing a series of kidnappings of wealthy young children also. It is an enjoyable read but it isn’t a book that will end up on my “favorites” list. I did note on the website, however, that there is a Women’s Murder Club “Murdertini”:

  • 4 ounces Ketel One vodka
  • 1/2 ounce triple sec or flavored orange liqueur
  • 2 ounces freshly squeezed blood orange juice
  • 2 blood orange slices
  • Dash of orange bitters

Combine all ingredients in a martini shaker except the orange slices with a good amount of ice. Shake for a few seconds, then strain the the drink into a martini glass. Garnish with the orange slices. (Optional) Dampen the martini glass rim and dip lightly in white sugar.

Maybe the mystery of why I haven’t enjoyed this book all that much lies in the fact that I have been driving around sober. Maybe I should whip up a murdertini and relax with the tome at home. I wonder what Detective Lindsay Boxer would conclude.

What I Am Listening To On My iPod

This one, folks, this one is a good read!!! On my iPod I am listening to Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

steve jobs

Due to the aforementioned car flipflop that has occurred in our family, I don’t get to listen to  books on my  iPod as much as I used to. With the exception of the day I got very lost on the Alford Greenway and heard the first couple of hours of this book, the rest has come in smaller sips. And that’s okay.

I could go on and on and on about why I find this book fascinating but I have already made this “simple” blog quite long so I will try to condense. People who defy naysayers fascinate me. People who do things differently fascinate me.  I keep wrestling in my mind with Jobs’s utter devotion to design elements and how/when/why he became a ruthless businessperson. I can’t get over the number of times he cries to get his way. That said, I am listening to how he cried (repeatedly, publicly, inappropriately) to get his way while I am listening to the story on an iPod and measuring the miles I am walking or running on an iPhone.  Steve Jobs also reminds me of someone I worked for once who is brilliant, volatile, unyielding, and in retrospect taught me more than anyone else ever has.

What I Will Be Reading Soon

Mark Klempner recently mentioned on Facebook that when his book, The Heart Has Reasons, was released in paperback, the reviews on Amazon did not follow from the hardcover version to the paperback product page. He was looking for reviewers. I couldn’t respond fast enough.

heart has reasons

I first started an email correspondence with Mark when my daughter was participating in our local Holocaust Essay Contest and I was poking around for possible resources that she might learn from.  I read an excerpt of the book and talked to Mark about possibly being an interviewee for Tenley. That didn’t work out because she took her essay a different direction, but he and I maintained an email and Facebook friendship. I am so grateful to authors who interact with us humble readers, and Mark is one of the best. I am looking forward to reading the whole book and adding my praise to the Amazon page; I know it will deserve the kudos.

What I Am Editing

I am editing a book by a local author that has a really unique concept. It is geared to 10-13 year olds and UP (no limit). In the book, a young girl “becomes” Paul Revere’s horse and leads the reader through the development of the Declaration of Independence in a creative and attention-binding way. I am excited to work with this author even though accepting another editing project means having to be even more laser-focused about time management.

In closing, this sums up perfectly why I read so many books and can’t really resist using my editing skills to help others with theirs:

Source: "I Acknowledge Beauty Exists"

Source: “I Acknowledge Beauty Exists”

Mama’s Losin’ It