By Brian Keepers
Every once in a while, you come across a book that takes hold of you and stirs you up and you can’t shake it. This is how I feel about the book I’m in the middle of reading right now—Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times by Eyal Press (Picador Publishing, 2013).
Press points out that it is well documented how, historically, ordinary people have been capable of unthinkable atrocities. Good people bend to the power of conformity and social pressure and do things they never would have previously imagined. But Press, a journalist, is interested in a different question: What about those people who stand out from the crowd and refuse to go along? Who stop, say no, and resist? What makes them different?
Through research he shows that most of these men and women who practiced resistance were not driven by ideology nor did they think of themselves as part of an opposition movement. Rather, they were ordinary people who, when confronted with the mistreatment of others, made the choice to be humane and act courageously in the moment, even in the face of enormous personal risk.
Press tells the story of Paul Gruninger, captain of the state police in St. Gallen, which is a city nestled in northeast Switzerland. This was during the time when tens of thousands of Jews were seeking refuge in countries like Switzerland as the Nazis stormed across Europe. Switzerland, which had been a country that prized hospitality and welcoming foreigners in the past, caved in to Nazi intimidation (like so many other countries) and set a strict policy that forbade entrance to any Jewish refugees.
But Gruninger quietly practiced civil disobedience and worked the system to allow hundreds of Jews to find sanctuary within Switzerland’s borders. Gruninger was an ordinary man, a law-abiding citizen, a patriot who loved his country, a member of his church choir. What compelled him to disregard the law in this case?
To get at that question, Press cites the work of the Polish psychologist Zygmunt Bauman, who identifies two key factors in modern bureaucracy that contributed to how “good” people would go along with horrific acts of cruelty towards others: 1) they were not in close proximity to those who were the victims (didn’t encounter them in their humanity) and 2) they disavowed responsibility. In other words, they justified doing horrible things because they believed they were simply following orders and the buck of responsibility stopped with someone else. They were just doing their job. This is termed “the diffusion of responsibility.”
But not so with Gruninger. What made Gruninger different is that he encountered Jews as real people in need of help. Unlike others in his position, he came into direct contact daily with refugees who showed up to the door of his office. And he felt a sense of responsibility to do something. Gruninger would pay a huge price for his quiet heroism. He was eventually discovered and indicted, fired from his job and publicly shamed in his country. His reputation was further tarnished by lies that he had helped refugees for monetary and sexual favors. He and his wife were forced to move out of their home and live with other family members where they were essentially poor until the day Gruninger died.
Despite efforts to exonerate Gruninger over the years, it wouldn’t be until sixty years later that the cloud of shame would be lifted from his name and he would be celebrated for his courage. Sixty years! In a recorded interview a year before Gruninger died, when he was asked why he disobeyed the law, he said, “My conscience told me that I could not and may not send them [Jewish refugees] back. And also my human sense of duty demanded that I keep them here.”
The camera continues rolling. One more question is posed. “Would you act in the same way if the situation were the same?”
“Yes, of course,” he says without hesitation. “I would do and act exactly the same.”
Paul Gruninger died in 1972, a year after this interview. Inscribed on his tombstone are these words: “Paul Gruninger saved hundreds of refugees in 1938/39.” At his funeral, the choir sang “Nearer My God to Thee” and the Swiss flag was raised. Rabbi Rothschild stood up before those gathered and recited these famous words of the Talmud: “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”
For such a time as this, we need a few more beautiful souls like Paul Gruninger.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.