The title of this post will seem strange the day after a mass shooting in Arizona that killed at least six people. The question should be, Why does evil happen?
Having wrestled with that one in various classes and readings, I found myself last night thinking of the obverse question, equally mysterious: why do some people step forth in times of crisis or danger and help others while many are apathetic or simply afraid? (And, of course, what would I do...?)
Such questions were posed by a Holocaust film, a documentary about a Polish Catholic woman who rescued 15 Jews by hiding them; we saw it last night. "No. 4 Street of Our Lady," despite its title, offers no religious reason why the woman, Francisca Halamajowa, took considerable risks to do what she did when it would have been easier and safer to act as her neighbors did and do as little as possible.
In addition to hiding and feeding 12 people, crowded into a hayloft over the pigsty of her farm, Halamajowa also cared for three others hidden in the cellar; this family only learned about the other twelve 63 years later, when the film was made, when the amazing rescuer's carefully kept secret was revealed long after her death.
Neighbors were suspicious in 1942-44, but Halamajowa was clever as well as courageous: she pretended to be a German sympathizer and so people were wary of her. She had no sense, apparently, that, in working for two years to cook and care for these people, she was saving not only 15 lives but those of their many descendents.
As the family members in the film go back to Sokal, the town where this unprecedented bit of heroism took place, they can only cry and ask, Why did she do it? She even lost her home and her son after the 1944 liberation of eastern Poland. No one, in either the Halamajowa family or in the two Jewish families, can understand why she chose to save these lives.
Like most others in Europe who hid Jews, this courageous Polish woman told no one about what she did: was it fear or shame in front of her neighbors that prevented her from talking about what she did?
In any case, her long-forgotten story reminds us how essentially good it seems to me people are--or want to be--and how some are able to summon up great courage in the face of peril to help others. Sociobiologists might say we humans are genetically altruistic and socially cooperative; yet the record of wars, hatred, racism and other violence in human history hardly points in that direction. Rather it suggests that we are a mixture of good and evil and that our inherent self-interest dictates how we behave in most cases.
I regret that the religious title of this film was left unexplored. I would like to think that it was Mrs. Halamajowa's faith or Christian upbringing that contributed to her determination to do what seemed impossible. Yet perhaps it's best for the viewer to be left with the questions, and the mystery, since no one can really explain evil or goodness.