Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why does goodness happen?

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.


Patricia W said...

Hello, Mr. Schiffhorst.
I was told about your blog by our mutual friend Ned.
Your topic today is one I have long been fascinated with, perhaps even more resonant because even after a long career as a mental health professional, it remains as much a mystery as before. There's a book written by the psychiatrist who interviewed the Nuremberg defendants that sheds some light on this (they all blamed Hitler, and reported Himmler blamed Hitler). And a book on the
choices in WW II describes movingly of a whole French town that acts as a kind of underground railroad for Jewish persons (actually much higher - they spirited them through the Alps). Although none told the others what they were doing, it was preached by both of the village clergy (also helping unbeknownst to each other!)
I appreciate your slant on it - why do people do good? I see it even from yesterday. It's easy to say we'd all have tackled the shooter when he was reloading but his tacklers couldn't have known what else he had or what he'd do.

judy said...

Dear Gerald,

I enjoyed reading your blog. I am the co-director and producer of this film. Mine was one of the three families saved by Francisca Halamajowa and her daughter, Helena. In response to the question, you pose at the end of your piece, none of us really knows why she did what she did, except that she did it out of a basic sense that this was the right thing to do. I'm interested in knowing where you saw the film.
Thanks, Judy

Ned Kessler said...

I think it’s nothing short of amazing that within a few hours of your post, Jerry, the co-director and producer of the film responds to it. I am curious about how you came to know about this film, and also, like Judy, where you saw it. This is a remarkable story I’d never heard.

Let me take a stab at why people do good. I believe that each human being is endowed with innate goodness from creation. I’m not a scripture scholar by any means, but in Genesis we read that God looked at what He’d created and saw that it was good. However, once we’re born and free will kicks in, we act in accord with the value systems we adopt. Most people adopt values based on sound principles: solid moral and ethical principles that steer us towards the “right” choices, those that would have us do good. Although this is in accord with Christianity, the same sound principles that point to doing good are found in most major religions, if we are to believe Stephen Covey, who based his well-known “Seven Habits” on these principles. He says, and I agree, that principles govern. It would surely seem they did in the case of Francisca Halamajowa. Maybe the question is what separates those who perform heroic acts from the rest of us. I have no theory for an answer to that. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. Ned

Patricia W said...

I was amazed by the filmmaker's comment and wondered how she found your blog.
As a long time therapist, I believe exposure to love and peace (not placation and spoiling but love the way Scott Peck defines it) brings love and peace; and that exposure to parental addiction, violence, and dishonesty is a petri dish for hostility and hatred. These things are well and statistically documented YET: There's a mystery at the heart of it all. Consider this: Hitler was abused as a child -- in a manner eerily similar to Beethoven's abuse. What made one truly evil incarnate and the other beauty incarnate?

Gerald Schiffhorst said...

I am grateful to those who have responded to my post about this important film. I had read the review in the NYTimes and saved the title. When I found that Netflix couldn't send it right away, I checked my public library and there it was, here in Winter Park, FL. It should be much more widely known. Thanks for writing!
Gerald Schiffhorst