When the world woke up from the horror of Nazism and understood the scale of the Holocaust, the organized murder of six million human beings, a question became inevitable: how is it possible that hundreds of thousands of people, exemplary citizens in many cases, participated in a such a huge crime? But, along with that question, a question perhaps more important to understand individual responsibility for mass crimes emerged: the possibility of saying no, refusing to participate, risking life or career, social prestige, to help victims against the actions of the majority.
The journalist Eyal Press in his book beautiful souls (“Beautiful souls”, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) and the historian Eva Fogelman, in Conscience & Courage (“Awareness and courage,” Anchor Books) chronicles the lives of people who helped Jews during the Holocaust or, in the case of Press’s essay, also in other moments of collective horror, such as the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia. The State of Israel created in 1953 the title of righteous among the Nations to honor non-Jews who saved members of this people, but it was not until the beginning of the following decade that the honor began to be granted by Yad Vashem, and not without controversy: why recognize a few who did good, when the vast majority let themselves be carried away for evil? So far, 27,921 people have received this title.
Of all those stories, Eyal Press singles out one that echoes today, that of Swiss border policeman Paul Grüninger. There is a tendency to forget a fundamental fact that facilitated the anti-Semitic persecution in Germany: the allied countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees when they could still leave, even though the governments knew what was happening. The Evian conference in mid-1938 towers as one of the most shameful moments in Western democracies before World War II.
Thirty-two nations came together to face the refugee crisis caused by the intensification of anti-Semitic persecution in Germany, where 600,000 Jews lived. The conference was a failure. Chaim Weizmann, a Russian Jew and Zionist leader who would eventually become Israel’s first president, summed up the meeting with one sentence: “The world seems to be divided into two parts: one where Jews cannot live, and the other where they cannot to enter”.
However, Paul Grüninger (1891-1972), commander of the police in the canton of St. Gallen in northeastern Switzerland, refused to comply with the order to close the border to Jewish refugees arriving from Austria, annexed in March 1938 by the Nazi regime, and let go as many as he could. After being discovered in 1939, he was expelled from the police and banned from returning to work for the public administration. He never had a steady job or pension rights again. He was even accused of having taken a bribe to let the refugees through, to which he replied that he could not be bribed by people who had absolutely nothing.
The Holocaust is comparable to nothing, it seems obvious to say, nor is it possible to draw parallels between the 1930s and today’s world. However, in a Europe where thousands of people die at sea trying to achieve a better life, where migrants are left in the hands of the Libyan Navy, financed with European resources, to be detained in concentration camps where human rights are violated, where desperate people die of cold in front of the closed doors of the EU after being lured there by the antics of a despotic regime, Grüninger’s story, unfortunately, does not seem so alien. He chose what he believed to be the only decent and humane option: providing proper asylum as one of the foundations of a democratic society.
There is no common ground that unites all the righteous. Eva Fogelman, whose father was helped by Russian Gentiles through whom he managed to survive the extermination, writes: “I interviewed criminals, thieves, kidnappers, blackmailers, even murderers who defied the law and risked their own lives to save strangers.” They were people who made the most difficult decision, afflicted by the suffering they were contemplating.
Grüninger belongs to the category of officials who have decided to help people in desperate situations, such as Spaniard Ángel Sanz Briz, who helped 5,000 Jews escape in Budapest, Portuguese Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who did the same in Bordeaux, and Japanese Chiune Sugihara, which issued up to 50,000 rescue visas in Kaunas (Lithuania). The four – and many others – disobeyed the orders of their governments, risked their careers, including their lives.
During World War II, there were people like Grüninger, ordinary people who took enormous risks not because they embraced great causes, but because they were in a position to help someone and they did,” writes Eyal Press.
That Swiss policeman was not a rebel. In fact, he was a conservative, from a conservative family. Eyal Press traveled to Switzerland to interview his daughter and try to understand why an individual connected with the order refused to comply with the instructions received. One reason was his loyalty to the principles on which he believed his country was founded, a longstanding tradition of taking in refugees. The other, and more important, is that he never delegated, he was always personally occupied with receiving those who arrived in deplorable conditions. “You didn’t do anything to get away from people,” explained her daughter. When he knew their stories, when he saw their despair, knowing what they were running from, he simply let them pass.
“During World War II, there were people like Grüninger, ordinary people who took enormous risks not because they embraced great causes, but because they were in a position to help someone and they did,” writes Eyal Press. “And they did this over and over, until what seemed unthinkable became routine, the same routine with which their peers applied the law.”
Grüninger was not rehabilitated until the end of his life. received the title of fair among the nations in 1971 and died in 1972, after spending several decades fighting for his country to recognize that it did the right thing, too. His case would only be reconsidered in 1995, but his story has not been forgotten: in 2014, the Franco-German channel Arte produced a film about his rebellion, entitled Paul Grüninger, the righteous.
Judge Moshe Bejski, creator of the Garden of the Righteous in Jerusalem (each time a savior is recognized, a tree is planted to remember him), tells in the precious book dedicated to him by Italian journalist Gabriele Nissim, Il tribunale del bene (unprecedented in Brazil), its role in granting the title of fair to Gruninger. Until then, it was only given to those who had risked their lives to save Jews, in most cases people who had helped to hide them, because that was how it established the decree that created this decoration.
However, Bejski considered that people like that policeman did not risk their life, but their existence as they knew it. They were subject to isolation, poverty. “To fight an extreme evil”, reflected the judge, “it is not enough to have only the heroes. You also need to rely on normal people.” Bejski, who died in 2006, managed to survive the Holocaust thanks to one of the fair best known: German businessman Oskar Schindler, to whom Steven Spielberg dedicated the film Schindler’s List.
“So, is there no room for hope?” the Italian journalist asks Bejski after the judge, already very ill, is pessimistic about the future, because of the hatred that continues to circulate through the veins of humanity, Bosnia and Rwanda to Islamic terrorism. “Some consolation remains”, replies the magistrate. “We can always count on the work of the righteous who at any time have the courage to face evil and always save the world. I don’t see any other way but to tell the new generations its secret and its values.” Perhaps the EU countries should ask themselves about the values that Grüninger defended and about the principles that underlie the Union, the very ones that that border policeman decided one day to say. not when he contemplated all the pain that the refugees dragged.
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