The Spark of Humanity
I recently read an article about the late, Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker, who at tremendous risk to herself organised the rescue of about 2500 Jewish children from the Nazis. She worked in the Warsaw Welfare Department during the Second World War, and she and her team of 20 used to go to the Warsaw Ghetto under the pretext of doing inspections of sanitary conditions. She and her assistants were able to smuggle out 2500 children! Not only did she smuggle them out and give them homes amongst Catholics in Poland but she also wrote down their real names on slips of paper so that she would be able to return these children to their families or to Jewish community after the war. Just before she was arrested in 1943 she managed to bury the names in a jar under an apple tree in someone’s yard.
Two aspects of this story particularly impressed me. First of all, the incredible self sacrifice, and the incredible risk she put herself through to save people who were total strangers. I think we should look at her example and ask ourselves if we would be in the same situation would we be prepared to put ourselves and our lives at risk to save total strangers from death? Granted, in extreme situations people find reserves of spiritual strength and courage to perform superhuman acts of heroism; however, one cannot minimise the fact of a Catholic woman in Poland, not a country known for its love of Jews, to put it lightly, in the midst of Nazi reign over Warsaw, who at tremendous risk, she and 20 people engaged in saving Jewish lives. And it was not out of missionary zeal for her religion, because at the end of the day, she made efforts to reunite the children with with their families after the war. A second, related point to ponder is the Divine spark within the human being and the incredible power of the soul.
I am reminded of a story I heard from an elderly Australian Jew who was a lawyer in Germany before the Second World War where he worked for the government as a a criminal prosecutor. He was a young man at that time probably in his early twenties and when the Nazis came to power he lost his job and was eventually sent to a concentration camp. In the camp they used former criminals who were released from prison to patrol and control the Jews inside the actual camp, with SS troops guarding outside. The lawyer was suffering terribly from some stomach disorder and he left his barracks after the curfew. He was sneaking back to the barracks and was discovered by a guard, who ironically was a criminal that he, as a state prosecutor, had put in prison. So as you can imagine, aside from anti-Semitism, and aside from the fact that he was a person with complete power of life and death over this Jew in the camp, in addition to all that he was a criminal that this lawyer had actually put in prison. When the lawyer saw him, he thought that his life was over. The guard looked at him and said, “You’re a smart Jew lawyer, give me one good reason why I should not just kill you right now?” The lawyer replied, and he doesn’t know how he was able to say anything at all, but he said, “Fort a mensch du bist, because despite everything you are a human!” The guard looked at him for a second, turned away and let him live. The lawyer survived the war moved to Australia, built a family and continued to practice law. Amazingly, G-d had put in his mouth the words that somehow reached the deeply hidden, almost non-existent conscience of a criminal, Nazi, anti-Semite. And all he did was did was to point out that he was human.
The Mishnah says in Ethics of the Fathers, chaviv adam shenivra batselin, humans are dear to G-d because they were created in the image of G-d. What does it mean the image of G-d? In Hebrew the word demut image, is related to the word dimyon which means similarity and as Maimonides explains in Guide for the Perplexed it means that we are similar to G-d in certain aspects. One of the similarities we have is that we have freewill. We have the ability to make a free choice, not forced or controlled by anything outside of ourselves, and that freewill that free choice is the essence of what it means to be human. So when he said to him because in the end you are human that actually inspired that person to exercise his freewill and to make that choice as a human being to not do the wrong thing.
The same human soul component of Irena Sendler inspired her to go against the flow and go against the tide of her entire country. Many people in that country were actively involved in killing and persecuting Jews, and nevertheless she went against all that because as a human being there is this incredible infinite potential to go against the flow, against conditioning, against society, and to make the right choices.