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To watch over, protect

by Craig Palmer

Those rare individuals recognized as the Righteous often deny that they are heroes, and bristle at being described by that word. This is consistent with their often genuinely humble nature as demonstrated by their refusal to draw attention to their actions; sometimes even leaving out their most heroic acts when describing their experiences. It is true that the Righteous are not “superheroes” because they are, after all, ordinary human beings in the sense that they only did what all human beings are capable of doing. However, this is what makes it so important to recognize the sense in which the Righteous are heroes. Heroes are potential models of behaviour we may endeavour to emulate, and striving to follow the example of others is one of the hallmarks of humanity. There is no doubt that future generations will emulate the behaviour of their heroes; the question is who will be their heroes? This is why it is so important to recognize the Righteous as not merely being like a hero, but the embodiment of the original meaning of that word; and why it is also paramount to sing their praises.

War Heroes

Although Gariwo has existed for only 20 years, whenever we plant a tree or otherwise symbolically commemorate the story of someone’s selfless willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of others, we are engaging in a widespread and ancient human practice. Whenever such commemorations of the Righteous inspire us to be willing to engage in similar selfless acts ourselves, we are experiencing a sensation that many generations of our ancestors also experienced. Psychologists have labeled this sensation and the accompanying inclination to engage in selfless behaviour “moral elevation” and classified it as part of “positive psychology.”1 However, moral elevation has often occurred within a larger context in which this increased willingness to sacrifice for others becomes a tool to promote the killing of enemies. Indeed, “war heroes” are perhaps the type of hero most familiar to many of us. Ethnographic descriptions of traditional cultures around the world are replete with descriptions of legends about heroes willing to give their lives for others in battles being told to each generation to inspire similar behaviour.2 For example, among the Dogon of West Africa traditional storytelling specialists known as “griots” would “lead men to war” by telling them “the great deeds of the ancestors and encourage the listeners to behave as they did.”3 So too the history and literature of modern nations is teeming with heroes willing to die in battle for their country and comrades. These stories are also designed to inspire those still living to be willing to make similar sacrifices in similar contexts, as in John McCrae’s World War One poem “In Flanders Fields,” when the fallen direct those still living to “Take up our quarrel with the foe!”4 This is not to say that war memorials, patriotic songs, or traditional stories about heroic ancestors willing to give their lives in war are necessarily undesirable. However, it is important to understand how moral elevation has been used as a sword for war to better understand how it can be used as a plough to sow gardens of peace.

A Different Kind of War Hero

Fogelman elegantly described the crucial modification Yad Vashem made in the use of moral elevation when they defined and commemorated “a different kind of war hero: rescuers. . . .”5 The Righteous Among the Nations are “war heroes” in the sense that their acts occurred within the context of war, but their actions are fundamentally different from the actions of typical war heroes because they are being honoured for their feats of rescue. This modification by Yad Vashem is momentous because it demonstrates that moral elevation can be evoked by stories of rescue that are not necessarily directly related to the killing of enemies. Gariwo extends this type of hero from only non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust “. . . to all those [people], anywhere in the world, who have tried or are trying to prevent crimes of genocide, to defend human rights - first of all human dignity - in extreme situations, or that struggle to safeguard memory from the recurring attempts to deny the truth about the persecutions.”

The Essence of a “Hero”

It might appear that Gariwo’s conception of the Righteous has drifted far from the most familiar examples of the word “hero.” The familiar image of a courageous warrior vanquishing enemies in pitched battle might appear to have little in common with a diplomat handing out false documents, co-workers hiding a family in an attic, a nurse smuggling children out of a ghetto, a family teaching a child how to pass as one of their own, a person blocking a lethal blow with their own body, or a witness to genocide risking death to testify to what they saw in order to prevent future atrocities. However, all of these acts exemplify the essence of the original meaning of the word “hero” as indicated by its etymology: “originally ‘defender, protector,’ from PIE [Proto-Indo-European] root *ser- ‘to watch over, protect’."7 There is no doubt that the defenders and protectors throughout the world who have watched over vulnerable members of humanity are “heroes” future generations may choose to emulate. However, defending and protecting is no easier or automatic than any other form of heroic behavior. Just as heroic warriors have been inspired by stories of earlier warriors, it is important to sing the praises of those who defend and protect others if we want future generations to prevent actions ranging from bullying to genocide. This is why Gariwo emphasizes that: “The deeds, sometimes the entire life, of the Righteous, are there to prove that every human being can take up a personal responsibility to defend the weakest people . . .”8 Meeting this personal responsibility for an entire life may be a daunting task beyond the abilities of both ourselves and future generations, but if we leave them inspirational environments such as Gariwo Gardens our descendants may realize that David Bowie’s affirmation is within their grasp: “We can be Heroes, just for one day.” 9

References Cited

1 Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.) Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. (pp. 275-289).

2 Palmer, C. T. Begley, R. O., Coe, K. & L. B. Steadman. (2013) "Moral Elevation and Traditions: Ancestral Encouragement of Altruism through Ritual and Myth." Journal of Ritual Studies 27(2): 83-96.

3 Griaule, M. & G. Dieterlen. (1986) The Pale Fox. Baltimore, MD: Afrikan World Books. (p. 603)

4 McCrae, J. (1915). In Flanders Fields. . Accessed April 16, 2019.

5 Fogelman, E. (1994). Conscience and courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday. (p. 12)

6 April 15, 2019

7 April 15, 2019

8 April 15, 2019

9 Bowie, D. & B. Eno (1977). Heroes. April 15, 2019

Craig Palmer, anthropologist

Analysis by Craig Palmer, anthropologist

30 April 2019

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