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Who Would Risk their Life to Save Mine?

by Craig T. Palmer

Instead of merely a day for remembering the Righteous, March 6 is a day to take a few moments to consider exactly what we want to accomplish by telling the stories of the Righteous to others, and how this goal can best be achieved. One goal is obvious. It is essential to ensure that the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity are remembered, including the deeds of the rare individuals who risked their lives to save others during these atrocities. However, stories about the Righteous also have the potential to influence those of us who hear them to change our own behavior, and March 6 is an appropriate day to consider how this can occur.

One of the most frequent methods Holocaust museum exhibits and educational programs utilize to accomplish this goal is asking those who have just heard the stories of the Righteous to ask themselves: What would I have done? It is certainly worthwhile to ask oneself if they would risk their life to save someone else, but for me this question’s ability to convert stories about the exemplary behaviors of the Righteous into desirable future behavior has been limited. Not only does the question ask me to predict how I would behave in a hypothetical situation, that situation is very unlike any that I have actually experienced. Thus, I am able to sidestep any unsettling contemplation of my own behavior by honestly answering “I don’t know what I would do in a situation so different from anything I have encountered.” Recently, however, I encountered a different question that compels me to consider what influence, if any, hearing the stories of the Righteous has had on my own behavior.

At an academic conference a Jewish woman told me that instead of contemplating hypothetical questions about what she would have done, the Holocaust has caused her to periodically ask herself a very practical question. Every time she moved or took a new job, she would find herself automatically considering all of the friends, acquaintances and others in her new social environment, and asking herself: Who would risk their life to save mine? Being neither Jewish nor the member of any other persecuted social category, that was a question I had never asked. I was stunned by the realization of how fortunate I have been, and of the immense difference between my life and the lives of those who found themselves needing to ask this question. At first I thought that would be the only insight I would gain from the conversation, but then I considered an implication of what the woman had told me. Knowing that people were asking that question made me realize that someone might ask themselves whether or not I would be willing to risk my life to save their life. If so, what will be their answer? What aspects of my behavior will signal that I will follow the example of the Righteous? Or even more disquieting, what aspects of my behavior will indicate that I will not? I cannot sidestep these questions by answering “I don’t know” because they refer not to some hypothetical decision I might make in the future, but directly to the observable behaviors of my daily life. Do I treat other people in a way that indicates I care enough about others to risk my life to save theirs? I have found it difficult to change my behavior when the answer has not been to my liking, but asking the question always forces me to try. Yes, March 6 is a day to remember and honour the actions of the Righteous, but it can also be a day to remember to take the time to ask such disquieting questions.

Craig T. Palmer, anthropologist

Analysis by Craig T. Palmer, anthropologist

26 February 2019

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