Sunday, October 3, 2021

"It Was My Duty"

Nechama Tec, author of When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland. Ms. Tec, who wrote many books on the impact of the Holocaust on ordinary people--including the book that inspired the movie Defiance, is Jewish and as a child was hidden from the Nazis by a Jewish couple in Poland. Here she describes the types of people that risked their lives to save Jewish lives during World War II, based on her extensive research and interviews. Watch her discussion here, or read the transcript. 


Ms. Nechama Tec:

Now, when you look at large groups of those rescuers, hundreds of cases, as I did, they seem to be a very varied group, extremely heterogeneous. They come from all walks of life. Some of them are illiterate. Some of them are prominent writers. Some of them are pious Catholics. Some of them are irreligious, atheists.

So they represent a wide range and wide spectrum of individuals. And in terms of the conventional categories that we look at people that we tend to categorize in terms of class, education, money, what have you, religiosity, et cetera, you cannot really classify them.

Only when you look at them very closely, almost under a microscope, a social microscope I would call it, do you find a set of shared characteristics, a set of features that they seem to have in common. And I'm presenting those as hypothesis, really, because not all of them fall into it, and I have special cases which I describe, of course, in the book. And what are these characteristics?

One of them is which I refer to as individuality. These are people that don't very well blend into their respective environments. They stand out within it. They stand out in different ways. Sometimes in what we would define as positive ways, sometimes as negative. They can be at the very top of their social milieu, or they can be at the very bottom. It doesn't matter. But they are different. They don't blend into it.

Now, the question is, what does it mean if a person doesn't blend into his or her social environment? What it really means is that they are not constrained by the expectations and by the norms of their surroundings. They are free. They are independent. And while they are not aware of the fact that they are different, that they don't fit into their social milieu, they all seem to be aware of the fact that they are independent.

And invariably, they all told me: what I do, I act in accordance with my own values. And if somebody doesn't like it, it doesn't matter to me. I am an independent person. Or one man used the word, I am a cat that walks his own alley or something. I forgot, of course, the expression. [LAUGHS] Anyway, they are individualists and they are aware of it.

Now, what are they individualists about? What are they so independent about? They are independent in terms of their own values. They are independent because they act. They are independent to act in terms of what they believe in, regardless of how others feel. And invariably, these are individuals that had a long history of good deeds. Most of them have participated in what I think you would refer to as prosocial behavior. They just cannot turn away a beggar. They cannot turn away a vagabond that turns to them. There are people that like to help and have been helping.

Of course, this help never involves anything of the magnitude that was involved in risking their lives for Jews during the war, you understand. But nevertheless, they were used to it. So when the time came to help Jews, it fit into their behavior. It fit into the pattern to which they were used to. And therefore, probably, most of them, all of them, invariably tell me, what I did is nothing. It was my duty. It is a simple thing. Everybody should have done it. They never make a big fuss about the things that they were dealing with. And they would embarrass me. They would say, you would have done the same thing. Wouldn't you?

And then I was silent. I mean, you can't, I mean, I said I don't know. After all, you have to remember that helping Jews in those days was a crime punishable by death. And the Nazis were very serious about it, and executions of Christians and their families followed. So when they raised this, when they were so sure that I would have done it and I was thinking about my own children, I mean, I wasn't so sure at all. And they were very disappointed, I must say. Here she is, telling us that she wouldn't do it.

Now, so for them, it was— and I think that this attitude of seeing it as a matter-of-fact act also helped them behave this way, because I think if had they realized the magnitude— although they knew it, but there are ways of knowing— had they fully become aware of and knowledgeable about the punishments, perhaps they would be paralyzed into inaction.

And mind you, whenever they extended the help, it never followed a long, prolonged deliberation. They did it either spontaneously and suddenly or they would slide into it. They would start helping a little bit, and this little bit turned into longer periods and longer periods and they were drawn into it. And really, if you search your mind, if you think about all the most important actions or activities that you yourself are engaged in, you would realize that they don't have— you don't sit down and say, well, I'm going to donate my kidney to my child and you weigh all the dangers and all the pros and all the contras. You just do it. And this is how they did it.

Now, very much related to this was what I refer to universalistic perceptions. You see, the desire and the need to help was so strong, the pattern was so well established, that they did not see— it did not matter who this person was. They did not see a Jew in this helpless being that turned to them for help. What mattered was that he was somebody needy, helpless, defenseless, that had to be helped, that would have died unless they would extend the help, and they helped this person.

And in some cases, they even disliked the person that they were helping. I interviewed one very aristocratic lady in Warsaw, a lawyer and a journalist, and she would, as an Underground figure, find places for Jews. She would place them in different houses and homes. And in her own apartment, she helped for two and a half years a woman who looked very Jewish, which was dangerous in itself, had very Semitic features. In addition, her Polish was faulty.

But if this was not enough, she was also a very stupid woman. So whenever a neighbor came to the door, she would engage them in long discussions. She was passing there pretending to be a housekeeper, a maid. So she was telling whatever neighbor came what kind of fur coats she had before the war. So you can figure out that this wasn't very smart. And also in her broken Polish. She was, in addition, a very stubborn woman and very unpleasant.

And I am listening to this, all these negative things. She was this, she was this, she was this. Finally I said to her, why did you keep her if she was so terrible? Why did you save her and risk your life for her? She looked at me and she thought something was wrong with me. She says, what could I have done? If I hadn't taken her, she would have died. I had to take her. I said, yes, but she was so terrible.

She said, well, I couldn't act in any other way. Nobody wanted her. I tried to place her from one place to another and nobody wanted. After two, three days, they sent her back to me. So I had to keep her. And to her, this was the most natural thing to do. It was a question that overshadowed, you see, personal likes and dislikes. And in this case, she even disliked the person.

Monday, September 20, 2021

For Saint Eustace

Today is the feast day for Saint Eustace, protector against family discord and against fire (temporal and eternal),  and patron saint of firefighters, hunters, trappers, and anyone facing trouble.  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!


In honor of Saint Patrick, the great evangelizer of Ireland, here is the Cry of the Deer of Saint Patrick's Breastplate, a most beautiful prayer:

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.

I arise today through the strength of Christ with his Baptism, through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension, through the strength of His descent for the Judgment of Doom.

I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels, in hope of resurrection to meet with reward, in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets, in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors, in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven; light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendor of Fire, speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea, stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.

I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me: God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me, God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me, God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me, God's host to secure me: against snares of devils, against temptations of vices, against inclinations of nature, against everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd.

I summon today all these powers between me (and these evils): against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and my soul, against incantations of false prophets, against black laws of heathenry, against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry, against spells of witches, smiths and wizards, against every knowledge that endangers man's body and soul. Christ to protect me today against poisoning, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so that there may come abundance in reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of Christ. May Thy Salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.


Friday, December 25, 2020

The Christmas Stag


The Vision of Saint Eustace by Pisanello, c. 1438-1442

As the French story of the 13th century tells it, Saint Eustace was a Roman soldier of the second century A.D., originally named Placidus, who was enthusiastically participating in a Roman hunting party. He sighted a stag and broke away from his party to follow the deer's trail. Suddenly, the stag stopped and turned 180 degrees around to face his hunter, and Saint Eustace then saw that between the stag's antlers was the image of Christ on the cross. At that moment, Placidus heard God speak, telling him that he must be baptized in the Christian faith. Placidus immediately went and did so, taking Eustace as his Christian name. His wife and two sons were baptized with him. 

Recently I saw a stag race across our street and disappear into a wooded area behind a neighboring row of houses. An hour later I was with my collie dog on a walk that took me into that area and was stunned to turn a corner and see standing about 15 feet away the stag, very much taller than I, looking directly at me. I had interrupted his grazing in a back yard. He seemed to be asking me, "You're not coming closer, are you?" but not as a threat and certainly not in fear. My answer was "No, I am not," and I turned myself and my dog back to the path we had come from. Even in this prosaic encounter, the stag had a stature, beauty, and dignity that gave him an other-worldly aura and authority.  

Pisanello paints Saint Eustace's encounter with the stag amidst a woodland filled with flora and fauna, reminiscent of the all-encompassing mille-fleurs and fauna of medieval tapestries--a medieval sensibility in which the natural world symbolized and conveyed God's messages to those made in His image. Many of Pisanello's most accomplished works have been destroyed, but surviving are detailed watercolor sketches of ducks and birds and larger mammals--evidence of the artist's keen dedication to capturing the wonders of the natural world. In the wooded background of The Vision of Saint Eustace, now darkened by age and damage, we see a pelican,  ducks, does, fawns, other stags, rabbits, hunting dogs, a blue jay, a bear, a heron and baby heron, and a squirrel in a forest strewn with tiny flowers--purple and white violets (the flower of humility), bluets, and perhaps Stars of Bethlehem. 

The stag appears with a visual message, bearing Christ on the cross in his antlers. The deer or stag as messenger was a recurring theme of the early Middle Ages, when the great conversions to Christianity--as foreshadowed by the conversion of Saint Eustace in the second century--were accomplished in the regions of what is now Western Europe, Ireland, and the British Isles. The stag seems designed to the role of God's messenger by virtue of the magnificence of his antlers--akin to the beauty and power of an angel's wings. His antlers point upward. The image of the stag points to the miracle of both the awesome power and loving and noble gentleness of our Lord, whose birth we celebrate today. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Titian's Supper at Emmaus

Supper at Emmaus, Titian, 1530, The Louvre

The great Venetian Renaissance artist,Tiziano Vecelli, known as Titian, in 1530 painted this beautiful evocation of the Supper at Emmaus, as told in Luke 24:13-35. 

The Story
The story in the Gospel of Luke is prefaced by the words of the women, telling the disciples what they had seen and heard at the tomb of the risen Lord that Easter morning, but “…these words seemed to them”—to the disciples—“an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all those things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him” [emphasis added]. 

The two disciples and the stranger continue to walk together, and the disciples tell him of what has happened to Jesus of Nazareth and how “our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.” They relate how it is now the third day since Jesus died, and that some of the women “were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see” [emphasis added].

Christ gently chastises his two disciples, saying, “‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” 

As they near Emmaus, the disciples ask him to stay with them, rather than go on alone, “ ‘for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were openedand they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight” [emphasis added].

Many years later Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), revered as the father of Christian worship, preached on the Supper at Emmaus (Homily 23 in his Homilies on the Gospels). The two disciples on the road to Emmaus “did not, in fact, have faith in him, yet they were talking about him. The Lord, therefore, appeared to them but did not show them a face they could recognize. In this way, the Lord enacted outwardly, before their physical eyes, what was going on in them inwardly, before the eyes of their hearts. For inwardly they simultaneously loved him and doubted him; therefore the Lord was outwardly present to them, and at the same time did not reveal his identity. Since they were speaking about him, he showed them his presence, but since they doubted him, he hid from them the appearance by which they could have recognized him.” 

The Painting
Titian paints the moment when the disciples suddenly realize that the stranger in their midst is Christ. Christ’s left hand is on the bread, and he raises his right hand in the gesture of blessing. At this moment, the disciple on the right—dressed as a contemporary Italian friar—brings his hands together and partially rises, perhaps to fall to his knees before Christ. The other disciple draws back in consternation. 

The moment of recognition comes just as Christ repeats the blessing and giving of the bread, as in the Last Supper that initiated the Eucharist. Titian draws upon  Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, painted in the 1490s: a long frontally positioned table covered in white linen with Christ in the center flanked by his disciples, all of whom have highly individual reactions to Christ’s blessing of the bread. 

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1495

It is noted by art historians that the disciple to the left in Titian’s painting has a pose closest to that of Judas in Leonardo’s painting—a posture of withdrawal from the figure of Christ. At first I didn’t think this could be, but the half-medallion on the wall behind this disciple has the vague outlines of the torso of a hanging person, dressed in 16th-century garb, and a hook hangs from this medallion, while immediately to the right in sketchy white are what seem to be the shapes of a ribcage and perhaps a skeleton head. If this is at all a correct reading of this object in the upper left of the painting, then it is likely that there lies the shadow of death, Judas’ death in particular, in contrast to Titian’s celestial coloring of Christ, signifying the triumph over death. 

Christ’s face, at the horizontal center of Titian's painting, has a serene, other-worldly quality—it is bathed in light and his downcast eyes, as in Leonardo’s painting, suggest a humility that is turned to that which is unseen. His face is in keeping with the sacramental actions of his hands. The friar to his right looks of this world, but his humility in pressing his hands together as in prayer and his positioning as if about to kneel before the now-recognized Lord, show his love of Christ and his own nascent holiness. 

Leonardo’s famous painting situates the Last Supper before a trinity of windows opened to distant views of hills and sky. Titian’s single window opens up to a fully painted landscape and sky. The single tree stands as a remembrance of the wooden cross upon which Christ had died. (The tree seems slight, but alive, compared with the adjacent monumental Roman column behind Christ.) To the right, the earthen colors of the mountain continue into the brown cassock of the friar, and the beautiful blue, pale violet, and grays of the more distant mountain and sky are echoed in Christ’s gown and mantle. Titian chose to paint a sky in which the sun is unseen, but its light comes from behind gray storm clouds against an ascending sky of clear blue—a metaphor of light for the emotion evoked by the story itself. Titian’s unity of color signifies the harmony of Christ, God’s natural order, and the followers of Christ. 

On the other side of the painting are more secularized individuals. The innkeeper has no awareness of or interest in the emotional tumult caused by the disciples’ realization that Christ is present. The innkeeper’s face is turned away, and his left hand sports a large ring of gold, perhaps pointing to the subject of his thoughts. Judas’s left hand, palm up, is immediately under the innkeeper’s hands. 

Under the table a dog growls at a cat. In medieval and renaissance Christianity, dogs symbolized loyalty, watchfulness, and trustworthiness—not like the disciples that slept as Christ prayed in Gethsemane although he had asked them to watch, or like Saint Peter, who denied Christ three times, as Christ told him he would do—loyalty, watchfulness, and trustworthiness in contrast to fallen man. The cat often symbolized cunning and deceit, such as in the betrayal of Judas, sitting directly above. 

The most diminutive figure is that of the adolescent servant bearing food, who looks beyond Judas to the friar at the far side of the table but with no apprehension of what is taking place. His innocent interest, however, brings him far closer to Christ than the complacency of the oblivious innkeeper. 

In all figures, Titian has painted hands that speak volumes of the inner life of their owners. The boy’s hands show a delicacy and tenseness of expectation and willingness to serve. Judas’ hands demonstrate his extreme surprise in seeing Christ, whom he had helped bring to what he believed would be certain death. The innkeeper’s hands, with his thumbs hooked in his belt, point to his earth-bound nature. Christ’s hands are carefully positioned in sacramental action, with the fingers of his blessing hand gracefully arched. The friar’s hands are those of one in prayer—any surprise he feels at his recognition of Christ is superseded by his humble desire to worship his Savior.

A striking feature of Titian’s painting is the prominence of the starched pure white tablecloth that stretches across the composition and touches all figures. Leonardo’s Last Supper table also has a white cloth with its fold lines, but our eyes quickly pass it by to look at the action above. In Titian’s painting, the white cloth is a symbolic reminder of the white linen burial shroud that enfolded Christ in burial and also of the white cloth laid out on a Christian altar. And this crisp, beautiful linen also brings to the mind the unseen women, who washed, starched, folded, and laid it—women such as those who loved Christ and first received the news that he had risen, and believed.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Happy Easter, Everyone!

Resurrection of Christ, oil on wood by Pietro Perugino, c. 1496–98.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday

The Crucifixion Diptych by Rogier van der Weyden, 1460, Philadelphia Museum of Art.