Is Great Courage (Im)possible? Thoughts on “John Donne’s People”


Picture of the Bielski Brigade partisan group who saved the Jews from Lida surrounding regions | Photo Credit:


No man is an island entire of itself; every man  is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;  if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe  is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as  well as any manner of thy friends or of thine  own were; any man’s death diminishes me,  because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom  the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.  ~ JOHN DONNE

Did you know that political scientists call Holocaust rescuers — that singular group of people who risked their lives and wellbeing to save others — “John Donne’s people”? This is based on the famous poem, above — “Each man’s death diminishes me,/For I am involved in mankind.”

It’s a beautiful appellation for an extraordinary group of people, but I wonder if even it goes far enough. Holocaust rescuers didn’t just involve themselves in mankind — they risked everything for it (including the lives of their children, which is the piece that stops me in my tracks.). I’ve been reading a lot about rescuers lately, and their courage seems impossible.

Yet apparently it isn’t. The book “Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust,” by Eva Fogelman, is filled with stories of John Donne’s people.

What would it take to be one of them?

Have you ever witnessed this level of courage?

Do you know anyone you believe capable of it?



  1. Rich Day on 05.02.2013 at 19:48 (Reply)

    Taking some risk myself is one thing. I can wrap my mind around it. But to have the life of one of my daughters at risk to do a good and courageous thing stops me in my own tracks. It is just different, something I could not bear. So I am at that decison right at this very moment, and it seems unsolvable for me. The truth is, I am unwilling to see her life risked, or see harm come to her. Am I unwilling to see her pursue the goodness she so desires as a result? This decision will have to be made in the next few months, and it isn’t suddenly going to get easier tomorrow. Even worse than that it isn’t my decision to make, she is 21 and could do it anyway.

  2. Barbara Harris on 06.02.2013 at 17:19 (Reply)

    Yes, I believe such courage and self giving is possible and has happened over and over again in the history of the world as individuals, quietly or publicly, have put the ultimate good of another person before their own desires.
    Risking everything for love, or for an ideal.
    I pray the grace of God upon Rich Day in his dilemma.

  3. Edgar Danmer on 07.02.2013 at 05:04 (Reply)

    I was adopted at the age of 3 by my uncle and aunt. My biological mother had separated from my father and the custom in Nigeria is the child goes to live with father’s parents. My uncle met his wife whilst studying medicine in Russia. I found out later own in my life that my biological mother asked my aunt to take me away to live with her and my uncle. She felt that I was not well looked after whilst living with my father’s parents. I can now see that she was ready to let me go so that I would have a better life outside from Nigeria, out of harms way. I am immensely grateful for this self-less act of love, it was a true gift. I am happily married with a daughter in the UK. How things would have been different if I had stayed in Nigeria. Your post helped me to be reminded that there are decent good people in touch with their humanity. Thank you Susan.

  4. Ray DoRayMeFa on 07.02.2013 at 18:40 (Reply)

    The difficulty of your questions is apparent: three responses (versus 59 for the Ritual / Super Bowl post).
    I don’t have a clear answer to your questions, and I think most people who haven’t been in that situation don’t have a clear answer either.

    Part of me thinks it’s a matter of deep character, and that a given person would make the same decision now as he would have ten years ago or ten years in the future. Another part of me thinks there’s a threshold of bravery or service that we exceed at some times but not at other times, giving rise to the painful lack of resolution that we seem to have on this question. Either way, I believe that social pressure, either positive (camaraderie) or negative (shame), can also dominate what we choose.

    The common thread of interviews of “heroes” is that none of them saw themselves as heroes. Also, soldiers said they weren’t sure how they’d respond in combat, until they had actually been in combat. Bravado may help one function after a fateful decision is made, but I don’t think bravado helps make the hard decision in the first place. It’s a quieter, deeper decision-or maybe a perception that the reality is so compelling that there is only one decision to make.

    Someone posted to your facebook a quote attributed to Rosa Parks: “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” It resonates with me that simply facing the reality of a given situation, over time, will bring out the best in us, even if we hesitate in the short run.

    The movie “Defiance” (which I recommend, about the Bielski Brigade in your picture) showed the ongoing determination and sacrifice that some made, in the wilderness for years on end, and with no clear hope that there would ever be a “better life,” a time to relax, afterwards. But we can be sure that there were many others whose stories will remain unknown, only because they didn’t survive to tell.

    Your post, “Books I Couldn’t Put Down” motivated me to read some other books, but I see I’ll have to read “Conscience and Courage” also. It looks into what Amazon calls the “psychology of altruism.”

    P.S. Your websites are a tremendously valuable corner of the Internet.

  5. JES on 10.02.2013 at 13:40 (Reply)

    I think you have a unique perspective to offer on the question; after all, “shyness” and introversion are often confused with passivity. Open heroism — the antithesis of passivity — would seem beyond the reach of such souls. But it’s not, is it? Or is it?

  6. Ray DoRayMeFa on 13.03.2013 at 22:48 (Reply)

    I’ve finished Conscience and Courage and found it staggering in many ways. The author took a fairly analytical and clinical approach, not sensationalizing or dramatizing, as none of that was necessary to make the stories profound.

    The question of what “kinds” of person became rescuers was as complex as I imagined. But what the book drove home to me was how rescuing completely dominated the rescuers’ lives not only during the war, but also for decades afterward. I had half-expected modesty from the rescuers speaking after the war-making them even greater heroes in my mind.

    However, I was even more affected to read about the hardships that rescuers had to endure for decades after 1945, especially the lingering anti-Jew sentiment in some eastern European countries that forced rescuers *continue* to live in unimaginably stressful secrecy for the rest of their lives. And naturally I had to think of those thousands who weren’t interviewed for the book because they were not among the survivors.

    The book put a lot of things in perspective, making me feel that the best, and the worst, of human nature are even better, and even worse, than I thought before. And I feel fortunate to live in a place to which the rescuers and their charges escaped.

  7. Ray DoRayMeFa on 15.03.2013 at 14:36 (Reply)

    By coincidence I was just forwarded an email paying homage to Irena Sendler, who helped 2,500 children escape the Warsaw ghetto. The email is basically verified by sources such as the Washington Post. Sadly, this amazing person passed away in 2008.

    There are also books (unfortunately, most were posthumous).

  8. Ray DoRayMeFa on 15.03.2013 at 16:33 (Reply)

    (P.S. FYI: Irena Sendler was discussed in Conscience and Courage in several places, though under a slightly different family name.)

  9. Ron S. on 10.04.2013 at 21:51 (Reply)

    I have amazed myself and been amazed by others who never knew how far they could go on the path of Courage. I believe we learn little nuggets and lessons and challenges and tests, throughout our lives. Some because of the certain influences have had a very slow start to courage but then others are almost compelled by something outside of themselves to meet the challenge of sacrifice in order to accomplish the greater good in Courage. One seems to have to possess a good deal of selflessness to have courage on behalf of others and seems to be linked to a strong conviction of integrity. What a beautiful thing and examples that are made in such instances.

  10. DoRayMeFa on 04.05.2013 at 09:22 (Reply)

    On a related subject, a new (2013) PBS feature reveals information about the holocaust that was only recently made known. The episode “Bugging Hitler’s Soldiers” in the series Secrets of the Dead reports on Britain’s secret electronic bugging of camps and houses in which German POWs were kept in World War II.

    The secretly recorded conversations prove how the regular Army, not just the elite Waffen SS, knew about and actively participated in the holocaust. The ambivalence and guilt of some ranking military officers is shown. What was done by “ordinary” people, and talked about so nonchalantly, is sobering.

    The episode is on PBS now, and the video is on the Internet at

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