The Quality of Mercy


“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”  Anne Frank 

In the rearview mirror of history, everything emerges with razor-sharp clarity. Villains do their evil deeds. Heroes leap forth to foil them and save at least some part of the day. The present is always hazier, less certain. Millions of refugees from Syria, Nigeria, and Iraq flee across our TV screens, their children pressed close, hearts beating wildly. And, as people around the globe did in 1939, we look on and wonder: Who will stop this?

Recently, I shared a friend’s post on Facebook (thanks, Wayne). It concerned a man, Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved 669 children from the Nazi death camps. Moved, I dug around for more stories. Below is a small sample of what I found, but it suggests that the impulse for good is a global human quality. These men and women had nothing to gain and everything to lose. They did what they did because they could not look away from the wrongs of the world and the suffering of others. If you ever despair of the human heart, I think this list is proof that Anne Frank got it right. I have provided a link for each person at the end of their story, in case you would like to read more.

Sir Nicholas Winton
David Levene for The Guardian
David Levene for The Guardian

Winton was a young London stockbroker when he received a call from a friend in December 1938, asking him to come to Prague. There, he was introduced to the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. Prague was teeming with a quarter million people fleeing Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland, most of them Jews. When Winton decided he could at least help the children, he was besieged by families anxious to get their sons and daughters on his list. He and his colleagues took photographs and details of each child, and began to organize their evacuation to England. The first 20 left in January 1939. Winton returned to London where he procured more travel permits. Frustrated by the slowness of British bureaucracy, which still thought war unlikely, he made newspaper appeals and organized the children’s placements himself. Following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in March, he began forging Home Office entry permits. Eight rail transports of some 600 children made it through, but the Germans cancelled the ninth transport, sending its 250 children to concentration camps.

Winton’s heroic work was not widely known until his wife found the book with the children’s names decades later. She encouraged Winton to try to locate them, which he did with the aid of the BBC. In 1988, a TV program was made about the rescue operation. Winton was in the audience when the program’s presenter said, “Stand up if you owe your life to Nicholas Winton!” Everyone stood. They were the adults whose lives he had saved nearly 50 years before. (Learn more)

Raoul Wallenberg

Having observed the Nazi state in action during a business trip, Swedish architect and businessman1389.9 Holocaust B Raoul Wallenberg accepted an offer from President Roosevelt’s new War Refugee Board to serve as Sweden’s envoy in Budapest, with the aim of helping Hungary’s Jews escape. By the time he arrived in July 1944, some 400,000 Jews had already been sent to the death camps. Intent on saving the rest, Wallenberg designed a protective pass that identified the carrier as a Swede awaiting transit out of Hungary. Observing the German and Hungarian authorities’ love of the flashy, he printed the passes in bright colors and emblazoned them with Sweden’s coat of arms, adding a bevy of official stamps and signatures. The passes had no actual legal value, but Wallenberg used bribery and extortion when necessary. In this way, he was able to increase the number of permitted passes from 1,500 to 4,500. Off the record, he tripled that number, and hired a “staff” of several hundred Jewish workers. One of his drivers remembers Wallenberg climbing atop a trainload of Jews bound for Auschwitz, ignoring commands to halt and dodging Hungarian officers’ bullets as he handed out passes through the doors. He then led the pass holders off the train to a caravan of cars, marked in Swedish colors.

When the Hungarian Nazis officially seized power in October 1944, they declared the passes invalid, but Wallenberg befriended the foreign minister’s wife who helped reverse the decision. He also rented out 32 buildings under the Swedish diplomatic umbrella, declaring them Swedish territory. These buildings, which sheltered 15,000 Jews, were draped in Swedish flags, and bore labels such as “The Swedish Library” and “The Swedish Research Institute” on their doors.

In January 1945, just before the Soviet Army occupied Budapest, Wallenberg threatened Eichmann with prosecution for war crimes in order to stop his plan to blow up the Budapest ghetto, home to 70,000 Jews. Wallenberg is said to have saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the death camps. (Learn more)

Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler no credit neededDespite being Catholic, Irena Sendler’s family had a history of fighting anti-Semitism. Sendler herself got into trouble as a student at Warsaw University for opposing the institution’s segregationist policies. When the Nazis invaded Poland, she was working for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department which provided services to the poor and infirm. She extended these services to the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, where thousands of people were dying each month from hunger and disease, by finagling permission from the Epidemic Control Department to check refugees for infectious diseases. Inside the Ghetto, Sendler began arranging for the children to be smuggled out and sent to Polish foster families. She recruited people for each of the ten SWD centers to work with her. Together, they issued hundreds of forged documents and transported the children out in ambulances. It was painful for their families to part with them and dangerous for the families who took them in—Poles aiding Jews were executed—but 2,500 children were saved.

Sendler, who always wore the yellow star to show her solidarity with the Jews, was caught by the Nazis, tortured, and sentenced to death, but her friends helped her to escape. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. (Learn more)

Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches  

Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches, the Portuguese consul to Bordeaux was not a manAristides SOUSA MENDES  no attribution needed who trembled before power. Despite the Portuguese government’s stern directive to all its diplomats to deny safe haven to refugees—especially Jews—Sousa Mendes began issuing visas in late 1939, shortly before the Nazi invasion of France. The visas granted Jews and other persecuted peoples safe passage across Spain to Lisbon, where they would be free to travel to other parts of the world. Time and again, the Portuguese dictator Salazar warned him to stop. Sousa Mendes ignored him and began issuing visas off the books, making up whatever details he thought necessary. “From now on, I’m giving everyone visas,” he told his son. “There will be no more nationalities, races, or religions.”

As the German occupation took hold, the number of refugees increased dramatically. The consulate was packed with hungry, frightened people, all of them needing transit visas to escape death. When Portugal tried to stop the Spanish from letting Sousa Mendes’s refugees through, he countered by personally leading groups to a border post that had no telephone to report his actions. He was stripped of his position in June 1940, and ordered to leave France. He ignored the directive for weeks, eager to save every life he could. On his return to Portugal, he was forced to rely on Jewish relief charities to feed his family. Sousa Mendes died in poverty, but his daring had opened an escape route that was to save millions of refugees throughout the war. (Learn more)

A few more:

HO FENG-SHANAfter the Kristallnacht attacks in 1938, the situation for Austrian Jews became critical. That’s when Ho Feng-Shan, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna, went against the express orders of his boss–China’s ambassador in Berlin, who wished to curry Hitler’s favor–and issued thousands of visas to Jewish families to travel to Shanghai. At the time, Shanghai did not require entry visas, but one could not leave Austria without such a permit. (Learn more)

LISE BORSUMLise Børsum was a Norwegian housewife who smuggled Jews out of Nazi-occupied nations into Sweden, often through her own home. She was arrested and sent to Ravensbrück, but survived the war and went on to write about her experiences. (Learn more)


In 1970, Alvin Toffler published a little book that rocked the world: Future Shock. As we passed from an industrial to a “super-industrial” society, he predicted, change would no longer be the steady plodder it had been, but an exponentially increasing cruise missile. People would be left feeling disconnected and stressed out—wandering disoriented like victims of a bad hangover.

As is true for all restless, brilliant people who peer into the future (Orwell, Marx), Toffler got some of it right and some of it wrong, But he was dead on about the shock we would get from the rapid, large-scale technological and social changes we face today. We find ourselves in a world that has completely outstripped the human scale. We want to act, but how? Where to start? If you’ve ever tried to straighten out a problem with Google, you know exactly what I mean. It’s like that moment in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network where thousands of New Yorkers open their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But the question is: Who’s listening?

“The average individual knows little and cares less about the cycle of technological innovation or the relationship between knowledge-acquisition and the rate of change. He is, on the other hand, keenly aware of the pace of his own life—whatever that pace may be.”
Toffler Alvin. Future Shock. 1970.

Some years ago, I moved into a house across from the Quabbin Reservoir, a massive water supply source for Boston that was built in the 1930s, forcing the inhabitants of four communities from their homes. I did a lot of research on the subject for a piece I was writing at the time. It reminded me that throughout much of human history, the most common experience was to be born, grow up, and die in one place. This certainly has its drawbacks, but it also provides people with an identity, a stable community, and lifelong friends—three basic human needs that are currently on the endangered list.

In those Quabbin towns, you were a known quantity to your neighbors and they to you. You were also likely a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker. You did work you could accomplish with your own hands, the rewards of which were tangible and immediate. You planted tomatoes, you tended tomatoes, you harvested tomatoes, you ate tomatoes—or sold them at your local fresh air market. If carpentry was your thing, you bought the boards from your friend who owned the local sawmill, spent some days sanding, fitting, joining, and varnishing. Then you sold the finished product–a dresser, a cupboard–to your neighbor across the meadow. That’s human scale.

Many of our surnames also reflect our ancestors’ connection to their work. Names such as Smith, Wainwright, Baker, Funar (Romanian: rope maker), and Bagni (Italian for public bath house attendant—love that one) once told people who you were. If this naming principle applied today, who would we be? Mr. Clouddeveloper? Ms. Derivatives? Weirdly enough, we have invented a world where we feel small and indistinct. A global society where corporations are people, and people are non-entities: consumers, website clicks,  data points on an algorithm.

Argh croppedThis devaluation of human beings has its roots in the industrial revolution. I mentioned Marx at the beginning of this post. The thing that stuck with me most from Das Kapital was the example of the guy who worked at a spinning machine in a factory. The man worked the machine, a treadle affair, with his right hand and foot. Until some bright boy of industry came up with this idea: If spinners can produce X amount of yarn in twelve hours with one hand and one foot, they could produce 2X that amount if  they worked a second machine with their left hand and foot. It had everything to do with expanding profit margins and nothing to do with people. I’ll cut to the chase: Marx’s poor spinner went bonkers. People have limits. They grow tired. They get frightened. They waver, uncertain. They require tenderness.  This is not a sign of redundancy. It is the sine qua non of our humanness.

Recently, there’s been a lot of whining about our “age of narcissism,” evidenced supposedly by the craze for “selfies” and a surfeit of oversized egos who (how dare they!) demand to be respected as people. I admit, the guy with the selfie-stick in Florence got on my nerves a bit, as he filmed himself prattling about every place he was walking away from. But, I think the narcissism-cops may be missing a crucial point. What if all those selfies are a validation: “I’m still here!” What if the Facebook posts and the Tweets are really a cry: “I’m a person. I need to be known.” What if those “egotists” insisting on respect for their personhood have got it . . . exactly right?

I don’t buy that we’re a narcissistic or apathetic lot. I think it’s just that we often feel like we’re on a treadmill without a pause button. We can’t even slow the speed. I go to my local supermarket. I check out through an automated line. At the bank, a machine swallows my paycheck, then regurgitates my cash. I try to make a $10 online donation for Syrian refugees. I get rejected because there’s a $5 minimum. (I know—this doesn’t make sense.) I hit the “contact us” button. A form pops up, but it’s impervious to all my attempts to enter my info. In frustration, I try the e-mail reply button, and type a detailed message to someone named Ken. I never hear from Ken.

Globalization certainly offers a lot of positives. People like Malala Yousafzai have a world stage to champion human rights and female education. Rapid response to hurricanes and other natural disasters, made possible by computer technologies, brings life-saving aid to millions. But global awareness also brings everything rushing in—the painful plight of Syrian refugees, mass shootings, the melting of the Arctic ice cap—like some mad tidal wave. As we struggle to swim faster and faster, post-modern life can feel a lot like drowning. Not being able to address everything can wind up making us feel we can effect nothing. In this vast world, spinning at digital speed, all we have is our humanity. And each other. But if anything can save us, it will be exactly that. We can each do some one thing, one piece of meaningful work to reclaim our world. Together, we can do many things. In the spirit of Steve McQueen’s Papillon, we must link arms as we jump into the swirling waters of this crazy planet, and affirm, in unison, “We’re still here!” That will, indeed, be a brave, new, human world.

we are not redundant cropped