Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Unlocal Hero

KRISTEN RENWICK MONROE (1996), The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity; TZVETAN TODOROV (1997), Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps

Otto Springer was an ethnic German who lived in Prague during World War II. As the Aryan head of a Jewish firm, he protected his employees while also bribing Gestapo officials and concentration camp guards, forging false documents for Jews and working in the Austrian underground. He rejected an opportunity to be transferred by his company to India, where he might have spent the war in safety. Eventually he was sent to a camp himself, but he continued to work on behalf of others. All in all, Springer saved more than one hundred Jews from imprisonment and death.

Interviewed years later in San Anselmo, California, he denied that there was anything especially virtuous about his character. His morals, he joked to Kristen Monroe, were only slightly better than those of “an average American congressman.” If you want examples of altruism, he told her, you should hear about this friend of mine—and he launched into a story of a non-Jewish man who went to the camp along with his Jewish wife, although it had been a marriage arranged to protect her. So why did Springer risk his life to save others? “One thing is important,” he told Monroe. “I had no choice. I never made a moral decision to rescue Jews. I just got mad. I felt I had to do it. I came across many things that demanded my compassion.”

A frail grandmother with a serious heart condition and braces on her legs and back, Lucille was the poetry editor for her local newspaper. One day in July, while working on a manuscript, she saw a woman, a stranger, being raped outside her window. Nobody else was around at that hour of the day. The ailing woman ran downstairs, screamed, and hit the rapist with her cane while he attempted to choke the victim. Lucille kept on hitting until he loosened his grip. After the victim ran away, she chased the rapist, unwilling to let him escape, and managed to close his car door on his foot. By this time help was on the scene and the rapist was arrested. In an interview with Lucille, Kristen Monroe discovered that she had a long history of such

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