Magazine article The Christian Century

Small Acts of Courage

Magazine article The Christian Century

Small Acts of Courage

Article excerpt

IN THE SPRING of 1939, 47-year-old Paul Gruninger was a middle-level police official in St. Gallen, a picturesque Swiss town near the Austrian border. The son of middle-class parents who ran a local cigar shop and a mediocre student who enjoyed the soccer field more than his studies, Gruninger became an unprepossessing man of quiet conventionality. After dutifully serving time in the Swiss army in World War I, he obtained a teaching diploma, settled into a position at an elementary school, attended church on Sundays and married Alice Federer, a fellow teacher.

To please both his mother and Alice, Gruninger applied for a better-paying position in the police department, a job that involved mainly filling out reports and arranging security details for occasional visiting dignitaries. Or so it seemed.

In April 1939, Gruninger found his way to work blocked by a uniformed officer who told him: "Sir, you no longer have the right to enter these premises." An investigation had revealed that Gruninger was secretly altering the documents of Jews fleeing Austria for the safety of Switzerland. "Non-Aryan" refugees were not allowed to cross the border after August 19, 1938, but all it took was a few strokes of Gruninger's pen to predate a passport and perhaps save a life, a small action but one of great personal risk.

Gruninger was dismissed from his position, ordered to turn in his uniform and subjected to criminal charges. The authorities spread false rumors that Gruninger had demanded sexual favors from those he aided. Disgraced as a law breaker and shunned by his neighbors, Gruninger peddled raincoats and animal feed until he died in poverty in 1972.

Paul Gruninger is featured in journalist Eyal Press's book Beautiful Souls, a study of seemingly ordinary people who exhibited extraordinary and risky courage on behalf of others. This is a book about people like those ambassador Richard Holbrooke once described, who sit at desks with two rubber stamps. Use the one marked "approved," observed Holbrooke, and a person enters safely into your country. Use the one marked "rejected," and a person might die or go to prison. In defiance of the rules, and often for fathomless reasons, these people pick up the first stamp.

Their often unnoticed acts of courage are permeated by two great mysteries. The first is why such actions are so uncommon despite the fact that almost every moral system and faith tradition encourages them. Christians are summoned to follow in Jesus' path, but even when picking up a cross means only picking up the right rubber stamp, many desert and flee. …

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