Newspaper article International New York Times

Mere Human Behavior

Newspaper article International New York Times

Mere Human Behavior

Article excerpt

Few resist. In a time of terror the mass is enthusiastic, compliant, calculating or cowed.

When I was a correspondent in Germany 15 years ago, I attended a ceremony at a military base renamed for a soldier in Hitler's army who disobeyed orders. His name was Anton Schmid. He was a sergeant whose conscience was moved by the suffering of Jews in the Vilnius ghetto.

Thousands were being shot by the Germans, with help from Lithuanian collaborators, every day. It was the same story throughout Lithuania in the fall of 1941. In my grandmother's home town of Zagare, more than 2,200 Jews, by the Nazi count, were shot on a single day, Oct. 2, 1941.

In a letter to his wife, Stefi, Schmid described his horror at the sight of this mass murder and of "children being beaten on the way." He wrote: "You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them."

Schmid, forging papers for the Jewish underground and hiding children, managed to save more than 250 Jews before he was arrested in 1942 and summarily executed. In his last letter to his wife he wrote, "I merely behaved as a human being."

But the human beings had all vanished, swept up in the Nazi death trance. "Merely" had become the wrong adverb; "exceptionally" would have been closer. Schmid's resistance was almost unknown. It can be singular just to be human. It can be very lonely. It can cost your human life.

I thought of Schmid when I was asked recently to give a talk at Groton School (alma mater of Franklin D. Roosevelt) in Massachusetts honoring Ron Ridenhour. A helicopter gunner in Vietnam, he gathered information that led to the official probe into the 1968 My Lai massacre. He did not do what was easy. He did what was right. He took on entrenched interests within the U.S. military, bureaucratic resistance and personal hostility from fellow G.I.s and from his superiors.

His actions led to the conviction of William Calley for the murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. Ridenhour broke ranks, at considerable personal risk, in the name of truth, decency and justice.

Massacres tend to take place in giddy seasons when passions boil up, judgment is jettisoned, and the herd instinct of the human race rises. Suddenly the stranger is the enemy; suddenly all is permitted; suddenly societal restraints and taboos are lifted; suddenly blood rises and is spilt. …

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