In 1943, a Bulgarian baker named Rubin Dimitrov was at work in his Sofia shop when he saw Jews running from the police. He saved a group of them from a deportation roundup by hiding them in his oven. When asked about the incident, Dimitrov modestly replied, “One couldn’t sit idly by, arms crossed, doing nothing. A true human being is obliged to help . So, I opened the door of my bakery oven to hide these people.”
Why did Dimitrov use the term “a true human being”? All people possess genetic predispositions and a certain amount of potential. If some are “true” human beings, what are the others? Unfortunately, Dimitrov erred on at least one point: Many people could “sit idly by with their arms crossed, doing nothing.” Maybe the “true” human being he envisioned is the one who couldn’t sit by doing nothing.
What are the fibers that make up the common thread running through seemingly ordinary men who become heroes? Could it be that such men cherish human life more intensely than others? Or is it simply that they are acutely aware of their own humanity?
In his book The Righteous, historian Martin Gilbert quotes a member of the Yad Vashem committee describing righteous gentiles as ” noble souls of the human race, and when I meet with them I feel somewhat inferior to them. For I know that if I had been in their place I wouldn’t have been capable of such deeds.”
As we strive to understand what makes one person step up to a challenge while others assume the role of mere observers, we may realize that, unlike mythological characters, anyone we meet could turn out to be one of these heroes.
To a passenger sitting in the back seat of a particular Boston taxi years ago, it would not have been obvious that the driver would eventually go out to sea and, at age 53 and as captain of his vessel, surrender himself to Somali pirates to save his crew. That Boston taxi driver turned out to be Captain Richard Phillips, whose childhood friend described him as “an athlete and plenty tough but modest about his successes on the field.”
Listening to a math lecture at Virginia Tech, students of Liviu Librescu might have been astonished to learn that one day their Romanian-born Israeli engineering professor would save multiple lives by blocking with his own body the classroom doorway from a gunman, thereby giving others a chance to open the windows and jump out.
The challenges faced by “ordinary” heroes are not always life threatening and may occur in less than extraordinary circumstances. They do, however, always make a difference – to someone.
In Sweet Deams, Faye Kellerman’s fictional protagonist Peter Decker says, “… things that are less than horrendous can still affect you deeply.”
In the biblical story that bears her name, we find that Ruth chose to stay with her destitute and grieving mother-in-law, Naomi, even though she could have returned to her own family and an easier life. Naomi did not beg Ruth to stay; in fact, she kissed her and tried to send her away along with her other daughter-in-law. Every year we are reminded of Ruth’s compassion toward Naomi, which still stands as a testament of empathy.
Ask yourself who has made a difference in your own life; who made a decision to do something good when nobody else did. You might have had a dedicated teacher who took the time to make you feel special or kept you from slipping between the cracks of school-system anonymity. A stranger may have stopped to help you fix a flat tire in the rain.
Being a hero is risky. One’s offers can be rebuffed or misunderstood; unfortunately, noble choices can sometimes even prove fatal. Perhaps that is why the word “hero” represents something dear to us. We know the hero made a conscious choice to do good despite possible risk.
* * *
In a world saturated with pain and cruelty, opportunities to do acts of kindness are all around us. When I was a little girl, my mother represented such an opportunity.
All alone, on the run for her life by the age of eight and orphaned soon afterward, she came to America as a teenage refugee. She married, but was widowed at the age of 33. Her deceased husband left her with a mortgage, no life insurance and four children ranging in age from two to 13.
My mother worked the proverbial dawn until dusk to take care of my sister, brothers and me. She was always up and working before I awoke and still up working after I went to sleep, no matter how late. I never saw her relax except on Shabbos. She was very independent, and yet, because she was raising four children by herself, she was vulnerable and many people chose to take advantage of her tendency toward nurturing and her strong work ethic.
Some people, though, consciously chose not to take advantage of her. On the contrary, they attempted to give her a break – a badly needed, well-deserved break. Doing so not only helped her but also helped her children, and the remnants of their kindness have remained in the hearts of my brother and sister and me until this day.
The heroes of my childhood were two such men. One was cultured and educated in the fine arts and sciences. The other was a master tradesman and a skilled ba’al tefillah, steeped in heimish Yiddish culture. These men made it clear to me that kindness is not the turf of a particular social strata; it is available to all who wish to enhance their own lives by lessening the burden of others.
I knew Dr. Samuel Mendlovic from the time I was old enough to walk to shul on Shabbos at the age of three. My family lived on East Scarborough Road in Cleveland Heights. We were one of only two Shabbos-observant families on the street and it was a long walk to our shul on the corner of Taylor Road and Washington Boulevard.
I was seven when my father succumbed to a long, painful and draining illness. Dr. Mendlovic was always compassionate toward my family. One might think that because Dr. Mendlovic was a physician he was in a better position than most to be compassionate. Perhaps, but his generosity manifested itself in more ways than just a discounted or waived fee. He never behaved as though he were doing anyone a favor and this may have been the kindest thing of all. He was always ready with a joke but his demeanor was never without a deep sense of caring about those in his presence.
I was great friends with his daughter, and all the times I spent at the Mendlovic home I was treated like a member of the family. On Sundays, Dr. Mendlovic used to take us to the hospital to accompany him as his “nurses” when he would do his rounds. In later years, he took my niece and my daughter with him as occasional “nurses.”
I was struck at an early age by Dr. Mendlovic’s love for Israel and the Jewish people – both as a nation and as individuals – as well as the respect and dignity he afforded everyone he met.
As I grew up, I began to understand he was something of what one might refer to as an intellectual. He knew many languages, played the violin and enjoyed all sorts of cerebral pursuits. To this day I can’t think of many people I consider to be intellectuals who make kindness an everyday priority in their lives. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
When I was 14, I lost my older brother to a tragedy. I remember Dr. Mendlovic coming to our home to make sure my mother and the kids were all right. To this day, I suspect Dr. Mendlovic used a ploy to make sure I would take care of myself – perhaps he suspected I would become depressed about my brother’s death.
He showed me a vial of pills that were meant to have a calming effect on my mother in case she needed help sleeping. He told me to count the pills. My mother never took any pills, and while it didn’t occur to me at the time, I feel confident he did this to make sure I would take the focus off myself and put it on my mother. He knew her quite well and was aware that she hadn’t coped with the devastating hardships of her life by taking pills. That’s the way he was – he thought things through in such a way that you never knew he was taking care of you.
As a young adult, I worked in his office one summer while his secretary was on vacation. I admired his quest for knowledge so much and wished I could learn some of the things about which he spoke. He gave me an Arabic primer printed in Hebrew so that I could start learning Arabic. I cherished that book and kept it with me for years. While I worked in his office, I saw how he treated his patients. Most of them were older folks and he treated each one gently and patiently. When I described to my sister how he treated his patients, she commented that he treated each one like his own parent.
Shortly after I became a grandmother, I saw Dr. Mendlovic for the last time. By this time he was a grandfather many times over and anyone could see he cherished that role more than anything. He asked me how it felt to become a grandmother and I told him I felt as though it was the reason I had lived my life. He looked at me and gave me that famous Dr. Mendlovic grin, the one with a bit of a smile and the weight of the suffering of the Jewish people.
* * *
Mr. Avrum Lebowitz, my uncle through marriage, once saved my mother’s life in Europe. My mother told me she was tiny for her age and my uncle, traveling with the unit of Czech soldiers of which he was a part, hid my mother up in the luggage rack of a train compartment and successfully smuggled her over the border.
That was an exciting story and certainly shows something of my uncle’s character. It is not, however, what makes him my hero.
From the time I first started speaking I called him Unkie. He loved children. Many adults did not have time to give the kids attention, but he always made a point to talk with us.
I could easily sum up Unkie’s influence in my life in one word: kindness. He was the epitome of a ba’al chesed. There were other people in our lives who could have stepped in to check on the well-being of the widow and her children, but only Unkie actually did. He plastered holes and painted walls for us. He stopped in at least once a week to visit us. He didn’t only speak to my mother as most adults did but always spoke to us as well, joking around, telling us little stories.
The selflessness he showed to my mother and my family is too vast to describe, but I must say that we kids took him for granted. We simply knew he was there for us.
My mother’s widowed and childless aunt lived in the old Kinsman neighborhood of Cleveland. She was the only Jewish person on her street (and probably in her zip code). She may have been the only white person there as well. Unkie not only visited her every day to make sure she was OK and to do various things for her, he actually walked all the way to her house on Shabbos from Shaker Heights, where he lived at the time, so that she would not be lonely all day.
So many people loved this good-hearted man. He was hard working and always ready to assist people, especially those who really needed help. He never talked about the people he helped. It was as though aiding those who he knew were vulnerable was simply part of his nature. He never seemed to give it any thought; he just did what needed to be done.
The last time I saw Unkie, he was the sandek at my nephew’s bris. Knowing my brother had bestowed this wonderful honor on him made everyone in our family so happy. By this time, Unkie had to keep an oxygen tank with him wherever he went, probably due to years of smoking as a young adult or from the plaster he was exposed to for so long in his work. He was never interested in honor and that made his role as sandek all the sweeter.
* * *
Describing to my children why I loved Unkie and Dr. Mendlovic so much is difficult. While I hope they understand why these men were such an important part of my childhood, I don’t want them to feel I am exaggerating.
Moishe Olszewicz, a Holocaust survivor, wrote about heroes like the Polish woman who saved his life by hiding him: ” the goodness and virtue of these people cannot be described. No amount of money can adequately compensate them and no words can adequately thank them.”
This seems to hint at the truth that a hero is a human being who comes to the rescue of his fellow with no designs on money or honor. I think back to the stories my mother told me about heroes like these in her life and realize it was not so much the words that stayed with me as it was a feeling of admiration and a desire to emulate their qualities.
The opportunities to assist people in need are all around us. I suppose the heroes among us don’t wait to be asked.
Susan Zien lives in Baltimore and works as a programmer/analyst.