Passage from Heckendorf's List

by Kaj Schueler
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Why did he help my grandparents? What were his motives? I haven't been able to find any clear answer. In an early sketch of the flight my grandfather quotes a German proverb: 'Wohltun tragt Zinsen' (Charity draws interest)—a reference to the fact that at an earlier time he had helped Franz Heckendorf. It was a payback. This is certainly true, but on the other hand there are lots of ways to get out of an obligation like this if you don't want to help. It also doesn't explain why he continued to help Jews. Franz Heckendorf's son Günter told me that my grandparents were the first Jews that Heckendorf helped, and this situation might have been just a payback. But there are still many questions. Is Heckendorf a forgotten hero, a good person, one of the just, or was he an adventurer? Did he have a touch of the romantic hero that Humphrey Bogart played so well in films like Casablanca and To Have and Have Not? If he were still alive, would he give a simple answer to a complicated question as Bogart did in his later films? 'Why are you helping me?' 'Maybe it's because I like you and I don't like them.' Or was there a more economic answer—did he earn money through his help? Was he a dedicated anti-Nazi or did he just want to fool Hitler? I don't know, but if I can't find the answer, I'm at least trying to understand. There's no doubt that he was courageous; he risked his life to help others, no matter what the motive might have been. Was there a place for altruism in a time of anti-Humanism and cynicism? Do we see goodness as an absolute characteristic, with no flaws? We place the people we consider to have done good deeds, or to be doing them, on a pedestal, then we write them off. Are we blind to the complexities in people who do good deeds? Is the problem that there are so many self-proclaimed good people, ideas, religions, and ideologies? Have we become hardened because of all the false prophets throughout history who time and again show that they were only after power?

What particularly interests me is spontaneous goodness. The banality of goodness—to twist Hannah Arendt's thesis on the banality of evil—that is not dependent on politics or religion, when there is no higher goal in sight. The inner strength that makes people act without considering the dangers. Perhaps they don't even know why. They simply know that they must act; it's like a knee-jerk reaction. They seem to have the human code etched in themselves. Perhaps they are not even following any kind of human principle— Raoul Wallenberg, Varian Fry, Oskar Schindler. These people were no saints in their private lives, they had their weaknesses, like most of us. They could certainly be both tough and scared. This is also where my interest in Franz Heckendorf lies. Was he possibly one of those people? Sometimes I think about the American Varian Fry's stoical response when he was asked to lead the mission to rescue Jews in southern France: 'I'm not the right person for the job. Everything I know about the work of a secret agent or about how you outwit the Gestapo I learned at the movies. But if you can't find anybody else, I'll go.'

Most of us have not been given such a choice during our lifetime and never will be. But isn't it precisely the capacity to make such a choice, without considering economic, political, or religious gains that defines us as human beings? Like Wallenberg, Schindler, and Fry. In any case, I would like to believe it.

Most of the Germans who lived through the Nazi period and World War II took part in the persecution of Jews or looked on without doing anything. There weren't many who actively helped their fellow human beings. According to some estimates, about two million Jews survived the Nazi terror in Europe. About a million of those are said to have been saved by non-Jews. But it is difficult for many reasons to estimate how many non-Jews in Germany and in German-occupied Europe saved one or more lives; some researchers have put the figure vaguely somewhere between fifty thousand and five hundred thousand. Presumably we will never have a more exact count or know in detail who these people were and what their motives were. Despite this, the numbers, vague as they are, help give us some perspective on events during the Hitler period and World War II, during which more than 40 million people died. If we limit the definition of a 'rescuer' to someone who risked his or her own life without any compensation at all, the lower figure—fifty thousand—would presumably apply.

Translated by Peter Stenberg and Lena Karlström.

ISBN 0-8032-4286-7, © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press.   All rights reserved.

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