I am obsessed with the stories of noble lives and acts of heroism.
In particular, I have been very focused on stories of heroism during the Second World War, particularly in the context of the Holocaust.
I cannot imagine my sustained engagement with the history of the Holocaust if not for the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as many other stories of courage and martyrdom.
These lights illuminate the darkness, clarify it and, to some modest extent possible, dispel it.
What I have begun thinking about more recently is how many stories of heroism are unknown to us and can never be known.
The stories that we have are a sliver of the humanity that persisted in the most dehumanizing of contexts.
Yet, there are surely many more stories that were snuffed out before they could edify successive generations.
The stories that we do know can help us exercise our imagination about what might have constituted noble and courageous responses in dire circumstances.
Can we let ourselves also be fortified by the confidence that there were also many anonymous heroes?
The facts of their righteousness may be known only to God, but the confidence that they existed can be known to us in hope.
Photo: Wall of Death at Auschwitz
On the feast day of John Paul II, I am remembering this anecdote from my time in Poland:
One day, after breakfast, I was sitting in Starbucks and an elderly gentleman began speaking to me in Polish.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Polish,” I told him.
The other day I asked a visiting priest responsible for Catholic higher education to speak to us about the most influential teachers in his life.
To this, he immediately responded that he has had many teachers throughout the course of his life who were alright but rather unremarkable. He noted that he thinks this is the case for most people. But, he insisted, there are, of course, those one or two teachers who stand out and whose influence upon you is something you will remember and cherish for your entire life.
As he said this, it was clear that he was conjuring up his own recollections of these special and extraordinary teachers. Gradually, he told us a few anecdotes about them.
Then, he encouraged us not to expect every teacher to be extraordinary but insisted that we do establish the hope of encountering at least some of them who are truly excellent.
“Given the choice between 5,000 decent but mediocre and lukewarm people or 4,999 heretics and one shining saint, I would definitely choose the heretics and the saint,” this priest said. “The saint makes the difference.”
Today while visiting my friends John and Sarah Beth in Houston, John brought home a book to show us titled, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Maraniss.
“I don’t find it easy or natural to think about death, but when I think about this book…” John began, excited to share with us the story of a noble life and death.
I had never heard of baseball player Roberto Clemente before but John’s sincere enthusiasm – and even reverence – for Clemente immediately signified to me his undeniable importance.
John told us that his passion for Clemente’s story was piqued in third grade. An excellent teacher had given the assignment of doing a biographical book report on any famous person he wanted to learn about, admired, or found interesting.