Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times

Beautiful Souls coverAt the close of 2013 I picked up a copy of the 2012 publication Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times. Recently released in paperback and written by journalist Eyal Press, this 196-page book follows the stories of four everyday people who chose to stand up in the face of injustice against their fellow humans.

For Paul Gruninger, commander of the state police in St Galen, a border town in Switzerland, this meant allowing Jewish refugees into the nation even as his own government outlawed their entry in the years preceding the Holocaust. In the case of Aleksander Jevtic this entailed risking his life to save Croatian friends and strangers when his own ethnic group, the Serbians, took over the town during the Yugoslav Wars.

Avner Wishnitzer was a member of the Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando force in the Israeli Army when be began to have deep moral qualms with the military’s treatment of Palestinians, eventually founding the group Combatants for Peace, “a group of Israeli and Palestinian exfighters who put down their guns to promote reconciliation and dialogue.” And for financial broker Leyla Wydler standing up meant asking questions about the shady investing practices at Stanford Group Company, where she eventually helped to expose a large ponzi scheme that left many older citizens bankrupt.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how Press calls into question the oft-held cultural assumption that we admire and honor truth tellers, justice seekers, and whistle blowers. As the author makes clear, none of these men and women were lauded as heroes, save Gruninger, who finally received a small plaque on his grave years after his death. (During his own life he lost his job, was rejected by his town, and remained impoverished until death).

Most of the people featured in the book remain outcasts years after they took a stand, misunderstood by their former co-workers and friends who often felt betrayed and/or exposed by their actions. Yet each of these truth-tellers say they would make the same decisions again. Pulling together first hand interviews and weaving in research from the fields of psychology and neuroscience, Beautiful Souls explores how and why each person came to these decisions and how these decisions affected the rest of their lives and the lives of their families.

This isn’t a simple feel-good read about brave people. It’s a close look at our society’s unwillingness to address moral complexity and/or listen to the stories of those who stand up for the groups of people we’d rather ignore or demonize. It shows how easy it is to ignore another’s pain when that person looks or acts differently. And it explores how willing we are to overlook injustice when it comes with deep pockets. In the end it’s a deeply sobering and inspiring read, requiring us to ask questions about where we stand here and now.

Avner Wishnitzer, the third man profiled in the book who formed the group to bring Palestinians and Israelis together, offers up his own sense of awakening when discussing the powerful words he once heard from a professor showing a film about the Holocaust. “He said, “Look, the biggest crimes in the history of humanity were carried out by very few people. Most people were just bystanders, onlookers. They didn’t take part actively—they just let it happen.” Taking to heart the professor’s words Wishnitzer continues, “I realized there is no privilege in being a bystander.”

Have you read the book? I’d love to hear your take on it. Thanks so much for reading!

Resources and further reading:

Eyal Press on NPR

Eyal Press on Democracy Now!: 

The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with theMcElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Com