Compassion and courage. These traits in abundance are what struck Atenas-based folklorist, oral historian and author Mark Klempner in his work interviewing a very special group of people: Holocaust rescuers.
Klempner, the son of a Jewish immigrant to the United States who barely escaped the Holocaust, recorded the oral histories of dozens of Dutch citizens who risked their lives to save Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Holland.As he points out, “The only people who were taking action at that time against the terrible injustices in their society were those with tremendous compassion and courage.”
His research has culminated in the release of “The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage,” a 235-page hardcover book with 35 photos, published this year by The Pilgrim Press. The book provides a fresh look at the Holocaust rescuers, while exploring their motivations and values.
“I called it ‘The Heart Has Reasons’ because the common denominator among them all is that they felt a tug of the heart that they could not ignore,” Klempner says.
In his book, Klempner profiles 10 of the rescuers he interviewed, recounting their stories and exploring their character and values.
Among them is Hetty Voûte, who spent nearly two years in prisons and concentration camps because she helped to find hiding places for Jewish children.
“You can’t let people be treated in an inhuman way around you – otherwise you start to become inhuman,”Voûte comments.
Other rescuers equipped Jews with forged papers, transported them on bikes into hiding in the countryside, or hid entire Jewish families in their homes in Amsterdam or Utrecht. To help these victims of persecution was, to them, “just the human thing to do.” According to Klempner, they were propelled by a variety of religious, spiritual, humanitarian and political motivations.
He concludes that the rescuers had a lot in common: as children they all had parents or caregivers who had modeled caring behavior for them; in the course of their early lives, they had all developed the capacity to question authority and to think for themselves.As adults, they nearly always had acted spontaneously and with striking moral autonomy.
“Unlike some who would circumscribe their compassion by making sharp distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the rescuers cared about everybody,” Klempner says.
In addition, all shared a spirit of chesed, the Hebrew word for loving kindness, which Klempner says they extended to him personally.
One of the most touching encounters recounted in the book occurs during Klempner’s interview with Theo Leenders, a rescuer who, despite being a freethinking maverick, was a devout Catholic. After discussing the history of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church, right up to the lack of response by Pope Pius XII to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust, Leenders tearfully asks Klempner if he would forgive him for what Christians have done to Jews over the centuries. Klempner is awestruck by Leenders’ humility, and in his presence feels moved to respond from the heart, forgiving him spontaneously.
The author’s first experience of the capacity of ordinary people to take a stand against injustice occurred when, as a child on his father’s shoulders, he participated in the 1969 anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in Washington, D.C. Later, he became a studio guitarist in Los Angeles, but by the early 1990s he had grown disillusioned with the music industry, and eventually left it to attend college.
In 1996, as a junior at CornellUniversity in New York state, he applied for a fellowship to conduct research in Europe, and proposed that he interview Holocaust rescuers.
“Because of my family connection with the Holocaust, I wanted to try to finally come to terms with it,” Klempner says. “And because the people I’d known in L.A. were so self-centered, I had a longing to meet people who were capable of putting others first.”
Indeed, meeting the rescuers turned out to be a life-changing experience; he credits them with renewing his faith in humanity, and inspiring him to strive for a more caring society.
“They spoke with such strong spiritual conviction,” the author remembers, “that I think I caught some of it from them.”
When the book was first released last spring, an excerpt from it was published in Tikkun, a bimonthly magazine edited by Berkeley-based rabbi Michael Lerner. Lerner, who is also a philosopher and social commentator, had recently launched the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP), an interfaith movement that seeks to unite activism with the deep spiritual values that spark efforts for social change. Klempner soon became involved in the NSP, feeling that its aims and ideals were strikingly similar to those expressed by the Dutch rescuers.
Klempner’s enthusiasm is evident when he talks about the NSP.
“In the national as well as the international sphere, it seeks to enact spiritually conscious actions such as the Social Responsibility Amendment that would ensure that corporations make decisions based not only on their profitability but also on the repercussions of their actions on society,” he says.
He explains that the NSP is a movement shaped by the desire to change “the old bottom line” in our societies from one of selfishness and individualism to compassion and love for each other and the world around us.
“It sounds naïve,” he admits, “but in life we have to stand up for our ideals against all odds. That is what I learned from the rescuers, and it still is true today.”
Convinced that among the expatriate community here there would be people receptive to NSP’s ideas, Klempner, who moved to this country from New York five years ago and now lives in the coffee town of Atenas, northwest of San José, has recently started a Costa Rican chapter of the network.
“I think the goals of the NSP are exactly what religious liberals need to be pursuing right now,” he says. “Together we can make a difference in our own life and times, just as the rescuers did in theirs.”
To purchase a copy of “The Heart Has Reasons,” go to www.hearthasreasons.com.To learn more about the Network of Spiritual Progressives, visit www.spiritualprogressives.org. Klempner can be reached at 446-5768.