Today, another dimension of the inventive mind. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Our Art Museum is running an
exhibit on rescuers in the Holocaust. It's about
Gentiles who risked themselves to save Jews from
the Nazis. It's only a lot of photos of elderly men
and women -- Dutch, Polish, Hungarian, and German.
Only photos and some personal narrative text. How
could that reach anyone?
Well, it reached me. Here's a way-station in the
quest for human creativity that I haven't dealt
with. It's time I did.
Each tells a story. One hid one person, one hid
100. One was an atheist, one a Seventh Day
Adventist. One was wealthy, one poor. Intellectuals
and tradesmen. What's the common thread?
One says it's silly to speak of heroism. First you
agree to hide a suitcase. Then you invite the owner
in to spend the night. Soon you're risking your
life and dodging the Gestapo.
Surely that's not heroism. But then what is? As I
read through cases I see that circumstance put a
choice before each of these people. It was usually
just a little choice between prudence and risk.
These people had no choice but to choose risk.
And that's at the core of the creative act. I have
a friend, a wonderfully creative engineer, from
Hungary. He always turns situations around in the
light to see them the way others do not. He's been
rightly honored for his engineering. But few people
know what he did as a college student in Budapest.
He worked for the Swedish rescuer Raoul Wallenberg.
Wallenberg made Swedish citizens of Hungarian Jews
and set them up in safe houses. My friend was a
volunteer supply runner. Once he and several others
were caught. He escaped. The rest were shot.
He was just a bright kid, mentally prepared to
choose risk. No hero -- just putting his creative
wit to the cause of saving lives.
Here's a photo of an old couple at a kitchen table:
"We must've been crazy to take such risks for a
bunch of strangers," he says. "We'd never do that
again, would we?" "No, never!" she answers. There's
a beat of silence, then a great belly laugh. Of
course they'd do it again. They would recertify
So there is a common thread, after all. These
non-heroes had all, one way or another, readied
themselves long before. They were prepared to risk
-- to be human.
The poet Houseman once wrote,
Here dead we lie because we did not choose to
liveMany rescuers did die -- right along
with the Jews and Gypsies, homosexuals and Slavs. But
without that risk, they'd've been dead before they
began. And these people are all -- so alive.
And shame the land from whence we'd sprung.
Life to be sure is nothing much to lose
But young men think it is, and we were young.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds