Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 746: HEROES

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 746.

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 their humanity.

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 live
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.
Many 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.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Block, G. and Drucker, M., Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust. New York: Holmes & Meier Pubs., Inc., 1992.

If you simply search the web for the words "rescuers" and "holocaust" you will find a great deal of very affecting material. These heroes of conscience are gratefully and repeatedly honored by those whom they saved.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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