Tracks of the Righteous

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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In 1943, people throughout war-torn Europe frequently walked the railroad tracks picking up refuse scattered in the gravel—rings and watches, articles of clothing; books, letters, diaries; sometimes items of great value, sometimes not; keepsakes priceless to someone but worthless to anyone else.

In 1943, the world was at war. European skies were filled with British and German fighters, American bombers.

Sometimes ordinary people discovered bodies along those tracks—legs akimbo, torsos bloodied, faces distorted—dead bodies beside brooaches, notes, and crumpled diaries. Ordinary people must have wondered who and why. Some of them at least—most of them?—must have known.

On January 20, 1942, in a suburb of Berlin, fourteen Nazi officials had ironed out the details of what they called “the Final Solution.” All of Europe would undergo “dejudification,” extermination of an entire race. Deportation was the means; mass murder was the end. Soon the Nazis filled trains to overflowing with Jewish people.

What those people walking along railroad tracks throughout Europe were finding was all that would soon remain of the millions mass-murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and elsewhere.

“The Final Solution” would have been impossible without the willful cooperation of thousands, maybe more—including ordinary people who walked along tracks and had to have understood something dreadful was going on.

When so many thousands ask no questions, those who do are remarkable, heroic. When the ordinary give in, those who will not are extraordinary.

Some resisted. Ordinary people put their lives on the line, even when their loved ones, their children, were at risk. “Greater love has no one than this,” the Bible says, “than he lay down his life for a friend.”

Diet Eman, young and in love at the beginning of the war, fell deeply into resistance work in the Netherlands with her fiancé Hein Systma. She told me her story, which later became a book, Things We Couldn’t Say. When first I spoke to her almost a dozen years ago, she didn’t want a war-time biography. “I did what many, many others did,” she told me. “We didn’t think of it as courageous—it was simply the right thing to do and we couldn’t have lived with ourselves if we hadn’t.”

At first when she told me such things, I thought her disingenuous—or full of feigned humility. Later I began to understand that she feigned nothing; she was telling the truth. She’d never wrestled with moral quandaries, because her heart was committed, as if unconsciously, to righteousness. Her words and actions—saving Jews otherwise bound for Auschwitz—came from her soul.

Jesus of Nazareth once told his disciples how the Son of Man would speak to those He loved in the last days. He would tell them how, when he was hungry, they fed him—when he was naked, they brought him clothing.

Then he said the righteous would have absolutely no idea they’d ever done what He’d said. “When did we do such things?” they’d ask, amazed.

Diet Eman was released from a concentration camp in 1944, but her fiancé never returned from Dachau. A year after the war ended, someone sent her a note found on a railroad track. It was from him, and it said—and she still has it—that he loved her. Then he repeats what she will never forget: “We will never be sorry for what we did.”

Today, Jewish people call rescuers like Diet Eman “righteous Gentiles.” I’m not sure any of our acts—or our words—deserve the adjective “righteous.” But some few of us do.

At least one lesson of Jesus’s story is that what we do and what we say rises from the very nature of our souls.

May we all be blessed with righteousness.