'Beautiful Souls' Who Listened To Their Hearts In Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, journalist Eyal Press writes about four ordinary people who took great risks to help others.
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'Beautiful Souls' Who Listened To Their Hearts

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'Beautiful Souls' Who Listened To Their Hearts

'Beautiful Souls' Who Listened To Their Hearts

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. In 1938, Paul Gruninger was a police officer on the Swiss-Austrian border. He was Swiss. When the Nazis came to power in Austria, Jews living in Austria headed for the Swiss border, and Officer Gruninger, who was there, was supposed to turn them back.

But he let them in, and in fact he falsified their documents in order to let them in. A lot of lives were saved that way. But then Gruninger was discovered doing what he was doing, and he was fired. Who was he? Well, he was a rather ordinary, non-confrontational, most-of-the-time conformist, church-going conservative man.

So where did this extraordinary act of righteousness come from? Well, that's what Eyal Press explores in his new book called "Beautiful Souls," where he tells Gruninger's story and those of other unexceptional people who nevertheless took great risks. And he asks why and how they did it, and what did it cost them, because it always costs something.

If this is your story in any way, if you've done the right thing, no matter how small, did you pay a price for doing so? And was it worth it? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, is technology rendering spelling obsolete? One Wired writer and her editor debate. But first Eyal Press, who is the author of "Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, And Heeding The Voice of Conscience In Dark Times." He joins us from our bureau in New York. Eyal, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

EYAL PRESS: Thank you for having me.

DONVAN: So Paul Gruninger's story you say isn't ordinary, and yet you found in researching him that he was rather an ordinary man, and that seeming conflict baffled you and fascinated you. So how did you find his story in the first place?

PRESS: Well, I actually found his story while reading about gentiles who assisted Jews, took great risks during World War II to save the lives of Jews. And it jumped out at me in part because, as you say, there was nothing about this man, on the surface at least, that would have led you to pick him out and think here is the guy who would do this defiant thing, who would break the law in his own country.

As you say, in 1938 the Swiss government passed a law telling all officers to stop - to tighten border restrictions and to bar Jews from entering the country without restriction. And Gruninger was the commander of the state police in St. Gallen, a canton of Switzerland that shared a large border with Austria.

And everyone else who receives this order pretty much follows it. Gruninger, told not to make any exceptions, makes hundreds of exceptions.

DONVAN: Hundreds of them, wow.

PRESS: Possibly thousands. We don't actually know the exact number. But I was just fascinated, and I started digging into the story and actually went to St. Gallen. I met Gruninger's daughter; he is not alive. He's the only character in my book who actually isn't living. But I did meet his daughter, and I went back and tried to figure out, how is it, what was it about this man that made him do what he did?

DONVAN: And your answer?

PRESS: Well, there were two things that stuck out about Gruninger. One, and it relates to a larger theme that sort of comes up in every story in the book, he made what the authorities in Switzerland consider a big mistake. He did not delegate the job of turning the Jews who were coming into Switzerland to a subordinate or to someone else.

He actually let these refugees come to the police headquarters, talk to him, beg him for help. He had direct contact with them. And it made it much harder. He indeed told his daughter, having seen the looks in the eyes of these people, he could not bring himself to do anything else.

And if you look at the - at social psychology experiments, or indeed read histories about violence, we often find that proximity, proximity to the victims is one of the important things that enables people, unfortunately - I'm sorry, the lack or proximity to the victims enables people to do things and not feel responsible for them, not really see the anguish.

Gruninger did see the anguish, and yet there was something else as well, because as I say in the book, there certainly were people on that border, in - exactly where he was who did see these people and nevertheless turned them away. So there was something else about Gruninger.

And this second quality was that he actually was a very devoted Swiss patriot, and he believed very deeply in the idea of Switzerland as a safe haven for refugees. So he thought, when he was letting these people in, that he was doing something that eventually, when people learned about it, of course they would forgive him. They would think, well, this was the right thing to do. This was a quintessentially Swiss thing to do.

As you mentioned in your introduction, it didn't work out that way. He was caught. He was tried. He was - he lost his job. He then went into a state of penury and social isolation. He took on all kinds of odd jobs to try to make a living. He was not rehabilitated until 1993, which was 22 years after his death, 45 years after he did this amazingly transgressive thing.

DONVAN: So you say it's the combination of his actually seeing the people in distress face to face and his believing in the values of Switzerland - it sounds like kind of an old-fashioned, conservative, small-C-conservative way, that he was a - he believed in old-fashioned values. And that value of Switzerland is we give asylum. And it was no more complicated than that.

In other words, he wasn't standing up to the Nazis. He didn't have a great record of humanitarianism. He was - essentially you're saying he was motivated by something that sounds, on the surface of it, rather simple, or let me put it this way, not complex.

PRESS: Well, it sounds, I suppose, traditional, and in a way it is. And just to be clear, I'm not saying this is true of every kind of dissent or disobedience. Certainly we have people who act in the name of, say, an ideological conviction who want to thumb their noses at the system or the establishment.

But this book that I've written is about a different kind of non-conformist. It's the insider who very much believes and identifies with the ideals of the system. This would be Gruninger. This would also be the financial industry whistleblower I profile in another chapter. It's also true of some of the prosecutors who were sent to Guantanamo.

If you look at the people who had crises of conscience in some of these situations, you don't find people who were - you know, who wanted to overthrow the system but rather people who believed very much, in the case of the Guantanamo prosecutor I profile, really, you know, a very patriotic man, believed in the Constitution and simply believed that what was being done couldn't be squared with those very traditional ideals.

DONVAN: So their act of apparent disloyalty to the system was actually an act of loyalty to the system.

PRESS: It was an attempted act, I suppose, to hold the system accountable to its own ideals and to salvage both their own integrity and its integrity.

DONVAN: Well, talk a bit more about some of the other examples that you bring up in the book. You have four core stories and then other small examples. But your bottom line: Does this - you come away from this process of looking at these ordinary-seeming people making these extraordinary leaps of faith in what's right.

Does it leave you encouraged for the human condition, given that in all of their circumstances, so many other people were standing around not doing the right thing?

PRESS: Well, I would say yes and no. In a sense, we shouldn't be surprised that so many people didn't do what they did because, as you say, they paid a terrible price. They took great risks. They were not treated well. And this wasn't just true - we tend to think of these risks as existing in totalitarian countries, in, you know, brutal police states.

But similar - if not quite as severe, but very real risks exist when you break ranks in a democracy. You lose your job. You can lose the respect of your community, your co-workers. You can be seen as a rat or a troublemaker or a traitor. And to tell that part of these stories was - it was hard to find that uplifting. It's hard not - for me not to feel a terrible sense of injustice at what some of these people were put through, Gruninger included.

On the other hand, I think that the book actually is, on another level, quite inspiring, and I found it inspiring to meet the people that I wrote about and to think about what they did. And the reason I found it inspiring is that, you know, in so many of the books about defiance of this kind, we tend to read - it's almost like we're reading less about human beings than about sort of heroes of goodness or saintly figures, you know, people who are so noble in their compassion and intentions that...

DONVAN: They're impossible.

PRESS: They're impossible, right. And we look at them, and we say: OK, that's great, you know, but I'm not Mandela. You know, I'm not Martin Luther King. I'm not this, you know, Mother Teresa type. So - and in a sense I think when we put people on that kind of pedestal, without even knowing it, we relieve ourselves of the burden of even trying to emulate their example.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Brent(ph) from Tucson, Arizona. Brent, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. What's your story?

BRENT: Hi, guys, how are you doing?


BRENT: Yeah, I stood up to some drug dealers that were living in a mobile park that I owned a home in. And as a direct result, I got my mom to move over there because it was a retired park, and she belonged there probably more than I did. In the process, she was brushing elbows with them, and I ended up jumping on one of the drug dealers. So I ended up getting evicted out of my house.

Those charges got dropped, but I found out my mother was drugging me, and I have a father that was murdered when I was two, and I have a baby son that was, I believe, murdered, he had a swollen medullary gland. So in the process of doing the right thing, I may have come to some deeper justice for my own family.

DONVAN: So do you regret - given that, do you regret what you did?

BRENT: No, I would rather know the truth than have my house and my business and half of my possessions that I lost.

DONVAN: All right, Brent, thanks for sharing that story. It sounds incredibly painful. But again, it goes to your point, Eyal, that there's a price to pay, very, very often for these things.

PRESS: Very much so, and I think that one of the prices that people pay - if I can jump ahead a little to talking about the one American character in the book is - was a financial industry worker who worked at a firm where she was told to sell a financial instrument, and she felt it was being misleadingly advertised.

She asked some questions, she got fired. She was forced to pay her bonus back. It turned out that the company she worked for was Stanford Financial, running what became the second-largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, second only to the Madoff scandal. Now, this...

DONVAN: Eyal, I need to ask you to stop mid-story. We'll be coming back right after the break and we'll finish it up. We're talking with Eyal Press about his book "Beautiful Souls," which is a story of ordinary-seeming people who do extraordinarily righteous and brave things by doing right. We'll be right back. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. "Ordinary Men" by Christopher Browning is the story of a division of German order police that rounded up and executed Jewish villagers in a Polish village during World War II. Before the massacre took place, however, the commander gave his older men the option to lay down their guns and walk away, not participate, and a dozen of them actually took him up on his offer.

That is the story that inspired Eyal Press to write his own book, "Beautiful Souls," about non-conformists who opt to resist, to say no in morally compromising situations. You can read more about the German battalion in an excerpt from his book at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And if this is your story, where you took a stand and did the right thing, we want to know what motivated you, and we want to know, did you pay a price for doing so, and was it worth it. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Eyal Press is my guest. I want to welcome you back, Eyal, and you were telling the story of Leila Wilder(ph), who was a corporate whistleblower, in Texas I think you said, who exposed some questionable practices at the Stanford International Bank.

PRESS: Correct.

DONVAN: And you were talking about what drove her, what motivated her.

PRESS: Well, what drove her was - as I said before, she really just started out asking questions. She didn't feel that she was being given the full facts. She wanted to know - she wanted to make sure - in a sense she was just doing her job. You know, if I'm going to sell these - if I'm going to encourage my clients to buy this financial product, I want to make sure they don't lose their money.

DONVAN: She almost - in a sense, she just needed the arithmetic to work.

PRESS: She needed the arithmetic to work. She needed facts. And she is that kind of person, very inquisitive, wants to know - which you'd hope a lot of brokers handling other people's money indeed are.

It turns out that she developed these suspicions, and in 2003 she, after losing her job, sends an anonymous letter to the SEC saying I think there's a massive fraud going on. I think it's a Ponzi scheme, and a lot of people are going to lose their money.

And she spends a year or two trying to get attention, trying to warn. Nothing happens. Now, let's skip ahead, and 2009 the truth emerges, and Stanford is on the front page of every newspaper. It has indeed run a Ponzi scheme. Thousands of people have been defrauded.

Now, you would think after all of that that the people like Leila, and I met a few other whistleblowers inside, who said the right thing, who did the right thing, who raised the right questions, that in a sense they would be the people being saluted right now. And yet that's not the case.

Now, one of the reasons it's not the case was, you know, expressed to me by another whistleblower inside the company who said, look, we are symbols of what other people should have done, and that's a very uncomfortable thing to be, right, because after all, if...

DONVAN: You remind everybody that they didn't really live up to it.

PRESS: That's right, that's right. And if Leila did - if Leila knew enough or could at least ask some questions to know enough in 2002, 2003, what was everyone else doing all those years?

DONVAN: So does Leila feel, in the end, that it was not worth it, that she should have kept her nose out of it and continued to just work there or just go somewhere else and say nothing?

PRESS: I don't think she feels that. I think that, you know, she definitely - when I asked her that, there was some hesitation. You know, I asked: You know, would you do it again, looking and seeing how your warnings were ignored for so many years and so forth?

It was not the easiest question to answer because she's - as anyone who reads her story in my book will see, she went through so much, and it was such a difficult thing. On the other hand, to not have done it would have been to betray something very - larger in herself. And I think that that's a common thread in the characters in the book, that ultimately whatever price they pay, the one thing they can say is that they have a sense of wholeness and integrity that is difficult to - it's often intangible, but it's a very real and very deep thing.

DONVAN: Andrew from Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ANDREW: Yes, I - my own thing is much smaller than the things that you mention. I simply spoke up against increasing tuition and decreasing the maximum number of credit hours available at full-time tuition at a university. And I knew people who would - it would make them, you know, perhaps take an extra year to graduate because of this.

DONVAN: And what happened?

ANDREW: They made my job cease to exist. (Unintelligible) they fired me, although they didn't, you know, they didn't terminate me in that quite of a sense.

DONVAN: And you feel there was a direct connection between your speaking out on tuition increases?

ANDREW: Probably. I mean, I was criticized for it, and I mean...

DONVAN: Well, who was to be hurt by...

ANDREW: I mean, I don't have, you know, absolute, unambiguous evidence that that was the case. I mean there's other things that, you know, that could have been behind things, just the fact that there was, you know, an effort at cost containment, and I was seen as one of those costs.

DONVAN: All right, Andrew, I'm sorry that that happened for you, but thanks for sharing your story with us. I want to go to Carly(ph) in Nashville, Tennessee. Carly, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CARLY: Hi, thanks for taking my call.


CARLY: I'm a teacher, and I was teaching in a special ed class - can you hear me OK?

DONVAN: Yeah, absolutely well.

CARLY: OK, sorry. But I was substitute teaching here. I was teaching a special ed class. My Master's degree is in special education. I was teaching in a life skills class. And the teacher's assistant talked to me as if I shouldn't really be teaching the children.

I followed the lesson plans. Every child has an IEP, so the lessons are individualized for them. I followed everything. I enjoyed my day with the children. And then I get a letter saying I'm banned from teaching, which goes on my record, which has made it really hard to find a job, because I taught these kids.

And we had such a wonderful learning day together, and it...

DONVAN: Carly, what was everybody else doing? In other words, why were you trouble for them by teaching the kids? I don't quite understand what the rest of the game was there.

CARLY: The assistants actually loved me. They had me fill out a form so that they could use me over and over until I found a permanent position, and it was that form that the real teacher, when she returned, filled out and said that I over-taught, I should never work with special education children.

I've seen this in more classrooms than one, where the real teachers don't really work with the children. They see it as babysitting, because life skills, you have children who maybe have severe autism, children who are born with maybe fetal alcohol syndrome, and these children are - in my opinion they're looked down upon as if they cannot learn.

And they're treated - and I've seen this in many classrooms. They are treated like animals, and it's very sad, especially for somebody who has a Master's degree, who is passionate. We had a wonderful day. It came out of nowhere. But for the rest of my career, I'm going to have to defend why am I banned from the school for actually teaching, doing what I'm trained to do with a Master's degree.

DONVAN: Carly, thanks very much for sharing your story with us. Eyal Press, I mean, I don't want to put you in a position on commenting on these stories because we - you don't know the facts of them. But there are things to extract. Number one is the hurt and pain that people feel in the isolation, sense of isolation when they do something well, and also just the specter - we talked about it a little bit more - of everybody else standing around, everybody else standing around not doing the right thing.

And to go back to the case of Leila Wilder, as you said, her doing what was right in a sense made everybody else feel bad. That would make her, you know, definitely unpopular. But I'm also interested in what thought you've given to people who do see what's going on and let it slide.

Going back to Paul Gruninger, you know, the fact that there were a lot of people who couldn't actually see what was going on, and is there that, as you said, the lack or proximity, the distance, or perhaps, you know, the sense that you're only a very, very small part of the process, and Leila Wilder was a small part of the process.

But because you only have a small piece of the action, a small piece of the machine, does that give us psychologically a pass on thinking that we really are responsible for what's happening?

PRESS: Absolutely, absolutely, and in fact I tell the story in my book about - and it's in the chapter on Paul Gruninger. We of course all have heard of the famous Milgram experiments in which people were taken into - it was a shock - it was an experiment that was a learning experiment, and every time an actor answered wrongly, a person was asked to shock the person.

And before the experiment began, Milgram and others thought very few Americans would continue shocking this person. It turned out that two-thirds of the people did, and one of the lessons that has been extracted from that is that, well, human beings have a penchant to be obedient and to follow orders.

If you look at what actually transpired in that experiment, most of the people didn't want to do what they were doing, and they complained, and they told Milgram: I don't want to do this. But when he said to them, you know, you're not responsible, I'm responsible, Yale University is responsible, which was overseeing the experiment, then a lot of them continued on.

And I tell that story in the Gruninger chapter because I think it's relevant not only to his story but indeed to all stories of - you know, it's very easy to disavow responsibility in situations where there are people above us in the chain of command and also people below us.

And so the really difficult thing is to say, well, you know, my small part of this actually does matter. I do have responsibility. And in the stories in this book, people make that leap. They - instead of looking for someone else to blame or to assign the responsibility to, they take it on themselves.

DONVAN: I also want to mention, just in terms of the book, you cover four stories. I need to tell you that it's a beautifully written book, and I want our listeners to know that. And one of the stories you tell that's, to me, is most fascinating - you're a character in this story, because you travel through the book, trying to meet these people and understand them. There's a man named Aleksander Jevtic - I believe I'm pronouncing that correctly...


DONVAN: ...who was a Serbian soldier, a Serbian soldier who, in the '90s, saved the lives of a lot of Croats who, at that time, were the - in a conflict with the Serbs. He saved a lot of lives. And you seemed just so very disappointed by how un-heroic he turned out to be when you met him. He just sounds a little bit like a lug who spent his time watching sports on television and drinking beer, and you wanted so much more from him. But first, tell us what he did, and then let's talk a little bit about your reaction to him.

PRESS: What he did was he was in a prison camp and - among a number of men in Serbia, and the prisoners were...

DONVAN: He was not a prisoner, I want to make clear.

PRESS: He was one of the prisoners...

DONVAN: Right.

PRESS: ...and he had been brought over after the Serbs captured the city of Vukovar in Croatia. They brought the men to a prison camp in Serbia. And most of the prisoners in that camp were Croats, but some of them were Serbs. And the Serb guards running the prison knew that. And they needed someone - Serbs and Croats look alike. They speak the same language. How could they sift out the Serbs?

Well, one of the guards recognizes this man, Aleksander Jevtic, and he says to him, oh, I know you. We served together in the Yugoslav National Army. Why don't you help us with something important? Pick out the Serbs here, and we'll put them in a separate place so that they won't be harmed, so that they won't be beaten and abused and mistreated.

Jevtic goes on to start making up Serbian names for one prisoner after another, people who turned out to be Croats, not Serbs, and basically saved all of these men from who knows what kind of mistreatment and abuse.

And as you say, I - before meeting him, I did expect to meet a kind of refined intellectual, someone who had very well-articulated positions against ethnic nationalism and war and all these things. And he turns out to be a very ordinary man, in many ways, and yet also a man of exceptional courage and a man of great moral imagination, someone who was able to hold on to an ethic of tolerance in a situation where he literally was risking his own life.

DONVAN: And do you think that, given the chance again and again and again, that's who he would emerge as? Or was this a one-time impulse that came over him, he can't even explain it himself?

PRESS: Well, that's a good question. It's hard to answer. I mean, Aleksander Jevtic is not someone who emerged from that prison - and he did eventually make it out - and campaigned against the war. You know, he was not one of these people who went around, saying, OK, I saw something terrible. Now I have to do everything in my power to make it stop.

What he did was the right thing in the situation, and that's enormous, and that's an extraordinary thing. But, you know, he did not take that and lead it to a sort of full-fledged political commitment - which, by the way, other characters in the book do take that second step, in a sense. They do something. They see something. They have an awakening. And it transforms not just what they do in that moment, but what they go on to do and how they view the world.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I want to bring in Ken from Sunnyvale, California, who's been listening to the program. And, Ken, what's your story?

KEN: My story is I was - I grew up in a blue collar family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and graduated from high school in 1965. And I was very much in favor of the war in Vietnam. Then I went to University of Pittsburgh, and by the time I graduated, I was very much against the war in Vietnam.

And I didn't - I don't know if I'd actually call it courageous, but I became so against the war, I actually became an Air Force officer and tried to think that I was just a cog in the machine. It didn't matter that - eventually, it played on my conscience so much that I joined a nationwide group of officers against the war. We operated out of Ron Dellums' office in Berkeley.

And then I wore my Air Force officer's uniform. While I was on active duty, I went to three anti-war demonstrations in San Francisco, and I was threatened with court martial. And I told them I was willing to go to jail to end the war in Vietnam.

DONVAN: And Ken, the folks that you came from - your family, your friends, the community that you came from - did they support you in this, or were they - did they feel that you are a traitor?

KEN: Well, back in Pittsburgh, I think - I know my mother - eventually, she supported me. And most of my relatives thought I was a commie pinko, I think, really, so I didn't get a lot of support there. But I was living in California. I was - I'd gotten married. And what they thought didn't really matter, but I just had this sort of moral...

DONVAN: And what do - and, Ken, what do you feel hearing the stories that Eyal writes about in the book, that - Paul Gruninger, that Swiss officer, and Leyla Wydler, who was the corporate whistleblower? Do you look at them and you think they're like me? Or do you think they're different from you?

KEN: I think they're exactly like me. I'm just, you know, just a blue-collar kid from Pittsburgh who made it through college and lives in the Silicon Valley. And I didn't - I really didn't suffer anything because of that particularly, but at the time, I was prepared to go to jail and I was expecting to go to jail. And I ended up - everything ended up, you know, working out very well in my life. But at the time, it took a little bit of courage.

I think these people are probably the same as I was. They just had a - this moral - my moral compass just went crazy, and I just had to do something to end the war. I don't think I was that instrumental in ending the war. I don't take that much credit for it, but at the time it was - it's the only thing I've done in my life and I would think it's courage, you know.

DONVAN: When you say your moral compass went crazy, do you mean it was all over the place, or do you mean it surprised you by how focused it actually was?

KEN: Oh, I was just so opposed to the war in Vietnam - you know, things like the My Lai massacre. Also, I was working at Travis Air Force Base where the bodies were coming back from Vietnam, and so I kind of saw it every day, you know, and it was on the news every day. But I was never actually in Vietnam. But just knowing that I was contributing my little part to keep the war going kind of drove my moral compass crazy, and I just had to do something.

DONVAN: Ken, thanks for your story. Eyal, you want to comment on that?

PRESS: Well, Ken's story, in a sense, calls to mind, for me, the story I tell of an Israeli soldier in the book who grew up incredibly patriotic - his name is Abner Vishner - and really wanted nothing more than to serve in the top unit of the Israeli army, defend his country, fight for his country. And indeed, he goes on to do that. He ends up having a transformation, much like the one Ken describes, and takes it beyond just himself and ends up being a member - a founding member of a group now called Combatants for Peace.

DONVAN: I want to tell everybody the book is called "Beautiful Souls" by Eyal Press. There's an excerpt on it on npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Eyal, thanks for joining us.

PRESS: Thank you so much for having me on.

DONVAN: So coming up: a great debate. Should we bend the rules on spelling in the digital age? A writer and editor weigh in. Stay with us. I'm John Donvan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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