Archive | January, 2015

C’est La Vie

28 Jan

I am sure that, on the morning he became a hero, Lassana Bathily simply planned to go about his day, going to work in the stockroom of the kosher market where he was employed.  I am sure that he did not plan on becoming a media sensation because of his innate intelligence and courage.  I am sure he didn’t seek the spotlight or the responsibility for the lives he saved that brought him to the world’s attention.

However, as a favorite saying on mine goes, “Man plans and G-d laughs,” although I don’t seriously think that G-d was laughing when he saw the events unfolding in Paris on January 9, 2015.  That, however, is beside the point.

G-d’s reaction notwithstanding, a young man took heroic actions that day, and saved a dozen people.

I don’t know the exact details of the story except that Mssr. Bathily was in the basement stockroom when the first gunfire rang out.  Grabbing the customers that he could, he moved them to a refrigerator case, turned off the cold and locked them inside.  He cautioned them not to make noise or the gunmen would hear.  I saw pictures of the people in the hiding place taken on someone’s cell phone.  At least one mother cradled her child in her arms. To me, this is the most awful image, a throwback to the apocryphal story of the mother having to smother her crying child to save others hidden with her.

Mssr. Bathily was already working on an escape plan.  He thought he could get people out of the building through an alternate door, but the hostages were too scared to leave; afraid that their movement would alert the gunmen to their presence and end in their execution.  So Mssr. Bathily, a Black man from the African country of Mali, set out on his own. This is relevant because a Black Moslem could be mistaken for a terrorist and in fact, when he got outside, the police thought that he was a gunman and handcuffed him for more than an hour until a coworker helped to convince them that Bathily was who he said he was.

Once he was freed, and who of us would still be in the mood to help after being treated as a criminal, Bathily explained the layout of the store and gave the police a key to get into the building through the gated windows that protected the store.  Ultimately, it was his plan that led to a successful resolution of the events at the Hyper Cacher Market. His plan, not the police’s plan, because they had no orders to move forward.

As someone who has read many books about “rescuers,” those amazing people who risk everything to save other people’s lives, I have often thought about the inevitable question: why do some people like Lassana Bathily, do the “right thing,” the unbelievably courageous thing, and others turn their backs.  When asked why took the actions that he did, Bathily’s response was an almost comically philosophical, “C’est la vie.”  “It’s life.”  But is it just life that makes people behave heroically, or is it something more.

At Yad Vashem the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel, there are nearly than 26,000 names of people who woke up each day and went about their business, but their “business” involved saving people’s lives.  Some of the names are very familiar to all of us.  These are names like Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, and Miep Gies.  These people were famously altruistic, risking their own lives (and in the case of Wallenberg, losing his life) in the cause of saving innocents.  There are other names you should know, so-called  “Lights Among the Nations”.  Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, was second only to Wallenberg in the number of lives he saved by using his diplomatic connections and writing hundreds of exit visas that secured safe passage for European Jews.  As a “reward” for his humanity, the Japanese government stripped him of his livelihood and his honor.  However, when asked why he saved people’s lives, he replied that these were human beings who needed to be saved.  A hereditary samurai, he practiced the code that, when a bird comes to you for shelter, you must save it. So did Sugihara save approximately 6000 “birds” in flight for their lives.

You might never have heard of Irena Opdyke who was a Polish nursing student at the beginning of World War II.  Captured, first by the Russians and then by the Germans, she was enslaved and put in charge of the household of a Nazi officer.  One day, she saw from her window, another Nazi shoot a Jewish baby that he had thrown in the air for target practice. This was the watershed moment in which Irena determined to save lives any way that she could. Her outrageous method of saving Jews was to hide them in the basement of the Nazi officer’s house.  However, when the elderly officer discovered what she had done, he struck a devil’s bargain, Irena’s virtue for the lives of strangers. And so it happened that this lovely Polish girl became the mistress of a Nazi to save Jewish lives.

Another Irena, Irena Sendler, was a Polish social worker who went in and out of the Warsaw ghetto, smuggling 2500 Jewish children to safety with Polish families who kept them hidden for the length of the war.  Sendler did one more thing that made her mission stand out from other rescues.  She kept the names of each child she saved in a bottle and buried the bottle so that, after the war, she could try to reunite children with their birth parents, if the parents survived.

There is one more story you should know about a righteous person. His name was Si Kaddour  Benghabrit, and he was the imam of the Great Mosque of Paris. The Mosque was more a community center than just a house of worship.  Within its walls were apartments beautiful gardens, a true city oasis.  Also within the walls, thanks to the Moslem rector, were Jews hidden either for a short time or a longer time. Many of the Jews were of North African heritage so they easily could pass for Moslems, themselves.  With Paris under siege by the Nazis, the Imam hid Jews both in the comfortable apartments of the Mosque and in the catacombs that wound under the grounds.  In the true Islamic tradition, this man of G-d offered safety and a haven to people being hunted by their enemies.

There have been studies done as to why some people rise so heroically to the occasion. There are, in fact, a number of critical factors:

  • Events or individuals bring tragedy to their door: Usually the “savior” doesn’t just go out and find a heroic deed to be done.  During the war, it was usually a family friend or neighbor who involved the “savior” by asking for protection.  It is this initial invitation that starts the events in motion that end in heroism. Most of us are familiar with the story of Anne Frank and how her father went to the employees of his factory, asking them to endanger themselves to save his family and others by hiding them and providing for their care for two years.
  • A dramatic event impacts the rescuer’s perception: in almost every case, a “savior” witnessed particular brutality and determined that he or she had to intervene, even at the risk of his or her own life. People being witness to a particularly brutal beating or execution, as in the case of Irena Opdyke, may make the person painfully aware of their need to act.
  • An innate sense of goodness directed the “saviors” actions: it is no accident that so many rescuers were members of the clergy, social workers, or medical professional. Not only did their professions give them the ability to travel back and forth more easily among the victims, but it also informed a lifelong determination to do good.  However, many people simply have lived lives of dedication.  Janusz Korczak was a well-known Polish radio personality who started an orphanage for Jewish children.  When the Nazis issued a call-up notice for his young charges, he accompanied the children to Auschwitz to help them remain calm.
  • A practical and calm mindset: rescuing people is not a whimsical decision. There is usually a plan involved and the people who direct rescues are practical minded and often clever.  If their plans failed, not only they, themselves, are compromised but others are put at risk. Rescuers usually had to build a network, or become part of a network, of people to keep their charges alive.  Good seldom happened in isolation.
  • The knowledge that their rewards must come from within or not at all: real “saviors” do not go into the business of rescue for the glory. They are driven by something deeper, be it religious conviction or a moral compass that points them in the direction of good deeds.  As was the case of Chiune Sugihara, his own country condemned his actions, but he and his wife operated from a different place, a place of goodness and heroism.
  • A certainty that every life is worthy: a person who sets out to save another may sacrifice themselves in the process. During the war, the Nazis punished the rescuers as harshly, or more harshly, than the people that they kept hidden. Many of the rescuers went to their own deaths in the concentration camps but did so knowing that they had operated from a moral high ground when trying to save other human beings.

So it seems to be in the case of Lassana Bathily, a 24-year-old immigrant working a menial job in a kosher grocery store.  However, one day he was presented with an opportunity and saw specific events that motivated him to act in a positive way to save a dozen lives of strangers.  Despite the fact that he was initially punished for his very appearance as an African man and a Moslem, he maintained his moral compass and demonstrated the practicality that saved lives and brought to an end a hostage situation. In every sense of the word, this ordinary young man displayed extraordinary moral fiber when it was needed.

Sadly, the world presents many incidents of people who are intrinsically evil and who, in the name of politics, misguided religious motives, or pure insanity turn on their fellow human beings.  However, for the rest of us to remain sane, I have to believe that nature has provided an equal and opposite impulse to do good and to demonstrate nascent virtues of strength and mettle. I believe those qualities lie dormant in many people and are not limited by gender, race, or religion.  The difference is how human beings choose to act on their impulses to do good when faced with evil.

Lassana Bathily was thanked by the President of France and the Prime Minister Israel for his service to humanity and his bravery.  His response was, “C’est la vie.”  However, what this brave man, the “Malian Muslim” did was not just life.  It was a supreme exhibition of the vestiges of goodness that surface in human beings at the worst of times.

It is a basic principle of both Judaism and Islam that, to save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.  Lassana Bathily saved the world a dozen times over, that Friday.  And that is a momentous thing.

To learn more about specific rescues during the World War II, please read some of the following books, many aimed at children but of interest to adults:

The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust, by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix.


In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked his Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews From the Holocaust, by Hillel Levine.


Irena’s Jars of Secrets, by Marcia Vaughan.


Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family, by Miep Gies and Leslie Gold.


The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II, by Alex Kershaw.


In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, by Irena Gut Opdyke.


-Written by Lois Gross, Senior Children’s Librarian

Out of Time: Kage Baker, Connie Willis, and Groundhogs Day

21 Jan

A popular thought experiment is to decide where you would like to travel in time (my top three would be: back to see the dinosaurs, Victorian England, or a future moon colony on Mars).  Elements of time travel have been used in classic works like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.  Right now we have the hugely popular Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon and the continuing phenomenon of Doctor Who.  So if you are like me and can’t get enough of the “wibbily wobbly timey wimey” stuff as David Tennet’s Doctor would say, check out time travel works by two of my favorite Science Fiction Authors and my favorite time travel movie, Groundhog Day.

Kage Baker’s The Company Series


Kage Baker is one of my favorite authors.  She unfortunately passed away too soon in January of 2010 at the age of 41.  Some of the unfinished works she left behind were published after her passing, but I’m sure she had many more amazing works in her.  We are, however, lucky that she concluded her excellent science fiction series The Company.  The novels chronicle the tales of cyborgs who are created when members of Dr. Zeus Inc (or “The Company”) travel back in time and grant immortality through technology to children who would have been killed at a young age.  The operatives’ mission is then to live forward in time and to preserve objects of art and endangered species for future generations.  The company’s efforts are not simply altruistic though and these efforts create a vast fortune for the organization in the future.

The first book, The Garden of Iden, is set during Renaissance England and centers around Mendoza, a new operative who has just come of age and is on her first mission.  She is trained as a botanist and because she had to live through the Spanish Inquisition during her mortal life she expects to want nothing to do with the regular humans around her, but that changes when she meets the passionate Nicholas Harpole, Sir Walter Iden’s secretary who also resides at the estate where Mendoza has been stationed.  This book packs inside a love story, a coming of age tale, science fiction, and historical satire.  The series in later books continues to explore in greater depth the mysterious Company and follows the stories of a variety of the operatives; the next novel in the series focuses on Mendoza’s mentor and father figure, Joseph, but fans of Mendoza will be pleased to know that she reappears throughout the books.  She plays a pivotal role in the last Company novel, The Sons of Heaven, which reveals what happens in July 9, 2355 when all transmissions from Dr. Zeus to its operatives mysteriously stop.

Connie Willis’ Time Traveling Historians

Connie Willis is another favorite author of mine.  She has written several time travel books that while not a “series” all take place in the same alternate universe: Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout, and All Clear.  Willis first wrote about her time travelers in her short story Fire Watch set during the Blitz, which is available in several short story collections available at BCCLS libraries including The Best of Connie Willis, The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories, and Fire Watch.  The stories feature historians who go back in time to study history from a first-hand perspective.  The time travelers are generally prevented from making alterations to history since the equipment will not function or send them to a different time than originally selected if it will cause an alteration in history or a paradox.  This leads to some of the drama since the historians may not be fully prepared for the situation they encounter, this is especially true of my favorite of her works Doomsday Book, which is set during the Middle Ages.  Within Doomsday Book there is an interesting parallel between the Influenza outbreak that is occurring in the future with the bubonic plague that is happening in the past; the story feels very relevant today with the recent Ebola outbreak.  To Say Nothing of the Dog: or, How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last, is much lighter and more comedic in tone than the other novels.  Jerome K. Jerome, whose Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog, inspired the title of the work makes a cameo appearance in Willis’s work.  Although the books are set in the same universe and contain a few of the same characters, in general the books do not need to be read in any order and can be enjoyed individually, with the exception of Blackout and All Clear which were intended as a two volume work set during World War II in England.  Blackout definitely leaves the reader hanging, so you may want to check out both books at once so you don’t have to wait to learn what happens next; the six months I had to wait between them when they first came out seemed like an eternity without a time machine to jump me ahead.

Groundhog Day

The movie Groundhog Day unlike the novels mentioned above doesn’t feature purposeful time travel, but instead features a jaded weatherman, played by Bill Murray who must relive the same day over and over and over again.  I’ve watched the movie almost as many times as Larry relived his visit to Punxsutawney, PA for Phil, the groundhog’s big reveal.  The redemption story and romance between Bill Murray’s Larry and Andie MacDowell’s Rita, are sweet, but it is the humor that makes this a repeat viewing favorite.  It is fun to see how Larry interacts with the town’s people each day and how gradually even if the day doesn’t change, he does.  For me if not exactly in storyline, in spirit it captures a bit of A Christmas Carol.  Tim Minchin and Matthew Warchus who created Matilda the Musical, are planning to adapt Groundhog Day as a musical this year.  I can see some very funny songs coming from the setup, but not sure how I feel about a singing groundhog.  Since Groundhog’s Day is coming up next month (February 2) it is the perfect time to check out this classic fun film.  And for a tasty treat while you watch, you could also celebrate in my family’s favorite traditional way with crepes.  In French tradition if you can flip a crepe fully over in one toss in the frying pan while holding a coin on Groundhog’s Day, you will have good luck for the rest of the year (and if you don’t succeed you are still lucky enough to have some tasty French style pancakes to eat).

-Written by Aimee Harris, Head of Reference

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