The National Catholic Review
Bill Williams

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Mother Teresa are widely admired for their heroic, history-changing deeds. Less well known are the countless ordinary people who take morally courageous stands under difficult circumstances and at great personal risk.

Eyal Press tells the stories of four of these individuals in his compelling new book, Beautiful Souls, which examines “the mystery of what impels people to do something risky and transgressive” when confronted with injustice.

We meet Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police commander who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Next is Aleksander Jevtic, a Serb who saved Croats from torture and death by giving them false Serbian names. The third resister is Avner Wishnitzer, an Israeli soldier who refused to serve in the occupied territories in protest against Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. Finally, Leyla Wydler was a broker who tried to alert authorities to suspicious activities at her Texas-based brokerage.

The author skillfully blends history, sociology and science into a multilayered narrative that examines the factors that cause people to take principled stands. If the book has a fault, it is that Press says almost nothing about the influence of religion on ethical behavior.

In 1938 Grüninger was ordered to turn back terrified Jews fleeing from Austria to Switzerland; but he was so moved by “the screaming and crying of mothers and children,” that he felt compelled to disobey his orders. He cited his unshakable conviction that Switzerland was an enlightened nation that traditionally welcomed victims of persecution. He was fired for falsifying records to allow Jews to cross the border.

Grüninger was not a crusader but an ordinary man who was merely doing his “human duty,” he explained. Years after Grüninger died, a Swiss court exonerated him, and he posthumously came to be regarded as a hero.

When Serb soldiers captured a Croatian city in 1991, they rounded up several hundred men and transported them to a prison camp. Because one of the prisoners, Aleksander Jevtic, was recognized as a Serb, he was asked to help identify other Serbs so they could be separated from the Croats, who would then be subject to severe punishment. One by one, Jevtic started giving the Croatian men Serbian names to save them.

Press was puzzled because Jevtik had “no trace of outward idealism.” Jevtik told the author that he had simply acted on instinct after observing wounded and beaten prisoners.

Avner Wishnitzer was an idealistic Israeli soldier who did not want to believe that his comrades would mistreat Palestinians. When he finally realized what was happening to the Palestinians, he signed a petition saying he could not take part in “missions of oppression.”

In the final profile, Leyla Wydler questioned her superiors after she was asked to sell certificates of deposit that promised returns that seemed too good to be true. In response, Wydler was fired. Her anonymous letters to federal officials were initially ignored. Recently her former employer, Stanford Group, was in the news when a federal jury convicted the firm’s chief executive of running a $7 billion Ponzi scheme—confirmation that her suspicions had been justified.

Press displays the admirable traits of an assiduous reporter—curiosity, skepticism and persistence. Citing studies, historical precedent, modern research and a range of sages, he demonstrates the complexity of human behavior when, in the words of the book’s subtitle, people attempt to heed “the voice of conscience in dark times.”

As Press makes clear, the four people he profiles were not rebels; they were rather individuals who embraced their society’s moral code even as many others elected to simply follow orders.

Grüninger honored the Swiss tradition of welcoming strangers. Jevtic accepted a “spirit of tolerance” passed along to him by his mother. Wishnitzer believed that the Israeli Army was “the most moral army in the world,” which in his mind precluded oppression of Palestinians. And Wydler thought it was her duty to exercise the “due diligence” expected of all brokers.

Rarely, Press asserts in a final note, do the rest of us “bother to ask what role our own passivity and acquiescence may play in enabling unconscionable things to be done in our name.”

Bill Williams, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant.