by Daniel Mallock (November 2017)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
In May 2016, a young man from Utah became aware of his friend’s desire to kill herself. Rather than dissuading his friend, the young man assisted. His first-degree murder trial will soon begin.
In one message sent on April 19, Przybycien asked a friend: “What do you do if you knew a friend was trying to commit suicide?”
“Talk them out of it,” the friend replied.
“The thing is, I wanna help kill them [sic],” Przybycien replied. “It be awesome [sic]. Seriously im going to help her [sic]. Its like getting away with murder [sic]! . . . I’m seriously not joking. It’s going down in about a week or two.”
Decades ago, such a case would earn gasps of horror from across the nation and perhaps the world. Such examples of moral depravity and degeneracy—outright evil—seemed rare then. Perhaps they were merely unknown outside their localities and the circulation range of the regional press, or perhaps they occurred with less frequency in comparison to today.
In this introductory internet era where information about everything, it seems, is posted constantly on blogs, social media, websites, and media outlets, human evil is now blasé and rarely results in further comment or thought; one of the consequences of information overload is emotional numbing and compassion fatigue. Even worse perhaps is a pervasive essential confusion as to the nature of humanity and of the world in general.
Medical professionals, often overworked and overwhelmed by their close involvement with human suffering, sometimes exhibit compassion fatigue. They become numbed to suffering and the humanity of their patients, and shift to automaton-like implementation of their techniques. Consequently, they do their jobs of healing as best they can, but only on the physical/biological level. Compassion fatigue may be a kind of defense mechanism to protect the caregiver’s own sense of equilibrium in stressful environments of pain and death. This is an understandable reaction, perhaps, but unfortunate for the patients involved. Compassion fatigue is not limited to medical professionals.
As much as this disturbing case of the enthusiastic suicide assister received little attention, another case from the polar ends of the universe of humanity earned similar lack of coverage. Both cases are instructive and illustrative of the confabulations of daily life, and the deep streams of contradictory morality and ethics that exist in our society and within many, if not the majority, of us all.
Earlier this month an 80-year old substitute teacher at Champlin Park High School in Minneapolis received a gift from his students. One student said of the teacher, “Honestly, I’ve never seen a sub so old, you would think he would be retired.” When asked as to why he continued to teach, he told the students that he loved his students, and that he was saving money for his wife’s cataract surgery. The extraordinary students at this high school started a “GoFundMe” campaign. The goal was $500. Much to his astonishment, the students informed the teacher of what they’d done and “our total is $13,905 that the community and the people at the school have raised for you.” The teacher was “just overwhelmed,” as one might expect. “When I told my wife about this last Friday, she said, ‘Who are these girls? What kind of parents do they have that they could be so caring and compassionate?'”
This is a reasonable question on the part of the appreciative wife. But, more importantly perhaps, another question: What is it about these students themselves that they made a choice of compassion rather than ambivalence? Certainly, the parents may have set a tone of humanitarianism and caring for others in their children, but the children themselves made their own choice to render aid to someone in need. Such compassion and selflessness stand in instructive and stark contrast to the moral depravity of the young man who chose to kill his friend who was in suicidal despair.
Many thoughtful people wonder at cruelty and heartlessness; how is this possible? they might ask. Abandoning the thin veil of decency and civilization is a simple matter—encouraged as it has been by ideologies of utopianism or its opposite; personal degeneracy, or simple selfish indulgence of the worst components of human character. The great question is how is it that some choose compassion instead, sometimes even at the cost of their own lives? Such sacrifices are always seen throughout history in times of despair and horror. These are the finest illustrations of what people aspire to regardless of opposite cultural or political signals heaped upon them with contrary and base messages.
Many in the world of religion believe that the morality and ethics of religion, if not the essential belief in an Almighty Creator of Cosmic Compassion, Power and Goodness, are required to support and uphold the constructs of civilization that are meant to subsume and control the more depraved and grotesque elements of our species. The success rate of civilization in this most critical mission has been haphazard. Regardless of past failures we can see that there is no other option but to continue to improve civilization and its component parts as best we can.
People need aspirational goals and, in most cases (though certainly not all), religion provides that aspirational message and associated guidelines. One of our more interesting founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, not noted as a “religious man,” a Deist, observed the value of religion as he saw it in relation to civilization.
Most of the world, he believed, was made up of ‘weak and ignorant Men and Women’ who needed religion to ‘restrain them from Vice, and to retain them in the practice of it [virtue] till it becomes habitual.’ He was horrified by the thought of a world without religion. ‘If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion,’ Franklin wrote, ‘what would they be if without it.’
Franklin’s religious beliefs were quintessentially American and, in many ways, quintessentially Pennsylvanian. It did not matter what one believed about God, as long as one’s religion contributed to a more benevolent society and made the world, one neighborhood at a time, a more enlightened and civilized place.
“In fact, Franklin was the pioneer of a uniquely American kind of faith, one which touted the benevolent effects of faith even as it jettisoned virtually all theological beliefs.” Religion was considered such an important component of the foundations of a functional and virtuous civilization, that at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the famous Deist “proposed that the convention open its sessions with prayer.”
In a letter to a Massachusetts Militia unit during the Quasi War with France, written as the country was preparing for a possible military conflict with that country, John Adams wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
It should be strongly noted that not all religions present messages of compassion and virtue; nor stress compassion and the inherent value of humanity. Moral relativism when applied to morality and ethics is a dangerous rhetorical and philosophical failure.
Religion of compassion and virtuous ethics centered upon the general appreciation of life at the core of a free society was seen by many of the founders, and by many still today, as essential to the health of our democracy.
Such religious concepts encourage us to aspire to a better model than that recommended by the basest elements of our conflicted nature. Abandoning this aspiration for many is not difficult, as daily life and history shows.
When the world of virtuous religion collapses and the world of politics is corrupted by moral and ethical debasement, the physical world becomes a nightmare. Staving off this nightmare realm, which knocks upon our doors every day in various ways, is the function of moral and ethical civilizations supported by beliefs of compassion, decency, and courage. When the key moments come, each individual must make his/her choice as to which path to follow.
This is the testimony of a young boy caught up in a degraded world in the recent past. It was published in the Russian Forward, December, 2004. This is a translation of the article with no editing or other changes. It appears in English here for the first time.
I Outlived My Own Death
In Zhitomir State Archives records of Jews killed in 1941 there is an entry under #390 registering the death of Roytburg, Mikhail Aronovich; 12 years old. In June of 2004 HIAS Family Search Department got a letter from a former resident of Romanov, a town in the Ukraine, who is now residing in Germany. He requested a search of the descendants of his grandparents who immigrated into the USA in the beginning of the 20th century. The letter was signed by Mikhail Aronovich Roytburg, the same person whose death was recorded in the archives.
In summer of 1941, after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town of Romanov was destined to share the fate of other places inhabited by Jewish population—all Jews were to be relocated to a ghetto with complete annihilation afterwards.
As everywhere, the most ferocious were policemen recruited from local residents. It’s no need now to contemplate why Gennady Sukhoy, whose brother was a hero and lost his life at the fronts of the war, dragged his former friends out of hiding places to the ditch and shot them there because they were Jews. We will get back to Gennady later on.
Sura Roytburg was among hundreds of those who were driven to the place of their death. She was holding her son Misha by hand. In her other hand she had a note in hope of miracle. Not for herself, for her son: he was the only one left from a numerous family. He had to have luck . . .
All of a sudden somebody in the crowd stumbled and fell down. Policemen rushed into the jam ready to kill right away. Catching the moment Sura pressed the note into Misha’s hand and whispered: “Run. Remember-you have relatives in America. Here is their address . . . ”
Misha raced as fast as he could. At night he returned to their house in hope that his mother had escaped. Gennady Sukhoy found him there—he used to have Jewish friends and was well aware about teens hiding places. He identified Misha and for the second time Misha was escorted to the ditch.
The second miracle—at the verge of the ditch, Isaak Kuhman, a neighbor, stepped ahead blocking the child, and whispered without turning his head: “Run, run.” Misha ran towards the forest. The hail of bullets followed him.
Two cows were grazing nearby. One of the policemen shouted out: “Don’t shoot, you’ll kill the cow. We’ll catch this kike later. He has nowhere to escape.”
This was the beginning of Misha’s journey across his native country where each step was under the threat of death.
Wisdom comes with ordeals. Misha realized that neither could he change his Jewish experience nor could he get rid of major proof. He made up a legend of Mikhail Arkhipovich Pokrovsky, a Ukranian orphan who escaped an orphanage after it was bombed.
In Vinnitsa he was stopped by a German patrol.
Although he answered “Ukrainian” to the question whether he was Jewish and told a story about the orphanage, it did not work out—he was thrown to jail. The cell was packed with Jews who were destined to be shot next morning. Misha repeated his legend. Early in the morning the group was taken out of the cell. Before leaving a young man looked into Misha’s eyes and said in a low voice: “Jew or not Jew—do not speak Yiddish in your sleep.”
Misha was taken to interrogation by a Ukrainian official. The procedure was very short—he was ordered to pull down his pants. Back to the cell. One more night waiting for death. Next morning when he was called by a policeman, the interrogator, the one who had questioned him the day before, ordered him back to the cell to be transported to Dachau in two weeks.
After six months in Dachau, Misha was sent to Munich to an apple juice production factory. This helped him restore his strength to some extent. However, it was still scary to go to bed every night: what if he started to speak Yiddish in his sleep again?
In 1945 Munich was liberated by American troops. Misha ripped the lining of his jacket where he had the note with his American relatives address in Boston and went to American Headquarters.
It took a year for President Truman to realize that there were people scattered all over the world without any place to come back after World War II and sign a 1946 decree legally letting displaced people into the USA. But it was in 1946.
It was May 1945 when Misha came to the Headquarters.
“Do not lie and say you are Jewish. All Jews in Germany were killed. Go back to your Russia,” was the response of the Commandant of the American Sector in Munich.
Misha came back to his native town. The only paper he had was the document issued in Germany with the name of Mikhail Arkhipovich Pokrovsky. Those were dangerous times. Such paper could be considered evidence of his treason. He destroyed the document, left Romanov and moved to Dnepropetrovsk. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 50 years after, did Mikhail Aronovich Roytburg tell the story of his survival. It was then that he found the record of his death in Zhitomir Archives.
When Mikhail Roytburg left Russia and moved to Germany, he sent a family search request to HIAS. He was trying to locate the Mullock family . . . Mikhail’s cousin, the only close relative, was found 63 years after the day of execution.
Though I am not the cousin mentioned above, Mikhail is my second cousin.
Survival sometimes is a matter of luck, and pluck, and of the compassion and selflessness of others. The veneer of civilization and decency can be readily ripped away, or simply fall apart.
The struggle to retain our civilization is an essential one. Whatever strengthens our moral and ethical foundations should be encouraged and supported. Many have forgotten this essential truth.
Finally, what do we tell the children? How do we learn the lessons of valuing what we have, and the costs if we should lose our freedoms and rights, our safety, security, and national identity? How do we talk about the disturbing duality of humanity—extraordinary compassion and decency, and capacity to commit the most terrible atrocities? If ever parental profundity were needed it would be in such a discussion. But, stating fact is not enough, particularly if the fact itself is disturbing and confusing. There must be more.
Whitman tried to take us there, lead us to a self-evident conclusion—that we are contrary creatures; we embrace our contradictions, like it or not. Perhaps Whitman was on the right track by stating an essential truth but couching it in a semi-positive, triumphant way. But there is fear, too; and a great challenge and responsibility inherent in our contradictory nature.
When faced with choices great and small, we tell the children to make the right decision. What is the right decision? The right decision is to always support the veil of civilization that keeps barbarism at bay, and the rejection of self-centeredness and cruelty.
The right decision is fundamentally a brave compassion.
What do we tell the children? We tell them to make the right decision, and we pray quietly that they will, and that we will show them the way.
Daniel Mallock is a historian of the Founding generation and of the Civil War. He is the author of Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a World of Revolution.
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