Paul Greenberg: The mystery of the good

What impels some of us to perform gracious acts?

Posted: November 2, 2017 at 1 a.m.

There’s nothing mysterious about the existence of evil in this world. Every day’s headlines and televised newscasts are full of testimony to its prevalence. But where does the impulse to do good come from? That’s the unanswered question. What motivates the heroes and heroines who would risk death itself to challenge evil? Their motives may be mixed, with each instance of heroism its own saga, and worthy of study for its own sake. Since we all tend to live by the stories that ingrain themselves on our memories.

One such story is that of Suzanne Spaak, a resistance fighter during the Second World War from the most unlikely of backgrounds: The strikingly beautiful daughter of a prominent Belgian financier, she was raised in more than comfortable circumstances. She would grow up to marry into a notable Belgian family and leave behind, or so she must have thought, the idealistic fancies of her childhood. Then one day it struck her out of the heavenly blue: “My children are safe while others are threatened,” those others being Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Paris and already being rounded up by the French gendarmerie for the transports that would take them to the death camps in the East, where they and their families would be told Arbeit Macht Frei, or work will set you free. Free from this life, anyway.

Suzanne would become the bride of Claude Spaak, a handsome scoundrel of the first water, who by then was well known as something of a writer and connoisseur of modern art. He would become the patron of Magritte, the surrealistic painter whose works loomed large in the fashionable couple’s Parisian apartment just above the home of Colette, the celebrated French author. The outwardly happy couple hung out with luminaries like Christian Dior of the fashion house and doted on their children, whom they nicknamed Pilette and Bazou in a flight of fancy. What could possibly go wrong with this perfect picture?

Plenty did. Claude turned out to be a selfish cad. Feeling obliged to tolerate his numerous infidelities, lest a divorce ruin her social status, Suzanna felt obliged to tolerate him even when he moved his mistress into their apartment, creating an awkward ménage à trois with a woman she had once considered her best friend. One betrayal followed another even as war with Nazi Germany loomed on the darkening horizon. As she watched her Jewish friends trying desperately to leave Europe, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Who wouldn’t in her place? Her world had come apart and soon enough so did she.

Yet somehow, with the fall of France, she rose to the challenge in every which way, forging identity papers and ration cards that would allow Jewish children to escape the Nazi net. A lapsed Catholic, she would make it a practice to take trains to the small towns around and, while making confession at the local church would happen to ask the priest if he knew any families that might shelter imperiled children. Often enough he did. Soon she was running an underground railroad she dubbed le kidnapping. Sixty-three Jewish kids whose parents had already been deported or who had just disappeared in the developing disorder of the time were rescued from the French state’s foul orphanages where they were being held while awaiting their own transports to the East and sure death.

When the Gestapo would finally catch on to her game, they would put out an all-points bulletin for her, and for bad measure throw her brothers and sisters, in-laws and children into prison preparatory to tracking down Suzanne herself and locking her up in solidarity confinement while they demanded the names of her of her accomplices. But she revealed nothing, even under torture. Then, on August 12th, 1944, on the very eve of the liberation of Paris, she was taken to the prison courtyard of Fresnes prison, which her biographer describes as a “factory of despair,” and put to death. But death seems to have held no terrors for her any more than her extraordinary life had.

But before she was killed, Suzanne Spaak had scratched on the wall a saying of Socrates: “My enemies can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” And indeed they couldn’t. And didn’t. For if there is an answer to the mystery of goodness in this world, it begins with courage like hers.

——————Recommended reading: Suzanne’s Children by Anne Nelson. Or just settle for the review of that book in the Wall Street Journal of Tuesday, October the 17th of this year.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.