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Press: NYT brings feelgood moral seriousness

13 December 2019


THE constraints of deadlines are worse than usual this week, in that Friday’s papers — and possibly Saturday’s, too — will be full of news about the General Election. There is hardly any angle for this week’s press column — except, perhaps, to observe that more might once have been made of a former Archbishop of Canterbury’s demanding that Britain stop supplying arms for the ghastly little war in Yemen, and devote two per cent of its GDP to working against climate change and towards carbon neutrality. Both these suggestions were buried in the depths of Lord Williams’s opinion piece for The Times’s political section and both were, so far as I can see, entirely ignored.


THE most morally serious story — which is to say the most tragic, in the proper sense — was written as if it were a feelgood. The New York Times found two Auschwitz survivors who had contrived to conduct a love affair in the camp for 18 months. They had been sep­arated when the camp was evacuated, but had promised to meet in Warsaw after the war ended. But, in the chaos of 1945, he was taken up by the American army, and she did not see him for another 72 years. By that time, both had married, emigrated to the United States, made lives, and then survived their spouses.

The more for­­­­­­­midable half of the couple was the woman, who died last year in New York: “Helen Spitzer was no regular inmate. Zippi, as she was known, was clean, always neat. . .

“[David] Wisnia, initially forced to collect the bodies of prisoners who committed suicide, had been chosen to entertain his Nazi captors when they discovered he was a tal­­­­­­ented singer.

“Ms. Spitzer held the more high-powered position: She was the camp’s graphic designer. . . . Through her connections, her ability to speak German, her graphic design skills and sheer luck, Ms. Spitzer [had] secured an office job. . . Yet Ms. Spitzer was never a Nazi col­laborator or a kapo, an inmate assigned to oversee other prisoners. Instead, she used her position to help inmates and allies. She used her design skills to ma­­­­­­nip­­­­­ulate paperwork and reassign prisoners to different . . . barracks.”

Yet she was still keeping the books for Nazis. They need­­­­­ed the death factory’s figures to add up. So, for every prisoner whom she saved, another had to die. When she fell in love with Wisnia, she also protected him. He did not know how much until they met again in the last years of her life, and he asked her. She held up her hand, fingers spread. Five other men had died to preserve his life.

The decisions she made then are beyond blame — perhaps beyond praise, too. She had power, and she used it as well as she could. But the story is a profound reminder that, even when we are sav­­­­­­­ing the world one life at a time, as the Jewish saying has it, there are so many lives unsaved.


THE OBSERVER had a wonderfully moving account of the work of a Pentecostal pastor in Juarez, Mexico, whom Ed Vulliamy revisited ten years after publishing a book about life on the border.

“José Antonio Galván . . . still looks like the teddy boy he once was — in a purple paisley jacket that seems, and doesn’t seem, out of place here — and greets me with the poised fists of the boxer he also was. ‘The Lord is on my side,’ he says, punching the air. . .

“[He] joked 10 years ago that the city out there — full of yonkes, junkyards of cars to­­­talled in America, refitted for the road — was actually a ‘human junkyard’, while this was ‘a haven of peace’. Which it is, in a way: where re­­­­­­­cover­­­­­­ing addicts, penitent cartel sicarios (hitmen) and their mistresses, psychos, street dealers and those discarded by the city’s assem­bly plant economy are refitted for life.

“The mazed eyes, mind-sickness, and poignant affection between Galván and what he calls ‘my family’, echo down 10 years on different faces. The drugs, too, are different, says Galván — ‘We’re seeing less crack, more crystal meth, and synthetics’ — but their rav­ages are the same. . . ‘There’s a devil wait­­­­ing to lure them back any time,’ says Galván, ‘and I gotta beat that devil up.’ I had for a mo­­­­­­ment forgotten that the pastor himself was once an addict on the street. ‘I learned that,’ he says, ‘when I was living among the trash cans — when I was one of them.’”


THE Financial Times had picked up on an aspect of the protests in Hong Kong which I had not seen elsewhere. Although many leaders of the movement (in the days when it had identifiable leaders) were Christians, the institutional Churches have been more cau­tious. The Roman Catholics are particularly divided. At many churches, the congregations sing the resistance anthem “Glory to Hong Kong”, but, on the other side, Carrie Lam, its Chief Executive, is a devout Catholic, and, after the death of Bishop Michael Yeung, who had run the Church there, the Vatican ignored his auxiliary bishop, a strong supporter of the protests, and appointed instead a retired Car­dinal to run the Church on a temporary basis. That’s some thinking in centuries going on as the Pope negotiates relationships with Beijing, but this small consolation for those trapped — and fighting — in the present.

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