Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press

Sometimes a book calls to me from the shelf of the used book section. This was one of them and it seems an appropriate review for Martin Luther King Day. The title caught my eye, and the subtitle intrigued me. I was ready to read about some uplifting situations and the heroes who stood up for what they believed was right. I was in for a surprise, though. This was not a fluffy book just written to make me feel good–it was a meticulously crafted, well-researched text. I took my time with it because it was so dense, but also because I wanted to think about the the information given to me–the psychology, sociology, and science behind what makes certain people stand up for their convictions when nobody around them is doing it.

There are four main parts to this book as well as an epilogue, and each deserves an entire paragraph.

“Disobeying the Law” examines Paul Gruninger’s risk-taking at allowing fleeing Jews to take refuge in Sweden (against orders). This segment considers his past as well as the sociology of the situation. Press explains the Milgram experiments and how proximity can affect how we react to situations. There’s also examination of how governments teach soldiers to treat the enemy as “other” so it will be easier, via dehumanization, to kill them. This chapter, though, explains it was Gruninger’s belief in his country’s system that allowed him to stand in the way of the laws prohibiting refuges. He believed “he was honoring his country’s founding principles by treating them humanely.”

The next chapter, “Defying the Group,” takes the reader to Serbia, where we meet Aleksander Jevtic, a Serb who was instructed to pick the Serbs out of a crowd and also selected Croats–saving between 150-200 lives of people destined for execution. Press again tries to find a reason setting Jevtic above others–why defy the orders of men with guns? One reason Jevtic offers is how he was raised–his parents taught him “to love people. They taught me to respect others and myself.” Press realizes Jevtic’s wife is also a Croat, and perhaps that offers a reason why this mild-mannered father rescued people in such a dangerous situation. He also points out how Jevtic doesn’t care what others think of him, making him a man who doesn’t fear not belonging to the group, an interesting sociological perspective on why atrocities occur.

The third chapter, “The Rules of Conscience,” begins with Thoreau and his decision not to pay taxes, but then takes us to Israel where we meet Avner Wishnitzer, a young man who decides he will not longer persecute Palestinians. This chapter shifts the examination to people who change–not situations that change, explaining: “the fiercest conflicts take place inside a person’s mind and heart as commitments that once went unquestioned come to be reexamined and, at a certain point, betrayed.” There was a large group of men, “refuseniks” who decided the military campaign they were supposed to support was unjust, and they would rather go to prison than execute orders against what they viewed as just. In his own way, he was still serving his society, a society he believed in, but felt was making a mistake.

The fourth chapter “The Price of Raising One’s Voice,” shifts to the US, and to the business world. Here we see the impact of Leyla Wydler, who works at the Stanford group in 2000, a broker-dealer that seems to be making money that doesn’t match with actual records of income. When Leyla becomes a whistleblower, we see the intricacies of how money can sway people and how sometimes it takes a few Davids to stand up to Goliath corporations and take them down. This chapter explained how Hollywood makes us think these situations always turn out well (see Erin Brokovich) but the reality is that for most whistleblowers, the companies have money and power and can easily shut down people who fight for people losing money to a large corporation.

The Epilogue of the book takes us to Pennsylvania, where Press speaks to a prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. This meeting with Darrel Vandeveld offers a way to tie all these stories together. He explains the “Beautiful Souls” in the book were people who did not “airily dismiss the values and ideas of the society they lived in or the organizations they belonged to, but that they regarded them as inviolable.” They were so committed to their beliefs and the structures they worked within that they fought for the ideals and principles which drew them to these societies/organizations in the first place.

I found this book fascinating, and I earmarked a number of pages where I could refer to it whether I was teaching Elie Weisel’s Night or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Adam Smith was referenced more than a few times, and Henry David Thoreau was heavily featured in the latter portion of the book. While this text is probably too complex to teach in high school, I found it an excellent resource for myself, and I feel as if I’m better equipped to discuss the sociology of evil and the psychology of those who refuse to buckle in trying times.


Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA Board

Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press

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