This isn’t really a book review, but since I just finished Dara Horn’s Kindle Single “The Rescuer,” I figured I’d share some thoughts that bubbled up from reading it.
For context, the book itself is an easily digestible piece on Varian Fry, the least-well-known rescuer of Jews during WWII. The book wrestles with why no one knows who he is, why the famous Jewish intellectuals and artists he rescued ignored him after arriving in the US and why he was such a tortured man — one who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the heroic, single-minded, self-realized “rescuer.” Horn and Fry’s greatest champion, Pierre Sauvage, argue over the validity of the “righteous rescuers,” Sauvage claiming that “I’ve never met an unhappy rescuer.”
It made me think of my own time as a “rescuer,” several lives ago. I was an Army firefighter. I was also in a state of personal turmoil. I was working ridiculously long days, destroying the seeds of any romantic relationship I might have had and stressed over the vast amount of tasks I was in charge of mastering. So I wasn’t “happy.” Did it affect my ability? Yes. I could suppress my strain, but there was one place where it would come out. Inside the confined space trainer (usually referred to as an Emergency Operations Trainer). The EOT we constructed was two levels of 36″ tunnels, built into a metal conex. Inside the tunnels were wires, ramps and debris — perfect material to frustrate a firefighter crawling in full bunker gear, cylinder and with 50 pounds of tools. We’d close the conex door as we entered the EOT, so you’d have to navigate the 80-foot course in the dark.
It was instructive, what came up in the dark. When you can’t move because you’re trapped in a tight tunnel and your arm is pinned by something you can’t see, it’s easy for your mind to be taken over by whatever demons you’re dealing with. For me, it was one more stressor I didn’t need, so my body would try to revolt — flex, press, push, spasm — to free myself, even though I knew it wouldn’t work. Naturally, I’d get more tired, more frustrated, more scared. It was work to take counter-intuitive actions — like singing to yourself, relaxing your body, squeezing your shoulders together — because my life was in turmoil and needed a visceral release that I wasn’t going to achieve in the EOT.
Of course, I ended up spending a lot of time in the EOT — I even steered our missions towards confined space rescue — just because I learned more about myself there than anywhere else. One of the things it taught me was that you need to be single-minded in the rescuer game. You can be a train-wreck, personally. But in the moment, there needs to be complete focus and purity of ambition. There is no room for backstory, rumination or anything that draws your attention to yourself. The EOT became meditative for me, especially as I tried to move those lessons into the rest of my life.
OK, separate subject, same book. Horn also brings up the ethical issue of who Varian Fry chose to help escape. He specifically targeted the great Jewish minds for freedom. He saw his work as saving Western culture. Naturally, it makes one wonder about the ethics of leaving Jews who weren’t regarded as “gifted” to die. Sauvage dismisses this concern as a critique easily proffered by those who didn’t do anything. It is far better, in his estimation, to spend time glorifying a man who saved some, rather than judge him for those he didn’t save. Sauvage is right, of course. Better some than none. But I wonder what the attitude would have been of those who were saved, if they weren’t all “delicate geniuses.” Would they have been as ungrateful? Would they have resisted Fry’s few attempts to reach out to them in America? Fry was an odd duck, sure. But I have to think it took that rarified narcissism of an elite artist or thinker to so quickly disown Fry.
I think of a neighbor of mine, growing up. He was a Polish emigre who arrived in the US weeks before the Germans invaded Poland. Long story short, after the war, he took in eight Polish boys whose parents had been killed by the Nazis. He raised them in New York. To this day, they spend every Christmas with his wife (the man died several years ago), returning to the apartment they were raised in to sleep on the couches, loveseats and floors that they slept on in the 1950s. Bear in mind that these are now lawyers, doctors, professional class citizens in their fifties and sixties. That’s gratitude. Does art require a narcissism that other professions don’t? Does intellectualism?