Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book review: Beautiful Souls - Saying no, breaking ranks and heeding the voice of conscience in dark times

What makes someone stand up and say no when they see something going on that isn't right? What is it that motivates that one person to do something that no one else is willing to do?

Eyal Press attempts to answer those questions in his latest book, Beautiful Souls. In it, Mr. Press takes a look at four ordinary people who did what they thought was the right thing to do despite the costs. First there's Paul Gruninger, a Swiss police commander, who defied orders and helped Jews escape from the Nazi purges in Austria. Then there's Aleksander Jevtic, a Serb who saved the lives of Croats during the war in Eastern Slavonia. We meet Avner Wishnitzer, an Israeli soldier who refused to serve in the occupied territories. Finally, there's Leyla Wydler who helped bring down R. Allen Stanford.

There's no real common theme among the four people profiled in Mr. Press's book. Each of them were very different and they did the things they did for different reasons. Mr. Gruninger disobeyed orders (and ruined his career) because he dealt with the Jews fleeing Austria in person. To him the issue wasn't abstract. These were people who were in fear for their lives.

Mr. Jevtic is an easy-going bear of a man who lived in a predominantly Croat town. His girlfriend was a Croat. When the Serbian army came and took the men of the town into custody he was asked to pick out the Serbs. Instead, he pointed to the Croats that he knew (or knew of) and identified them by Serbian names he made up. For Mr. Jevtic it wasn't a political issue. These were his neighbors and it didn't matter to him whether they were Serbian or Croatian.

Mr. Wishnitzer grew up on a kibbutz and dreamed of being in the Israeli army. He grew up with the lore that the Israelis were inhabiting an island among a sea of people who wanted to destroy them. He grew up with the notion that the Palestinians were somehow less deserving of freedom. His attitude changed when he went to the Occupied Territories and saw how the people there were treated. The reality was such a shock that he, along with a dozen or so other soldiers, signed a petition that they would not serve in the Occupied Territories. They were unceremoniously dumped from the army. Mr. Wishnitzer couldn't just follow orders and do that which he found wrong. He believed it was his duty, as a soldier, to stand up and say no.

Ms. Wydler just wanted to invest people's money. She had been quite successful doing so and when she got the offer from Stanford's company, she took it. She believed in what she did and she held herself to a high ethical standard. But while her coworkers were selling their clients CD's in Stanford's bank in Antigua by the bucketful she became suspicious. The interest rates and the returns didn't make any sense. CD's are conservative investments. She knew that the only instruments that paid high returns did so because of the risk involved. She was so convinced something was wrong that she complained to the SEC (who did nothing for almost eight years). In the meantime, Ms. Wydler lost her job, her book of business and had to repay a hiring bonus she received just to keep her broker's license. She was no muckraker, she was a true believer who found that her trust had been misplaced.

Beautiful Souls is a fascinating look at the lives of four ordinary people who did something extraordinary. They had the courage to take a stand.

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