Sunday, January 19, 2020 -
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Does the instinct for self-preservation bring out the worst in people? This was a truism stated by Cormac O’Grada in a discussion about the Irish potato famine.

O’Grada, professor emeritus in the School of Economics at University College Dublin, was recounting the low points of humanity during the famine, when about one million people starved to death. According to O’Grada, friends, neighbors and family turned on one another if sustenance — no matter how small — became available.

O’Grada’s assessment crossed my mind last when I read the story of a man who exhibited the exact opposite. Rabbi David Alter Kurzmann (Short Takes, May 31) was the caretaker of an orphanage in the Cracow ghetto who chose to accompany his charges to Belzec, where he knew they — and he — would meet certain death. Kurzmann didn’t have to go. Perhaps he would have been killed later; perhaps he would have survived the Holocaust. Self-preservation would dictate that he do anything to survive. But to him, the duty to the children he looked after was stronger.

Incredibly, Kurzmann wasn’t the only Jewish orphanage caretaker from Poland to sacrifice his life in this way. Janos Korczak, who is much more widely known than Kurzmann, did the same for his charges in the Warsaw ghetto.

O’Grada probably is correct; the vast majority of people will do anything to survive, and there’s nothing wrong with that. G-d created us with an instinct for self-preservation. But how uplifting for humanity to know that among us are a few individuals whose human instinct is to care, above all else, for others.

Shana Goldberg may be reached at

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Shana Goldberg

IJN Assistant Publisher |

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