Monday, March 10, 2008

The Righteous Atheist

Jan Zabinski was the director of the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s and 1940s. During the Nazi invasion of Poland, he and his wife, Antonina, sheltered 300 Jews - as well as members of the Polish resistance - in their villa and in animal cages. (With a handful of exceptions, every one survived the war.) Their heroic - and heretofore not well-known - story is told by Diane Ackerman in The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story.

At a time where sheltering a Jew would mean a certain death sentence for one's entire family, the Zabinskis showed extraordinary courage for the risks they took on a daily basis. One is amazed at the cleverness (and chutzpah!) of Jan in the ways in which he was able to smuggle food into the Warsaw Ghetto and Jews out of the Ghetto. And it wasn't enough that they fed and sheltered their "guests" and assisted them in escaping Poland. The Zabinskis also felt that it was important that those that they sheltered have as much a sense of normalcy as was possible during the horrors of the Nazi era. To that end, they would hold an occasional piano concert, or would encourage socializing after dinner.

“I had a moral indebtedness to the Jews”, Jan once told a reporter. “My father was a staunch atheist, and because of that, in 1905, he enrolled me in the Kretshmort School, which at that time was the only school in Warsaw where the study of Christian religion wasn't required, even though my mother was very opposed to it because she was a devout Catholic. Eighty percent of the students were Jews, and there I developed friendships with people who went on to distinguish themselves in science and art. . . . After graduating high school, I began teaching in the Roziker School”, also predominantly Jewish. As a result, he made intimate friendships among the Jewish intelligentsia, and many school chums lived behind Ghetto walls. Although Jan didn't say much publicly about his father, he told a journalist that he'd chosen zoology “to spite my father, who didn't like or appreciate animals, and didn't allow them in the house other than moths and flies, who entered without his permission!”

They had more in common when it came to the loyalty shown Jewish friends:

“My father and I both grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. He was a lawyer, and even though he married into a very wealthy family - the daughter of a landowner - he rose to bourgeois status on his own. It was just by chance that we happened to grow up in this poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw. From childhood my father used to play with Jewish children in the streets, treating Jews as equals. And I was influenced by him.”

I found this statement one of the most powerful of the entire book: “Jan discovered that being an atheist didn't shield him from a robust sense of fate and his own personal destiny." (p 114).
(Note that not only was Zabinski an atheist, but he had a mesorah (tradition) of atheism from his father!)

Occasionally the claim is made that atheists cannot operate from a fundamentally moral orientation. One Jewish blogger in particular claims that atheists are “irrational, selfish and self-indulgent” and that they are usually “moral degenerates”. Jan Zabinski gives lie to such moronic drivel. He was motivated neither by fear of punishment in the next world nor by hope for any reward. In his words, “We did it because it was the right thing to do”. If there is an ultimate cheshbon (accounting), he will certainly be judged as one of the truly righteous of the world.

6 comments:

BEEHIVE said...

Hello,

Just passing by and something caught my eye.

I heard about this book on NPR and was completly captivated. I will have to add this to my growing "Must Read Before I Die" list.

It has come to my attention that becasue atheist do not live under a set of rules that have been thrust upon them, they seem to be honest with themselves and everyone else. Yes, some people can be selfish and mean spirited, but this is who they are and it does not reflect their lack of belief. In essence, I believe that atheist and "real" Probably more real than those of us that believe, but don't always act according to our rules.

Frum Heretic said...

I heard about this book on NPR and was completly captivated.

That's exactly where I first heard about it and why I read it!

rabbidw said...

I think that morality must be based on the Bible. I am not a fundamentalist, but I would say that the moral values in Judaism have permeated our civilization, the Judeo-christion ethic. Even those who do not subscribe to the religion hve been influenced by the morality which has become cultural.
Most moral decisions are instinctual. Many acts of heroism would not take place if people really thought them out rationally and engaged in a risk reward analysis. Our religion offers great rewards and punishments for moral conduct, but by now, the ordinary man knows instinctively that moral conduct is the right way to go. It takes scholars and intellectuals, like Peter Singer, the Professor of Ethics at Princeton to develop his own moral system based on strict utilitarianism. Even he admitsthat he would not act on the basis of utilitarianism with his mother. The moral code of the bible has triumphed in the west, even for those that deny the bible.

Frum Heretic said...

I think that morality must be based on the Bible. I am not a fundamentalist, but I would say that the moral values in Judaism have permeated our civilization, the Judeo-christion ethic.

Interesting how so many people equate civilization with the western Judeo-Christian world. Are you suggesting that there is no morality among Buddhists who have no tradition from the Bible?

I'm not interested in getting into a debate about atheism & morality at this time, but there are certainly cogent arguments for the development of morality - including altruistic behavior that you alluded to - based on a strictly materialistic/evolutionary model.

me said...

Who really doesn't think the frum rabbis, if in power, would do what they say and believe and fight for every day? Every secular jew and every gentile would have a two mintute life expectancy.
I have seen their wickedness personally up front and in person. There is no question, if the frum rabbis would be in power it would be the worst nightmare klal israel has ever gone through. And the sad thing is it is coming already. I already see the thousand years of darkness. Happy is he who is prepared.

Frum Heretic said...

Re if the frum rabbis would be in power it would be the worst nightmare klal israel has ever gone through.

Although I don't paint the rabbanim (mostly the chareidi rabbis) with as broad a stroke as you do, I too find the behavior of many them disturbing. The idea of living under a theocracy with them in control (especially from the kannoim in the "lower ranks") is indeed frightening.