"What Excuse Do We Have?"
April 28, 2012
"What excuse do we have for not working together today?”
Not too long ago, I came across An Italian War Diary, written during the years 1943-1944 by Iris Origo. Ms. Origo owned an estate not far from Florence in Tuscany. She was living there at the time of the Nazi occupation. She, along with other partisans were risking their lives rescuing escaped allied prisoners of war and other allied soldiers who had been detached from their units.
I loved the way she answered this question: "what was the motivation of those who were helping these soldiers at the risk of their own lives?".
Her answer reminded me of the motivations of the heroes of the Underground Railroad in the United States, a history which I’ve come to know as Co-chairman of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
“What, it may be asked,” she wrote, “was the motive underlying the generous help given to the hunted Allied prisoners of war by the Italian countryfolk, often at the risk of their own lives? It would be a mistake, I think, to attribute it to any political – or even patriotic – motive. There was, it is true, a certain amount of anti-German and anti-Fascist feeling, especially among those peasants whose sons had been in the army against their will. But the true motive was a far simpler one: it has been described by an Italian partisan as ‘the simplest of all ties between one man and another; the tie that arises between the man who asks for what he needs, and the man who comes to his aid as best he can. No unnecessary emotion or pose.’
An English officer, himself an escaped prisoner of war, who owes his life to the help given him in this manner, expressed his views in almost identical words: ‘The peasants’ native sympathy with the under-dog and the outcast asserted itself. Simple Christianity impelled them to befriend those complete strangers, feed them, clothe them, and help them on their way…All over Italy this miracle was to be seen, the simple dignity of humble people who saw in the escaped prisoners not representatives of a power to be withstood or placated, but individuals in need of their help.’"
This story reminds me of one of the most memorable things that any historian has ever said to me. It was said by Professor Jim Horton. He was talking about the Underground Railroad:
“If people could help one another then, not even knowing each other and at the risk of their own lives, what excuse do we have for not working together today?”
What excuse, indeed!