Everyday People Who Step Up – Part XXI

A bystander sometimes comes to the aid of a stranger and loses his life



Everyday people who were bystanders to emergency have demonstrated the ultimate in self-sacrifice. In this kind of activity, some live, some die.

Many people during the Holocaust saved strangers. The State of Israel has recognized over 27,000 Gentiles who did so and are deemed “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Irena Sendler (1910-2008), a Polish Catholic, was the subject of a 2009 movie (The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler) and a 2016 book (Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto, by Tilar J. Mazzeo). Catholic Oskar Schindler (1908-1974) saved 1,200 and was the subject of the 1993 film Schindler’s List. Catholic French woman Jeanne Brousse (1921-2017) was in her 20s when she saved dozens of Jewish families. In a Washington Post obituary of October 27, 2017, Ms. Brousse was quoted, “I was determined. . . that the greatest number of those who came to me could be saved.”

In January 1945, a 24-year-old seminarian saw a 13-year-old girl at a train station in Poland. She was lying on the ground without strength. She was wearing a thin, striped labor camp uniform. Without fear of authorities, he approached her. He asked her name. He left her and returned with hot tea, bread, and cheese. He gave her his overcoat. She was uncertain of how to reach her destination, Krakow, and too weak to walk. He carried her on his back three kilometers to another train station. They would reunite after the seminarian was elected Pope John Paul II. Edith Zeier died in 2014.

Turning to instances of bystanders outside the context of the Holocaust, there are a number of instances where bystanders have saved people from oncoming trains. Recent instances include: “Young Man Leaps Onto Subway Tracks to Save Fallen Man as Train Approaches,” 4NBCNewYork (video), May 26, 2016; Jim Dwyer, “In a Race to Save a Man on the Tracks, a Reminder of What’s Good in the World,” N.Y. Times, June 14, 2016; Kwegyerba Croffie, “Transit Officer’s Quick Action Saves Man from Path of Oncoming Train,” CNN, August 29, 2016.

Here are additional examples of bystanders coming to another’s aid and losing their lives: On May 7, 2019, Catholic Kendrick Castillo rushed a gunman, a fellow high school student, and was fatally shot (see John Castillo, “No Greater Love,” Columbia Magazine (Knights of Columbus), vol. 99, no. 7, July-August 2019, pp. 8-12). In October 2018, Patricio Salazar came to the aid of a woman who was being sexually assaulted. The perpetrator beat him unconscious and Mr. Salazar died (Denise C. McAllister, “Hero Who Died Fending Off Potential Rapist Underscores the Dangers of Me Too,” The Federalist, Oct. 22, 2018). During the epic flooding in Louisiana in August 2016 caused by Hurricane Harvey, volunteers manned an armada — nicknamed the “Cajun Navy” — of rescue boats and other means of transport. At least one such volunteer died. “Bill Borne, the founder and former CEO of the national home nursing firm Amedisys, who was attempting to help rescue neighbors in an ATV, drowned amid the floodwaters. He was 62” (Scott McKay, “A Tale of Two Disasters,” American Spectator, Aug. 16, 2016). In September 2008, Catholic Thomas Vander Woude tried to rescue his teenaged son who had fallen into a septic tank. The son was heavy and could not be lifted up. So the father went into the tank and tried to push him up from below. The son was saved but the father drowned (Jonathan Mummolo, “Father Who Died Saving Son Known for Sacrifice,” Washington Post, Sept. 10, 2008; see Peter Jesserer Smith, National Catholic Register, March 24, 2015, about a fund for people with Down Syndrome).

Anne Dufourmantelle, a French philosopher and psychoanalyst “known for her work that praised living a life that embraced risk,” drowned July 21, 2017, in a successful attempt to save two children from drowning (Kyle Swenson, “A Famous French Thinker’s Philosophy Was Based on Taking Risks; And That’s How She Tragically Died,” Washington Post, July 25, 2017). Jessica and Derek Simmons were walking on the Panama City, Florida, shore Saturday evening, July 8, 2017, when they saw a commotion among people, including a police truck with lights flashing, on the beach. There were ten people in the water struggling in a riptide. In over 20 minutes of effort, the swimmers had not escaped and the beachgoers’ attempts had failed. Jessica thought to herself, “These people are not drowning today! It’s not happening! We’re going to get them out!” Jessica and her husband, and three more people, and then 15, then 80, formed a human chain going out 100 yards into the Gulf. After an hour, all ten were saved (Katie Mettler, “Florida Beachgoers Form a Human Chain to Save 10 Swept Off by Riptide,” Washington Post, July 12, 2017, p.A3).


***Editor’s Note: For Part XXII in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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