'Two Trees in Jerusalem' by Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen, A Review

Two Trees in Jerusalem, which has now been translated into English and is newly available in the United States, is a deeply personal, intimate memoir by a German woman, Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen, recalling her childhood years in Germany during World War 2 and the Holocaust, and her parents' highly exceptional actions in protecting and rescuing Jews from the Nazis.

It is less a book in the conventional sense and more a life, a lesson and reflection in ethics and spirit, compassion and kindness, humanism, moral leadership, and resilience.

It cuts to the heart and maintains directness, honesty, and integrity that is simple, accessible, and psychologically and emotionally astute and generous. Put simply, after reading it I feel great admiration and affection for Cornelia, and an enormous sense of gratitude and deep respect for her parents and the risks they took to defend the lives of persecuted Jews in Poland/Ukraine and in Germany during the Holocaust.

It also touches upon a topic that has interested me for some time; what motivated rescuers during the Holocaust - sometimes at great cost to themselves and their families - to choose to act in solidarity with a persecuted minority and make efforts to protect and rescue Jews from the Nazis.

In 2001 I interviewed rescuers in Denmark who explained often in very brief and uncomplicated ways why they did what they did: out of a sense of humanism, out of a sense of liberal Danish nationalism/patriotism, out of political convictions/socialism, and out of ethical convictions. In the Netherlands one rescuer stated that her Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus inspired her actions.

Repeatedly, rescuers underemphasized the significance of their actions and insisted it was what any person of conscience would do and there was nothing noteworthy about what they did. Of course, there was. Because outside of Denmark (and, though much less known, Albania) it was extremely exceptional. Whatever the particular motivating factor to which they ascribed their behavior (religion, patriotism/liberal nationalism, political ideology, empathy/humanism, and ethics) rescuers ultimately all made reference in some form or another to a sense of common humanity and ethical obligation.

Cornelia's parents shared this motivating quality of having a sense of common humanity and ethical obligation towards innocent persecuted people - although it is not something they focused on or made particularly explicit because it almost seemed not to need mentioning, it was so obvious and instinctive to them, defining the very core of their identity and values as human beings.

They did of course at times have to explain themselves to Cornelia (she was a young child and needed to be told not to speak a word about their actions protecting Jews to anyone) and to explain their defiance of Hitler and Nazism. But they were far less interested in advancing a particular ideology (political or otherwise) than simply in doing what is good in a concrete, immediate way that preserves life and maintains human dignity and upholds human equality. This of course reflected their values and beliefs but their values and beliefs were grounded it appears not in abstract commitments to lofty principles but to immediate care for other vulnerable human beings in need.

Both of Cornelia's parents seem to have been very humble, unassuming people but with a powerful sense of self-efficacy and capacity for acting in ways that defended their values even when the society around them totally rejected them.

Although the book is deeply inspiring in that it tells of Cornelia's parents' rescue and protection of many Jews during the Holocaust it is also unflinching in its honest assessment of how these actions - while hugely significant - ultimately did not make an impact on the scale of genocide and the capacity of the Nazis and their collaborators to succeed at their genocidal project. Cornelia very sensitively describes the ways in which even Jews who were rescued and protected suffered terrible traumas and losses, and psychological pain that would often follow them for the rest of their lives.

I have visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel's Holocaust memorial. I walked along the Avenue of the Righteous and looked at the trees and the names, breathing in deeply, drawing in as much strength and hope as I possibly could. I paused before Oscar Schindler's tree to pay my respects and I found myself emotionally overwhelmed, in the best possible way, by the tree which simply states 'To the People of Denmark.'

I must have passed without knowing or noticing - having not yet read Cornelia's book - two very special trees which contributed to this garden of righteousness and humanity, empathy and compassion, justice and peace, freedom and equality: the olive tree planted in honor of Cornelia's mother, Donata, and the carob tree planted in honor of her father, Eberhard.