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The Courage of Conscience

Posted on Jul 31, 2012

By Nomi Prins

“Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times”
A book by Eyal Press

Eyal Press’ book “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times” is a stunning, deeply stirring collection of true stories about the most unlikely of heroes: four men and one woman who chose uncomfortable, and in some cases potentially lethal, courses of action because they could envision doing nothing else.

None sought to be heroes. None were motivated by external validators such as money, power or fame. Indeed, in all cases, the opposite occurred—loss of money, influence and status. They acted, rather, out of a profound sense of empathy and compassion, putting the needs of the “many” before their own.

Throughout the book, Press presents theories, experiment results and analyses of what motivates people to nonconformity, quoting luminaries such as Hannah Arendt and Adam Smith. But in the end, theories are just that. Press’ message is that people can, and do, have the capacity to make humanity-preserving choices, regardless of the obstacles. It is not because they are radicals, but because they witness something terribly wrong in the system they trust.

book cover


Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

By Eyal Press


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages


Buy the book

Leyla Wydler was a successful financial adviser at Stanford Group Co., making $150,000 a year in 2002. The last chapter, The Price of Raising One’s Voice, follows her decade-long fight after she blew the whistle on her employer, Allen Stanford, who was the perpetrator of a $7 billion Ponzi scheme, one of the largest in U.S. history. In addition to using his ill-gotten gains for extravagant living and influencing politicians, Stanford paid handsome bonuses to salespeople to sell fraudulent CDs to clients.  Yet, his crimes went uninvestigated for years.  On June 14, 2012, Stanford was finally sentenced to 110 years in prison, convicted of 13 felonies.

In the course of Wydler’s fight to expose his scam, she was fired by Stanford and ignored by a series of ambivalent regulators, who remain unaccountable.

As a single mother, with two children and breast cancer, Wydler had everything to lose by standing up. She didn’t set out to become a hero; she wanted to expose the truth in order to save her clients’ money. Far from being skeptical of the system of finance, she was a big believer in it and in the regulatory structure. But what she saw at Stanford shook her values and forced her to act. Throughout legal battles with a billionaire, taunts from former co-workers and a waning bank account, she persevered and prevailed. But many whistle-blowers do not triumph. They lose their jobs and dignity in an antiquated system that favors the powerful, and their efforts are never acknowledged.

The first chapter, Disobeying the Law, is the story of a police commander, Paul Grüninger, in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1938. He breaks protocol to help Jews obtain asylum as they cross over the border from Austria, and saved hundreds of lives.

He was honored for his heroism decades later, but at the time he was socially ostracized, fired from his job and had his reputation destroyed. His actions were an acute reproach to Switzerland for what the country was supposed to stand for, but didn’t.

To see long excerpts from “Beautiful Souls” at Google Books, click here.

He was not born a rebel, but a man who had fervently believed in the asylum-providing traditions of Switzerland. His official duty of denying Jews entry in 1938, coupled with his own subsequent treatment, revealed those beliefs to be misguided. According to his daughter, the social consequences he suffered took a major toll on his psyche. But “when I looked into the faces of those people, I had to do what I did,” he said in a 1971 interview. At his funeral, a rabbi recited a famous Talmudic passage: “He who saves a single life saves the entire world.”

In Defying the Group, Press takes us to the bloody 1991 revolution in Bosnia- Herzegovina. There, a young Serb, Aleksander Jevtic, was asked to select Serbs for removal from a hall filled with Serbs and Croats, who are physically indistinguishable. Knowing that the Croat men faced certain death, he gestured to a group of them, calling them by Serbian names. He allowed them to exit the hall and saved their lives. 



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