I’ve always associated the notion of the captain going down with the ship with the Titanic disaster of 1912 and that ship’s captain Edward Smith (who did indeed go down with his ship), but it turns out that the expression dates back to a novel published eleven years earlier in which a packet of letters was entrusted to a woman on board a passenger liner rather than to the captain because, as the author, Alix John, wrote, “…if anything goes wrong a woman may be saved, whereas a captain goes down with his ship.” But even if the expression has its literary origins in a long-since-forgotten novel, the bottom line is that the notion itself—that the captain of a ship must look to the safety of the passengers and crew before fleeing a sinking vessel and securing his or her personal wellbeing—is understood by most to constitute perhaps the most basic of obligations of the captains of ships towards those who place their lives in those captains’ hands. That much seems obvious. But what about others whose responsibility towards passengers on a sinking ship is less obvious? That is the murkier question I want to pose and attempt to answer in my letter to you all this week.
History is replete with captains who chose to put their own wellbeing last and instead to risk their own lives for the sake of those whose safety was entrusted to them. There are also, of course, many examples of captains who behaved less well. Until last week, the best known recent example of the latter would probably have been the captain of the Italian cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, which sank in January 2012 off the Italian coast. (Although leaving a sinking ship is not per se a crime in Italy, the captain was later charged with manslaughter and causing the loss of the ship. The outcome of the trial is pending.) But that was then…and now the most famous captain to abandon his ship rather than to remain with his passengers is surely Lee Jun-Seok, the captain of the Sewol ferry that sank on April 16 about sixteen miles off the Korean coast, and among the first to flee the vessel once it began to capsize. Unfortunately for Captain Lee, Korean law explicitly forbids captains to abandon their ships, as a result of which he was arrested two days later and charged with “abandoning the boat and its passengers in a time of crisis.” It hasn’t helped the captain’s case that a photograph of him safely leaving the boat, thus abandoning hundreds to their fate, went viral shortly thereafter on the internet. Nor has it helped that the president of Korea, Park Geun-hye, felt free to opine publicly that the captain’s behavior was tantamount to murder and that she found it was legally and ethically incomprehensible. Of the 476 souls on board, most of them high school students, only 174 were rescued. 159 are confirmed dead and it is unclear how any of the remaining 143 passengers could possibly still be alive. Probably, none is. The coming days, no doubt, will bring even more grim news with them.
What Captain Lee’s fate will be, none can yet say. But I write today not to evaluate the captain’s behavior, but to discuss instead the behavior of a different party entirely, one Kang Min-kyu, the vice principal of Danwon High School who survived the ferry disaster and then chose to take his own life as the ultimate expression of remorse for his role, such as it was, in the tragedy. But what exactly was his role? Kang, age fifty-two, was the chaperone of the high school students on board, the school official to whom those students’ parents had entrusted their children for the course of their outing on a school-sponsored trip. He wasn’t the captain of the ship. No one had any reason to imagine he knew anything about boats at all. (When my own mother served as “class mom” when our sixth grade class went to the Bronx Zoo in the spring of 1965, I can’t imagine anyone supposed she knew how to drive a school bus!) He was thus responsible for the children, not the boat. But the weight of responsibility in the wake of disaster was apparently too heavy for the man to bear. When they cut him down from the tree from which he was found hanging near a gymnasium where the students’ families were gathering to await the worst news, a note in his wallet read, “It is too much being alive while more than two hundred of my students are missing. Please place all the blame on me because I was in charge of the trip. Please cremate my body and scatter the ashes where the ship sank. Perhaps I should be a teacher for those missing children in the other world.”
There’s a lot to take apart in those words. Part of me thinks that any suicide prompted by despair is by definition an act of futility and that people who take their own lives are by definition acting irrationally and wrongly. Most of me thinks that, actually. Surely, our Jewish tradition forbids suicide even as an ultimate expression of remorse. If Vice Principal Kang had come to me personally for counselling before making his decision, I would have encouraged him to find a less self-destructive way to channel his sense of responsibility for the children who died on his watch, one that would honor both their memory and his sense of personal, if legally unreal, responsibility for their fate. But another part of me is moved almost beyond words by Vice Principal Kang’s need to step forward and take responsibility for the unimaginable loss of hundreds and hundreds of young lives. No one would ever imagine that he was personally blamable for what happened. I certainly don’t. Who rationally could? And yet…it’s impossible not to be moved by the man’s need personally to follow the children in his charge to the next world and there to watch over them in a way he was unable to manage in this one. Is it possible not to approve and yet to admire? That is the question I find myself uncertain how to answer.
Let’s talk about that note. Do we believe that that’s how it works, that people leave this world for another place that actually exists and in which deceased teenagers are posthumously enrolled in ghostly high schools in which they are taught by the spectral teachers who have followed them to Sheol? Korean folk belief does entertain a concept of the afterlife along those lines, but most of us would say that our endless talking about the World to Come is just so much poetry laced with a bit of mythological wishful thinking. And yet…what precisely do we mean when we talk about saying Kaddish “for” the dead or when we light yahrtzeit candles for the elevation of the soul of someone whom we loved and lost, or when we pray that a relative who has died be bound up in the bond of life everlasting? That the notion that the dead live on is a key element in our thinking about the way the world works seems obvious…but even so the vice principal’s response seems tragically misguided. But there is also something moving to me about a man who understood responsibility for others on that visceral level, about a man for whom what mattered most was not behaving rationally or reasonably but stepping forward personally to expiate with his own death a tragedy that he felt himself responsible—even irrationally—for having failed to avert.
As I contemplate Vice Principal Kang’s death, I find my mind wandering to the story of Henryk Goldszmit, better known by his pen name Janusz Korczak. He was a pediatrician and an author of children’s books, but primarily he was an educator and the director of a Jewish children’s orphanage in Warsaw during the dark years of the German occupation. Although it is widely believed that he personally could have sought sanctuary successfully on the Aryan side of Warsaw, he chose to remain with the almost two hundred orphans in his care, ultimately accompanying them to Treblinka where he and they were all murdered on August 6, 1942. The stories are not the same, obviously. Korczak sacrificed himself for living children, choosing to give them the comfort of a familiar chaperone on what he, but possibly not they, knew was to be their final journey. He died nobly, laboring in the most extreme situation imaginable to do good in the world and to serve the children fate had entrusted to his care. I could not possibly admire Korczak more for his selflessness and his sacrifice. In a world of too few heroes, he was the real thing, a true hero whose bravery was a function, not of foolhardiness or self-aggrandizing bravado, but of the simple refusal to look away from the responsibility he perceived himself to bear towards the children in his charge…and his willingness to pay with his life for doing so.
To say that the vice principal acted foolishly only makes sense if he was wrong about there being a possibility of him watching over the children who were entrusted to him in the next world. I can’t condone what he did. As noted, if he had come to me for advice I would have advised him to find a less self-destructive way to express his grief. That’s the party line and it’s also what I truly do believe: that life is a gift from God that may never be rejected by people possessed of faith in God’s goodness. And yet, as noted, in a world in which so few take seriously the responsibilities life lays upon their shoulders, it also feels impossible not to admire a man who—apparently believing that there remained a role for him to play in the posthumous lives of the children who drowned on his watch—chose to follow his children to Sheol, to Hades, to what the Koreans themselves widely imagine to be the world to which the dead travel and in which they live on in some spectral version of the world they by then have left behind to the living.
To judge the man based on his own beliefs seems reasonable. I find myself, therefore, abhorring the deed but at least slightly admiring its doer. To dismiss his act as one that “must” have been a function of his own mental unbalance without ever having met the man seems hard to justify. Perhaps he was unbalanced at the very end, as he found in death the only rational response to the tragedy he survived but in which so many others died. Perhaps his final act—the taking of his own life—was only an act of irrational despair. Or perhaps the man was following through on beliefs he truly held…and living up to responsibility as he perceived it to be. It’s hard to say. It would be wrong to judge. But to treat the man dismissively merely because he saw no path forward other than the one he took—that also seems wrong and unduly harsh. In any event, I pray that he rests in peace and that the families and friends of all those who lost their lives on the Sewol find some comfort in the contemplation of one man’s effort to keep faith with the dead.