What moves a person to risk his or her life to save another person, a stranger? While the story of the Jewish holocaust in Germany during World War II is a story of genocide and of whole communities standing aside as the Jews were sent to their deaths, it is also a story of altruism. According to researchers Samuel and Pearl Oliner, of Humboldt State University in California, those individuals who hid Jews in their houses and apartments, and on their farms, saved upwards of 500,000 people. To better understand what motivates people to save others, photographer Gay Block and author Malka Drucker, went on a three year journey to photograph and interview 105 rescuers from countries. The answers, which often challenge our assumptions, are chronicled in their book, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust. Visitors at Yad Vashem
Sociologist Nechama Tec, of the University of Connecticut, conducted a systematic study of rescuers for her book, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. What is most striking about the group is their ordinariness. They included the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the believers and the atheists. They viewed themselves as quite ordinary as well. “We didn’t think about it,” said one woman who, with her husband, saved dozens of Jews in Laren, Holland. “We did what any human being would have done.” Yet what they did was not ordinary. One trait that set them apart was that they were individualists. They did not follow the group, but followed their conscience. Secondly, they had a history of doing good before the war broke out–visiting people in the hospital, collecting books for poor students. Doing good had become a habit, and this simply continued through the war years. Third, the rescuers shared a sense of universalism. They saw the Jews, not as Jews, but simply as persecuted human beings.
Perhaps most astounding, the rescuers felt the gift of goodness could be passed on. “It is like flowers growing in a certain soil,” said one woman who sheltered Jews in her home in the Ukraine. “It is natural in every human being, but it must be nourished and cultivated.”
If you can, go to your public library and do some reading in these marvelous books. The pictures in Rescuers are fascinating. If you don’t have the time, go to the website http://www.holocaustforgotten.com/yadvashem.htm. This is the website for Yad Vashem, a museum established in 1953 that honors both “Holocaust martyrs and the Righteous Among the Nations, Gentile (non-Jewish) rescuers who have been recognized for their ‘compassion, courage, and morality’ because they ‘risked their lives to save the lives of Jews.’ ” The names of Righteous are added as they become known. As of Jan.1, 2011, there were 23,788 names from 40 nations. Poland tops the list with 6,266 names. This is ironic in that anti-Semitism was strongest and most institutionalized in Poland. Only in Poland were rescuers immediately put to death.
Spent a moment of quiet reflection. Consider the goodness of the 23,788
Block, G. & Drucker, M. 1992. Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust. New York: Holmes & Meier.
Gorman, C. 1992, Mar. 16. “A Conspiracy of Goodness.” Time, p. 65.
Tec, N. 1986. When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland. New York: Oxford U. Press.