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Unlikely Heroes: The Place of Holocaust Rescuers in Research and Teaching

Unlikely Heroes: The Place of Holocaust Rescuers in Research and Teaching

Unlikely Heroes: The Place of Holocaust Rescuers in Research and Teaching

Unlikely Heroes: The Place of Holocaust Rescuers in Research and Teaching

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Classes and books on the Holocaust often center on the experiences of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, but rescuers also occupy a prominent space in Holocaust courses and literature even though incidents of rescue were relatively few and rescuers constituted less than 1 percent of the population in Nazi-occupied Europe. As inspiring figures and role models, rescuers challenge us to consider how we would act if we found ourselves in similarly perilous situations of grave moral import. Their stories speak to us and move us.

Yet this was not always the case. Seventy years ago these brave men and women, today regarded as the Righteous Among the Nations, went largely unrecognized; indeed, sometimes they were even singled out for abuse from their co-nationals for their selfless actions. Unlikely Heroes traces the evolution of the humanitarian hero, looking at the ways in which historians, politicians, and filmmakers have treated individual rescuers like Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, as well as the rescue efforts of humanitarian organizations. Contributors in this edited collection also explore classroom possibilities for dealing with the role of rescuers, at both the university and the secondary level.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496216304
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 05/01/2019
Series: Contemporary Holocaust Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 270
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ari Kohen is an associate professor of political science and Schlesinger Professor of Social Justice at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the author of In Defense of Human Rights: A Non-Religious Grounding in a Pluralistic World and Untangling Heroism: Classical Philosophy and the Concept of the Hero. Gerald J. Steinacher is an associate professor of history and Hymen Rosenberg Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the author of Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust and Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice

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Holocaust Rescuers in Historical and Academic Scholarship

Roy G. Koepp

The last several decades have seen a marked interest by historians and other academics in the actions of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. This small subset of Holocaust studies has long been overlooked by most scholars, whose attention focused more on the crimes of the Nazis, the processes by which they sought to murder the Jews of Europe, and instances of Jewish resistance to genocide. However, utilizing the records of Yad Vashem, along with their own research, historians and other social scientists have begun to tell the story of Holocaust rescuers.

A key component of this research concerns trying to explain the causes for the heroic activity of rescuers. Though this topic has engaged academics, it is no mere academic exercise. For some, like Leonard Grob, it provides a blueprint to empower future generations. He writes, "The witness of rescuers during the Holocaust thus does more than shake up our assumptions about a fundamentally self-serving human nature. Their witness inspires us to follow in the ways they lead. Rescuers help us know that we have it within ourselves to repair the world." The scholarship produced on Holocaust rescuers points to three main reasons why people saved Jews: altruism, religion, and resistance to the imperatives of German policy.

The number of people who engaged in Holocaust rescue is sadly rather small. According to Samuel and Pearl Oliner, the number of people who engaged in rescue fluctuates between fifty thousand and five hundred thousand individuals. The exact number may never be known with precision because a not insignificant number of rescuers lost their lives both during World War II and after. Moreover, the higher number includes many people who helped Jews not only for the reasons listed above but for baser reasons as well. If one takes the criteria that the Holocaust remembrance authority Yad Vashem use to determine the "Righteous Among the Nations," the lower number of fifty thousand seems more likely. However, Martin Gilbert points out that "in almost every instance where a Jew was saved, more than one non-Jew was involved in the act of rescue, which in many cases took place over several years. 'In order to save one Jew,' writes Elisabeth Maxwell, referring to the French experience,' it required ten or more people in every case.'"

In the first few decades after 1945 few historians paid any attention to the story of Holocaust rescuers. Most scholarship investigated the genocide committed against the Jews of Europe, focusing on the steps that led to the Holocaust, the processes the Nazis used to carry it out, and the suffering of the victims. Raul Hilberg's monumental study, The Destruction of the European Jews, remains the quintessential example of this early scholarship. In addition, other historians, like Yitzhak Arad, preferred to write about aspects of Jewish resistance, both in the ghettoes and in the camps. Moreover, a great deal of resistance emerged to the idea of investigating rescuers because of the deeply held belief that by highlighting the story of rescuers, authors would lessen people's willingness to confront the truth of the Holocaust. One survivor epitomized this sentiment succinctly when she wrote to Martin Gilbert, arguing that "the focus is shifting away from the crimes."

As it happened, many rescuers preferred it that way. Despite their undoubted heroism in saving Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, very few came forward with their stories. As Patrick Henry notes, many rescuers — like those they saved — wanted to move on with their lives following the war and reflected the historical amnesia that affected all European societies in the first decade and a half following 1945. Additionally, some feared that the latent antisemitism in their societies might lead to retribution if people knew what they had done for Jews during the Holocaust. Finally, nearly all felt as if they had done nothing truly remarkable, that their actions were those that normal people would have carried out. This last sentiment defined rescuers even as people began to recognize their efforts. When Yad Vashem honored Tine zur Kleinsmiede in Israel she noted, "Anyone would have done the same thing, in my place. Any decent person, that is."

As a result, the earliest research done on Holocaust rescuers did not come from academia but from three major sources: Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority; the efforts of individual authors to highlight the stories of individual rescuers — often motivated by religious reasons; and from the publication of a handful of memoirs of individual rescuers who decided to tell their stories, like the French pastor André Trocmé. Of the three, the efforts of Yad Vashem were of particular importance for the development of research on rescuers.

Founded in 1953 by the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), the organization had as one of its principal goals to investigate and honor non-Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust. As Mordecai Paldiel notes, this aspect of Yad Vashem's work did not begin until 1962, with the creation of the Commission of the Righteous, a board that looks at rescue cases and judges whether the person(s) in question deserves the title "Righteous Among the Nations." Those given this prestigious award receive a medal and certificate and have their names inscribed in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, though the tradition of planting a tree for the honoree has been discontinued due to lack of space. As of 2012 Yad Vashem has awarded the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" to 23,200 individuals from all over Europe.

The work of Yad Vashem impacted academic research on rescuers in several ways. First, due to its own research into determining the Righteous as well as documenting the horrors of the Holocaust, the organization has compiled a significant archive to aid those interested in the stories of rescuers and provide a springboard for further research. Second, the criteria that Yad Vashem uses to determine the Righteous have guided scholars in delineating who could be a rescuer. These standards include the willingness to risk one's own life to save Jews from deportation and extermination, personal involvement in the rescue of Jews (regardless of outcome), performing actions that sprang from humanitarian concerns and not out of a desire for compensation, the absence of physical harm to Jews or others, and the documentation of these activities from survivors either through oral testimony or incontrovertible documentary evidence of their actions. Finally, the research of Yad Vashem identified the types of aid that qualified as rescue. These included sheltering or hiding Jews, helping them to assume new identities, helping to transport them to safer locales, and hiding children who found themselves separated from their parents.

Academic research on Holocaust rescue began in earnest in the 1980s. Much of this scholarship, then and now, was interdisciplinary in nature, with contributions made from a variety of academic fields, including, in addition to history, sociology, psychology, theology, and medicine. Utilizing the primary source material at Yad Vashem, these scholars added contemporary interviews with rescuers and those they rescued. Of primary importance in these studies of Holocaust rescue, beyond describing the heroism of the rescuers, was discerning the reasons why rescuers saved Jews in German-occupied Europe. Those who engaged in rescue did so for a variety of reasons, with a great deal of overlap regarding their motivations. In the process of investigating these causes, scholars have created an impressive body of scholarship on the subject of Holocaust rescue. Keeping that in mind, there are three main motivations that scholars have identified for the actions of Holocaust rescuers that form the remainder of this article. These are altruism, religion, and resistance.

The first major causal factor highlighted by academic researchers is the idea of altruism. This interpretive school springs from the research of psychologist and sociologists who first began exploring the rescuer phenomenon in the 1980s. In initial studies, authors took the criteria set forth by Yad Vashem that to be considered one of the Righteous, rescuers had to save Jews without regard to their own personal safety or to personal profit. These standards formed the basis for one of the seminal works on Holocaust rescuers, The Altruistic Personality, published in 1988 by Samuel and Pearl Oliner. Samuel Oliner, a sociology professor and a survivor of the Holocaust saved by non-Jews, directed the research for this book through the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt State University that he founded in 1982. Along with his wife, Pearl Oliner, and a team of researchers, Oliner and his staff interviewed seven hundred people in Poland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Belgium, and Norway. Those subjects selected included rescuers, nonrescuers, and survivors. Cross-checking their findings with Yad Vashem and other archives, the Oliners created a profile of the typical rescuer, one with certain characteristics that served as a guide to their behavior during the Holocaust.

They identified this composite type as an altruistic personality. The people identified as such in the study shared several traits in common. The first concerned upbringing. Those engaged in rescue tended to come from close-knit families where parents placed a premium on the values of communication and caring. The homes in which rescuers grew up were laxer in terms of discipline but still maintained high standards of behavior associated with empathy for others. This fostered a high degree of self-worth and a strong moral core that reacted positively when it saw its values threated. These people tended to help others instinctively, or when asked. By contrast, people from more authoritarian environments tended to have weak familial relationships and viewed interactions with other people in a more transactional way.

Influenced by the ideas set forth in The Altruistic Personality, other scholars have sought to deepen the analysis by advancing ideas that complemented or challenged the findings that the Oliners made. Lawrence Baron has highlighted a couple of these. One was the theory of marginalization advanced by Perry London. He argued that people who saw themselves as outcasts in society would identify more with Jews because of their outsider status. This would lead to higher incidences of rescue or sheltering of Jews. A variation on this theory, advanced by the sociologist Nechama Tec, argued that marginalized populations tended to see themselves as more independent and autonomous in terms of their decision making. A second argument, advanced by Douglas Huneke and Eva Fogelman, posits that some rescuers were compelled to save Jews due to a well-developed sense for human suffering that came from trauma, whether it was illness, handicap, or the loss of a loved one. Finally, most researchers looking at psychological or social characteristics of rescuers note that a not-too-insignificant number of rescuers had personal relationships and attachments to the Jews they helped save.

The idea of altruism put forward in The Altruistic Personality has had, and continues to have, a decided influence on rescuer research. Not only has it inspired several studies from people associated with the Oliners' research project, but altruism as a motivating force is one that is elastic and can encompass many different types of rescuers and situations, including those for whom religion or resistance are the main reasons given for rescue. For instance, reflecting on the Danish rescue of Denmark's Jewish population in October 1943, Arthur Cohen notes that Danish society had a civic culture that acknowledged diversity in unity and emphasized "civic virtue, moral responsibility, and clarity of self-understanding." He claimed that these values led the people of Denmark to resist German orders to give up their Jews for transportation east. This "act of resistance," he argued, would have been carried out for any Danish minority community.

Similarly, for the people of the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and its surrounding plateau the rescue of Jews was seen not only as an act of resistance, one based in the religious sentiments of its primarily Protestant population, but in the fact that the region had sheltered religious dissidents for centuries regardless of religious persuasion, in manner reminiscent of the characteristics of altruism. This elasticity makes the psychosocial ideas surrounding altruism one of the more fruitful ways to interpret the phenomenon of Holocaust rescuers.

The second major causal factor for Holocaust rescue looked at by academic researchers concerns the religious motivations of the rescuers. The desire to help save Jews due to deeply held religious beliefs is a topic that has captured the public imagination. For the vast majority of people, their knowledge of Holocaust rescue comes primarily from stories involving devout Christians engaged in rescue. The most well known of these involves the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous person, whose very religious Dutch family rescued and hid Jews during war. After her arrest, imprisonment, and release, her story became famous due in large part to ten Boom's activism in favor of reconciliation, her activities as an evangelist, and the publication of her memoir, The Hiding Place. The prevalence of stories like those of Corrie ten Boom, while inspiring and comforting to many Christians, was not universally welcomed by survivors, many of whom regarded it as a distraction from the crimes of the Holocaust.

The first academic investigations of rescuers inspired by religion emerged in 1986 with the publication of Nechama Tec's When Light Pierced the Darkness. Tec, like many researchers at the time, approached the topic from a sociological perspective. Her study took place in her native Poland, where she had survived the Holocaust in Lublin. She found that many Poles that helped Jews did so out of compassion, with a smaller minority doing so for base reasons only. Most rescuers represented a cross-section of Polish society, with the largest numbers consisting of farmers, workers, and intellectuals, while the middle classes did the least to save Polish Jews. Of particular interest in Tec's study was her assessment of the role of the Catholic Church, an institution that played a significant role in the lives of many Poles. Tec notes that, during the Holocaust, the church, both the clergy and laity, adopted a relatively neutral stance regarding Nazi genocide. Despite the efforts of some members of the church, particularly Polish nuns, to hide (and baptize) Jewish children, very little was accomplished by Polish clergy. Tec argues that had the church done more as an institution, this might have inspired even more Poles to save Jews from destruction.

Another author who has looked at the religious motivations for Holocaust rescue is Pearl M. Oliner. Her study Saving the Forsaken: Religious Culture and the Rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe builds on the work of The Altruistic Personality. In this study, Oliner looked at rescuers who were deeply religious, moderately religious, and irreligious to see how these differing identification levels impacted who sought to save Jews, and why. A second goal of the study was to investigate how the Protestant-Catholic divide impacted the question of rescue. The ideal type of religious rescuer would have had a highly developed sense of what Oliner calls "outgroup altruism." Her findings were that none of the groups or subgroups had a majority of members that would qualify as "outgroup altruistic" in terms of group culture, but that within each division there existed a small group of people who identified significantly with the outgroup. When compared to bystanders and nonrescuers, they scored significantly higher in all the criteria that Oliner utilized in the study to determine "outgroup altruism." The different cultures of Protestants and Catholics, one more dialectical, the other more analogical and imaginative, led to instances of what she called "consequential altruism" in relation to rescuers. "Consequential altruism" is an act that led to a good outcome, whether or not it did for the person engaged in rescue.

The third factor that historians and other academics have identified to explain the motivations of Holocaust rescuers is the idea of "rescue as resistance." This has become a more prominent aspect of research on rescuers, and one grounded less in sociological theories than in historical research. As with the other two motivations highlighted by scholars, the concept of "resistance" is a fluid one that sees many people who engaged in rescue having other motivations. In fact, one could argue, as was done recently at the 2017 Sommerhauser Symposium, that every act of rescue is, on some level, an act of resistance. While true, scholars who have argued for resistance serving as a primary cause for the rescue of Jews have stipulated that, for these types of rescuers, the imperative to take a strong stance against the ideological and racial program of the Nazi regime became the primary focal point for collective action by groups of individuals or organizations. Reasons rooted in altruism and religion still played a significant role in the actions of these groups, but they served as contributing causes rather than the primary factor.


Excerpted from "Unlikely Heroes"
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Table of Contents

Ari Kohen and Gerald J. Steinacher
Part 1. Research about Rescue
1. Holocaust Rescuers in Historical and Academic Scholarship
Roy G. Koepp
2. The Saved and the Betrayed: Hidden Jews in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia     
Benjamin Frommer
3. The Final Rescue? Liberation and the Holocaust
Mark Celinscak
4. The War Refugee Board: Formulating Rescue from Washington
Rebecca Erbelding
5. Raoul Wallenberg: The Making of an American Hero
Michael Dick
6. The University in Exile and the Garden of Eden: Alvin Johnson and His Rescue Efforts for European Jews and Intellectuals
Gerald J. Steinacher and Brian Barmettler
Part 2. Teaching about Rescue
7. From Saints to Sinners: Teaching about the Motivations of Rescuers of Jews through Documentary and Feature Films
Lawrence Baron
8. Complicating the Narrative: Oskar Schindler, Schindler’s List, and the Classroom
Mark Gudgel
9. Teaching the Lesson of Moral Courage through Writing
Liz Feldstern and Amanda Ryan
Suggested Further Reading and Films

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