Saving the Forsaken: Religious Culture and the Rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe

Saving the Forsaken: Religious Culture and the Rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe

by Pearl M. Oliner

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Does religion encourage altruism on behalf of those who do not belong? Are the very religious more likely to be altruistic toward outsiders than those who are less religious? In this book Pearl M. Oliner examines data on Christian rescuers and nonrescuers of Jews during the Holocaust to shed light on these important questions.

Drawing on interviews with more than five hundred Christians—Protestant and Catholic, very religious, irreligious, and moderately religious rescuers and nonrescuers living in Nazi-occupied Europe, Oliner offers a sociological perspective on the values and attitudes that distinguished each group. She presents several case studies of rescuers and nonrescuers within each group and then interprets the individual’s behavior as it relates to his or her group. She finds that the value patterns of the religious groups differ significantly from one another, and she is able to highlight those factors that appear to have contributed most toward rescue within each group.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300130409
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Pearl M. Oliner, professor emeritus of education at Humboldt State University, is also research director of the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt State University. Her other books include The Altruistic Personality and Toward a Caring Society.

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Saving the Forsaken


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10063-1

Chapter One

Religion and Culture

When we moved to Leidsche Dam, the Jews were not bothered yet. But within a year we received a letter from my brother-in-law that the Jews in Rijssen were having trouble: a doctor and a teacher had been arrested, and others too. We thought immediately of the Levin family. A few days later at the dinner table, we were reading as our daily Bible reading the passage in Isaiah 58 that talks about fasting, sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the poor and persecuted to your house, clothing the naked and so on. The children were at the table, but my wife and I looked at each other and we knew what we had to do: this was our way. -Alexander

I was in the military between 1939 to 1940. Then I was a student at engineering school at the Ponts et Chaussées from 1940 to 1942. Then I became an engineer, working at public highways and bridges, building roads at Nevers. I was also involved in building the channel there. Afterwards, I worked in the Department of the Seine, in the division of motor fuel andpublic transportation. My wife was home, busy raising the children. -Jacques

I saw what was happening and talked with friends, fellow students and others. By chance, a farmer's son once said to me: "If expenses were paid, some farm workers would be willing to hide a child." I thought to myself what a great idea. So I went to talk to some of the farm workers and some of my friends agreed to supply the money. From then on I traveled around looking for places and distributing coupons. I was mostly involved with Jewish children, and some adults. I provided them with coupons, clothes, etc. Most important of course, was finding a hiding address of course, but school was also important. When I didn't have an address, I'd shove it on to a colleague or the colleague to me. -Maartje

We left our flat in Warsaw and went to our summer place-we rented rooms there. And I helped the local people a lot. My first contact with the partisans was in our summer place. I also worked at a first-aid station in 1944 where different people came: Poles and Russians. My whole training amounted to a three-month first-aid course. I always took my baby along. I thought it better to die together than to leave her an orphan. I did it to help Poland-that was the most important thing, to help Poland. -Gosha

These vignettes give a sense of the wartime activities of four people, all of whom lived in occupied Europe during World War II. In each of the countries they represent, Jewish inhabitants became victims of that horrendous event known as the Shoah, more commonly the Holocaust. Alexander, a very religious Christian, became a rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust, but Jacques, an equally religious Christian, did not. Irreligious Maartje became a rescuer, but equally irreligious Gosha did not. What led very religious Alexander and irreligious Maartje to become rescuers? Did they share similar values, and if so, how representative were they of their respective religious and irreligious groups? And what values influenced their counter parts-very religious Jacques and irreligious Gosha-to make different decisions?

Proposed answers to just such questions have often focused on values and attitudes commonly associated with altruism: values having to do with care and empathy, for example. Not uncommonly, too, values and attitudes have focused on personality, that is, attributes and experiences associated with individuals. This book also focuses on values and attitudes commonly associated with altruism, but rather than concentrating on individuals, its dominant concern is the religious cultural contexts from which individuals emerged.

The groups studied here reflect different levels of religiosity-the very religious, the moderately religious, and the irreligious-as well as two denominations-Protestants and Roman Catholics. What I will explore is how altruistically associated predispositions of these groups compared, concentrating particularly on their differences, and if differences among them reflected some discernible patterns that might help explain cultural influences on individual responses. While my specific focus here is on Christian culture and rescue of Jews during the Holocaust, my aspiration is to suggest some relationships between cultural values generally and altruism, and most particularly between cultural values and altruism toward outsiders (a phenomenon we call "out-group altruism"). In that context, we will meet Alexander, Maartje, Jacques and Gosha again in the following chapters. It is my hope that by considering them in much greater detail, we will gain a better understanding of their responses in terms of the cultures from which they emerged.

"Christian" here includes Protestants and Roman Catholics of varying levels of religiosity-very religious, moderately religious, and irreligious-living in selected countries of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe during World War II. "Culture" refers to the more or less shared beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values of the various groups: the very religious, the moderately religious, and the irreligious, as well as Protestants and Catholics generally. Jews are the "outgroup": marginalized under the best of circumstances, they were increasingly persecuted and hunted as the Nazi terror spread.

Rescuers helped in diverse ways, among them escorting Jews to safety across borders, acting as couriers on their behalf, seeking hiding places, and providing shelter within their own homes, sometimes for several years. Undertaken without expectations of external rewards, and under threat of death in most cases, not only for rescuers but often for their families as well, rescue was an altruistic act of the highest level. It was also a very rare act; even by the most generous standards, less than one-half of one percent of the population under Nazi occupation participated in it.

Historians and theologians-Jews and non-Jews-have given considerable attention to Christian behavior during the Holocaust, and their work has been invaluable for all scholars interested in this subject. Their primary concentration, however, has been on religious institutions and their leaders, as well as the theological underpinnings which may have underlain their respective behaviors. With mounting conviction, scholars generally point to an overall institutional failure. With a few notable local exceptions, religious institutions, Catholic and Protestant, failed to respond adequately to the unfolding Jewish genocide. Religious institutions are an essential part of culture and play a critical role in influencing the decisions of their adherents. Institutional leaders and their policies tell us a great deal about religious officials and religious elites, but they do not necessarily reflect the thinking of ordinary participants in that culture. They serve a peripheral role here, providing some background material as may be necessary. My primary focus is on ordinary Christians and how their values and attitudes may have affected their decision to rescue or not to rescue.

As already noted, values and attitudes included in this study concentrate on those orientations often associated with prosocial and altruistic behaviors. Explicit theological beliefs are excluded, although they are assumed to have influenced such cultural orientations and to have been influenced by them. Psychologists and social psychologists largely pioneered the scientific study of altruism and continue to make major contributions toward understanding it. This work depends heavily on their efforts, but it differs in emphasis.

The primary unit of analysis among psychologists and social psychologists tends to be individuals: their personality characteristics and, to a lesser degree, the situational variables that influence them. Personality focuses on internal characteristics of individuals, and those associated with altruism include among others empathy, sense of personal responsibility, mood, and personal norms. Personality variables associated with rescue have included similar attributes, with particular emphasis on attitudes toward Jews and other outsiders. Situational variables refer to external matters, among which relevant skills (for example, knowing how to rescue a drowning person), the presence of others (for example, when others are present, responsibility is often diffused), the expressed emotions of victims (for example, victims who scream are more likely to be helped than those who don't), and social norms (when unwritten or written standards say helping is the right thing to do, people are more likely to help) have been identified as encouraging altruistic responses. External variables associated with rescue have included opportunity, availability of resources, networks, and normative considerations among others. Several studies of rescuers have found evidence to support the importance of the above-mentioned personality and external characteristics, including one by my husband, Samuel P. Oliner, and myself.

Yet despite the major contributions made by these investigators in helping us understand attributes associated with altruism, psychological and social psychological studies have some limitations. One of them is the often implicit assumption that relevant personal attributes are similar across groups: that is, qualities influencing men to behave altruistically would have the same effect on women; the old and young would respond in like fashion given similar attributes; and, in the context of this book, qualities influencing the very and moderately religious would induce similar responses among the irreligious, as well as among Catholics and Protestants. But is that indeed the case, or did these groups in fact approach their decisions differently? Phrased differently, did religious cultural context make a difference?

As defined here, culture means the more or less shared beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values found in a group of people who may or may not have contact with one another, but who nonetheless share a sense of common identity that makes them distinct from others. Culture is part of the external world from which people learn to interpret events and evaluate circumstances.

How is culture different from personality? Psychologists agree that at bottom all humankind shares a universal nature; a genetic inheritance that includes basic physical properties-sensory capacities, bodily systems-and basic psychological properties-the capacity to communicate, create and play, and feel emotions such as anger and love. The sense that individuals make of their physical properties, and how they communicate or feel about things, are functions of their culture and personality. Culture is learned and is not inherited genetically. While each culture is unique in the sense that no culture is exactly the same as any other culture, individuals in the same culture tend to share many of its major beliefs and values. Personality is also unique, but unlike culture, which marks a group of people as distinct from others, personality characterizes one person as distinct from all others. Personality results from learning and inheritance, and no single individual has exactly the same personality as any other individual. Personal and cultural experiences contribute to the development of personality, but so do genetic factors. Culture and personality have a reciprocal relationship; each is influenced by and influences the other, but personality is the particular constellation of psychological characteristics that mark one person as singular.

In keeping with the cultural focus of this exploration, the groups discussed here are people who lived in Europe during World War II, but who differed in terms of their degree of Christian religiosity and Christian denominational affiliation. The purpose of this book is to suggest how the cultural contexts of each religious group may have influenced the decision to rescue or not to rescue. I focus on answers to two broad questions: First, how did levels of religiosity-very religious, moderately religious, and irreligious-influence rescue? More specifically, what values and attitudes distinguished religious rescuers from less religious rescuers, and how did very religious, moderately religious and irreligious rescuers differ from one another and from their non-rescuer counterparts? Second, how did Catholics and Protestants approach rescue? More specifically, what values and attitudes distinguished Catholic rescuers from Protestant rescuers, and how did Catholic and Protestant rescuers differ from their similarly affiliated nonrescuer counterparts?

To answer these questions I relied on the database collected by the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute. It includes interviews conducted in the late seventies and eighties with 510 persons living in several countries in Nazi-occupied Europe-346 rescuers and 164 nonrescuers-as well as 150 survivors. Most of the respondents are from Poland, Germany, France, and Holland, but also included are representatives from Italy, Denmark, Belgium, and Norway. Most still lived in their native countries at the time the institute's associates interviewed them; some had emigrated to Canada and the United States.

Approximately 95 percent of rescuers were authenticated as such by Yad Vashem; the remaining 5 percent are individuals the institute identified based on interviews with rescued survivors, using criteria similar to those established by Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem is Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Part of its charge is to honor those who risked their lives to rescue Jews. To qualify as an honoree, the rescued survivor (or friends or relatives) needs to submit evidence of the deed to a Yad Vashem-appointed commission of eighteen members. In addition to examining submitted documents, the commission conducts interviews. Three overriding criteria determine selection: the rescuer had to be motivated by humanitarian considerations only, risked his or her own life, and received no remuneration of any kind for his or her act. Selections are made very carefully and take considerable time; in 1988, Yad Vashem had identified approximately 6,000 rescuers; as of the year 2002, that number had increased to more than 19,000.

Nonrescuers include people not identified as rescuers by Yad Vashem and who lived in the same countries during the same period as rescuers. During the course of the interviews, an important difference emerged among respondents in this group in reaction to the question of whether they had done anything out of the ordinary during the war to help others or to resist the Nazis. Sixty-seven responded in the affirmative, several claiming they had helped Jews and/or participated in resistance activities. To distinguish between this group and those who claimed to have done nothing, the former were called "actives" and the latter "bystanders." Sample numbers include 67 in the active group and 97 in the bystander group. Statistical comparisons sometimes include rescuers and all nonrescuers (that is, actives and bystanders), as well as rescuers and bystanders only.

The interview schedule consisted of approximately 450 items, 75 percent of which were forced choices, the remainder open-ended. In addition, each respondent was asked to describe his or her wartime activities in detail. The questionnaire administered to nonrescuers was much the same as that given to rescuers, except that instead of being asked to describe their rescue activity and its setting, the nonrescuers were asked to describe their particular activities and lives during the war. Taped interviews, commmonly lasting several hours, were conducted in the native tongue of the respondents. They were subsequently transcribed and translated into English, coded, and analyzed. Analyses were both qualitative and quantitative in character. (For more on the questionnaire, see Oliner and Oliner, 1988.)

The first book-length publication resulting from this effort occurred in 1988. Focusing on a comparison of personality characteristics between rescuers and nonrescuers, Sam Oliner and I concluded that rescuers as compared with nonrescuers had more "extensive" personalities, a concept we developed to mean stronger attachments to people in their immediate environments and in more powerful feelings of responsibility to those outside their immediate or familial circles. Their paths toward rescue varied; no one personality characteristic appeared to be critical, and no single constellation of personality characteristics, motivations, or situational contexts appeared entirely sufficient to explain it.

As we wrote in The Altruistic Personality, a major purpose of that work was to help identify altruistic personality attributes for the purpose of encouraging their development. In a similar vein and despite the focus of the present book on particular religious groups in a particular historical period, I hope this volume will suggest some broad relationships regarding culture generally and outgroup altruism specifically. Rescue is an example of heroic outgroup altruism, and if we can better understand the cultural contexts that contributed to it, we might be able to use such knowledge in cultivating and mobilizing similar predispositions within the particularities of different cultural contexts.

The concepts critical to this exploration, briefly defined above, are far more complex than indicated and often tend to be accompanied by controversy and unresolved issues. I raise them here so as to provide additional clarification regarding my perspective, and to indicate how I addressed them.

One unresolved issue relates to the concept of altruism itself. Is a "pure heart" required to fit the idea of altruism or is the deed sufficient? Some people propose that motivation is key, insisting that to qualify as altruistic the actor must have no interest other than the welfare of the receiver. Others suggest that even if a pure heart does in fact exist, it would be difficult to locate scientifically. Many researchers accept a moderate position, asserting that an act that satisfies both the self and others can nonetheless be considered altruistic. Sam Oliner and I summarized these varied approaches as follows more than ten years ago, and little has changed since:

At one extreme are those who insist that the altruistic actor must have no concern for self and derive no benefit from the act; at the other are those who say that the act that satisfies both the self and the other can nonetheless be considered altruistic. In between are those who maintain that it is sufficient that costs outweigh gratification. Proposals regarding the types of motivations necessary range from mere intention to help, to helping for any reasons other than external rewards, to insistence on specific internal states (such as empathy, or lack of concern with restitution), specific values (such as love or compassion), personal norms, or principles of justice.

Our definition, the one also accepted here, belongs to the moderate motivational standard. Altruism, we said, is a behavior "directed towards helping another, involves a high risk or sacrifice to the actor, is accompanied by no external reward and is voluntary." With respect to motivation, the standard is minimalist, insisting only that the act be "directed towards helping another" and "accompanied by no external reward," thus implying that internal rewards are acceptable. With respect to cost, our definition approaches a maximalist position, insisting that the act involve "a high risk or sacrifice." Since it does not rule out exclusively self-centered reasons such as wanting to "look good" rather than "be good," or conforming to others' expectations rather than internalized principles, some people might prefer to call this "consequential altruism"; that is, an altruistic result but not necessarily based on an altruistic motivation. Since motivation at best can only be inferred rather than seen, even when the respondent reports her or his motivation, the focus on behavior continues to seem reasonable. These criteria are consistent with those of Yad Vashem, and on that basis all those identified as rescuers in this book behaved altruistically.


Excerpted from Saving the Forsaken by PEARL M. OLINER Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Religion and Culture....................1
2 The Very Religious....................18
3 The Irreligious....................46
4 The Moderately Religious: The Mildly and Somewhat Religious....................67
5 Protestants....................90
6 Catholics....................114
7 Patterns and Predictors....................135
8 Culture and Outgroup Altruism....................149
Appendix A Methodology....................163
Appendix B Tables and Figures....................171
Selected Bibliography....................241

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