Research: Rescuers during the Holocaust

The goal

People who helped Jews during WWII are intriguing. They appear to be some kind of moral supermen. Observe how they had almost nothing to gain and everything to lose. Jewish property was confiscated early on and any portable assets Jews may have had have evaporated quickly. Helping Jews, after a short initial period, wasn't a way to get rich. Hoping for compensation after the war didn't work either. At the time it was not obvious that Nazis will lose. Until last couple of years of WWII it was even probable that they will win. And even if they had lost, hoping for some kind of future appreciation from their anti-Semitic compatriots would be naive. On the other hand, by helping Jews, one put oneself into grave danger. In the eastern Europe, if you were found helping Jews, you were most likely to be shot. And your family as well. In western Europe the consequences were a bit less brutal, but still, going to Nazi jail or concentration camp is pretty bad in itself. Moreover, if one decided to hide Jews, it was no temporary thing. As already said, it was entirely plausible that Nazis will win and with that in mind, a person deciding to shelter a Jew was basically signing up for the life in danger for ever after.

Thus, the obvious questions are: Who were these moral supermen? How did they differ from the general population? And: Can we do anything to get more of such people today?

I finally got some free time to research the topic. In this post I am going to summarize what I've learned. However, I am not an expert and my research was superficial at best. Take it with a grain of salt and if you know better, please do correct me.

The sources

Unlike with other genocides we do have some source material on the topic. A lot of it comes from Yad Vashem's "Righteous among the Nations" programme. It's an institution tasked to document the help to the Jews during the Holocaust and to award medals to the rescuers.

Let me insert a personal note here: How cool is that? A nation that was recently slaughtered by millions have created an institution for rewarding people from perpetrator nations, people who haven't participated in the atrocities but rather turned against their compatriots and done what was right. I don't think anything like that was ever done before. I am, for example, unaware of any similar undertaking in the context of the earlier Armenian genocide. As for genocides before that, there may not even have been anything to document. Case in point: Tasmanian genocide. The entire nation was wiped out by the British. Nobody survived. That probably wouldn't be the case if someone, anyone, made an honest rescue attempt. On the brighter side, there are some meager efforts to document the rescuers during Rwandan genocide and during ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia in 1990's.

In any case, Yad Vashem collects the stories of the rescuers and if you are interested, there's even an online database that you can browse through.

To understand the scale of the effort, approximately 26,000 people were awarded the "Righteous among Nations" medal.

Finally, there are few scholars on the topic. The one that I've found the most interesting was psychologist Eva Fogelman who had written a book about rescuers.

The bias

Despite all that was said above the data we have is hopelessly biased. If you are thinking of doing a quantitative analysis, forget about it.

First of all, a lot of the rescuers and/or the people they've tried to rescue died. Even in the West where helping a Jew didn't necessarily meant a death sentence for the rescuer, it meant a death sentence for the Jew and thus it left no one to testify and send the nomination to Yad Vashem (only a Jewish party can put a nomination forward).

Thus, what you are looking at is a heavily selection-biased sample. It not a database of all rescuers but rather a database of successful rescuers who happened to be nominated by the rescued party. Even if the rescued person survived they may have not put a nomination forward because they were unaware of the initiative, because they didn't have good relationship with the rescuer, because they've lost contact, because they haven't known the rescuer by name (which is good opsec, if you ask me) or maybe because the rescuer haven't wanted to be publicly recognized as a Jew-helper. Finally, there are few people who have returned their medal.

Secondly, the statistics in different countries differed wildly which makes any comparisons hard. For starters, Jews were not dispersed evenly. There were some countries that had a lot of Jews and some that had just a few. But also policies differed: For example, in a country that separated Jews from the rest of the population quickly there may have been less opportunities to become a rescuer compared to a country where Jews were allowed to mingle with the majority population.

Finally, nomination for the "righteous among the nations" medal requires the nominees to have "risked their lives to save Jews". This results in the impression that the phenomenon was bimodal: Either someone risked their lives to save Jews or they did nothing. But it almost certainly wasn't that way. There was a lot of people who helped by giving Jews food, clothes, money or a shelter for one night but who haven't done enough to meet Yad Vashem's strict criteria.

The caveats

If you are looking for a recipe to prevent genocides, this is not what you are interested in.

Just consider the two orders of magnitude difference between Jews murdered in Europe (6 million) and number of righteous (26,000). The rescuers haven't affected the survival rate of Jews much (Denmark being a notable exception).

What mattered much more were internal politics of each country and the approach they've took to "the Jewish question". But even looking there is going to disappoint you. It looks like even the countries with similar policies had wildly different survival rates. And digging into it deeper seems to indicate that it was often random decisions done by individual people that have steered the survival rate in one way or the other. It's almost as we were looking at a genuine case of butterfly effect.

One rule that seems to reappear over and over though is that the more chaotic the situation (both in the local politics and the local Jewish community) the better the survival rates. When order grows murderous, the chaos is saving lives.

Profile of a rescuer

The one thing that everyone researching the topic seems to agree on is that it's hard to find any common trait among the rescuers. They come from all kinds of professions and social strata.

And I haven't needed the scholars to tell me that. I've tried to make a sample of rescuers by profession myself some time ago and what I came up with was: a forester, a court clerk, a teacher, a lawyer, a postman, a student, a housekeeper, a cook, a baker, an owner of a distillery, a farmer, a shopkeeper, an electrician, a miner, a pastor, a doctor, a winemaker. A disparate lot.

Different authors suggest different, more subtle, unifying traits. Here's, for example, Eva Fogelman:

Despite the external differences, there are commonalities in rescuers' upbringing. The most significant is that most were taught to appreciate a tolerance for people who were different from themselves. The altruism of parents provided role models for future rescuers. Involving the children in helping others enhanced "virtue as a habit." Being taught independence and self reliance as children provided the ego strength to withstand conformity. The empathy with the victims of Nazi persecution came from several sources: warm, nurturing, and cohesive family environments; discipline by reasoning rather than corporal punishment for misbehavior; a personal separation, loss, or an illness experienced in childhood, together with group moral support and personal experience of Nazi mistreatment.

The obvious problem with this kind of explanations is that they are made up post hoc. People who have saved Jews during WWII may have remembered their upbringing is a different light than those who didn't. They may have remembered the instances of their parents acting tolerantly just because they've thought about the topic more. A different person brought up by the same parents may have rather remembered the lesson of "keeping oneself out of the harm's way". Furthermore, who are we comparing the rescuers to? We don't have a good sample of people who refused to help Jews, so there's no way to tell whether their parents were less tolerant.

All that being said, Eva Fogelman presents a useful taxonomy of the rescuers:

  • Moral rescuers: The people whose main motivation was: "How could I have acted differently?" or "How would I be able to live with myself if I haven't helped?" Interesting tidbit: It seems that they rarely express those feelings in religious terms.
  • Judeophiles: As far as I understand, these were mostly people who had loved someone Jewish, suspected that they may be of Jewish descent themselves (e.g. born out of wedlock) or who were admirers of Jewish culture, the latter mostly on religious grounds.
  • Concerned professionals: This is an interesting group. Professionals, such as doctors or diplomats whose job is to help people in need. They just went on and continued what they perceived as their work. It must have required particular understanding of what "work" means though. For example, diplomats often defied orders of their governments to help the Jews.
  • Network rescuers: Rescue organizations. Or, often, just anti-Nazi organizations which also saved Jews on the side. The author claims that the main motivation for this group of rescuers was hate of the Nazi regime. Saving Jews was more of a side effect.
  • Child rescuers: Oh my, I totally forgot that kids were also playing part in this shit. In any case, they rarely made any conscious decision. They were just dragged into it by their parents.

In our quest for moral supermen, we can discard Judeophiles (they had a personal reason to help), network rescuers (rescuing Jews was a side effect) and child rescuers (they haven't made a conscious decision to help).

We are left with moral rescuers, i.e. the people who found it impossible not to help and with concerned professionals.

Helpfully, the author notes that vast majority of rescuers were of the "moral" kind. Therefore, let's put the minority of concerned professionals aside and focus on moral rescuers. Hopefully we can do so without distorting the picture too much.

Proactive vs. reactive rescuers

What's glaringly obvious from all the accounts as well as from simply browsing the database is that large majority of rescuers were reactive rather than proactive.

They were not people who woke up one morning, realized that the mistreatment of Jews is something they can't tolerate and went on to smuggle people out of the ghetto.

Rather, they were people who were asked to help when they were least expecting it. Often by people who they knew just a little or even not at all. They had minutes, if not seconds, to make the decision and they realized that they "wouldn't be able to live with themselves" if they had said no.

Another interesting recurring pattern is gradual involvement. First, the rescuer agrees to shelter a Jew for one night, then he prolongs the stay for several days and it doesn't take long until you see them running a large-scale rescue operation. They moved from being reactive to being proactive.

Here's an extreme example of such behavior recounted by Mordecai Paldiel:

As the number of sheltered Jews kept adding up, Jonas built several underground hiding places outside his home, located on the banks of a river, carefully discarding at night the excess soil dug out from the ground into the river. It then struck him that he could add several more Jews in his hiding place. To find the additional persons, he placed himself at road intersections to accost fleeing Jews. One such lucky person was Miriam Krakinowsky, who in July 1944 fled from a forced labor column and was taken (at first against her will) by Jonas to be joined to the other persons hiding in and near his home. All told, twelve Jews had escaped death at the hands of the Germans, thanks to a nondescript carpenter who, at first, only thought of saving one Jewish child.

Final thoughts

As I already said, I am not an expert on the topic, but if what we see here is not an instance of bystander effect I'll eat my hat.

People were generally willing to let the Holocaust proceed without intervening. It almost always took a personal plea from a persecuted person for altruism to kick in. Once they weren't just an anonymous member of indifferent crowd, once they were left with no escape but to do a personal moral choice, they often found out that they are not able to refuse help.

That, I guess, is both bad news and good news. The bad news is that, ignoring the minority of proactive rescuers, there were no moral supermen. The rescuers were just random people hindered by bystander effect like everybody else. The good news is that rescuers were no moral supermen. They were just ordinary people who got a chance to do a moral decision. There must have been a lot of people who would have decided to help if they were asked. But they never were.

So maybe, if we want the rescuer behavior to become more common, we don't have to do profound changes to how our education or our society work. Maybe it would be enough to make it easier to make a credible personal plea to a bystander when you are in distress.

Another psychological effect I see in play here (although with much less confidence than with the bystander effect) is cognitives dissonance and, specifically, the effect it has on one's morality, as explained by Carol Tavris in her "Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)" book.

The book asks you to imagine two students who are very much the same. On the test one of them decides to cheat, the other one decides not to. This may be because of completely external reasons. For example, one of the students have prepared for the topic A, the other one prepared for the topic B. By accident, the test focuses on topic B. The second student doesn't have to cheat because she's prepared. The first student doesn't know much about B and so she decides to cheat.

After the test, both students try to minimze their cognitive dissonance. The non-cheating one is likely to endorse statements such as "all cheating is bad" or "only bad people cheat" and "all cheaters should be expelled". The cheating student, on the other hand, is more likely to identify with statements such as "the tests are only a farce" or "cheating is not a big deal". (See Carol Tavris explain the mechanism in more detail in this video.)

Now try to apply that to a person being asked to help by a Jew in distress.

They may decide not to help because the stakes are too high. If the Nazis found out, they would execute the entire family. But the understanding that you've basically sentenced a person to death is not an easy one to live with. To ease the cognitive dissonance between what the subject believes about himself and what he had done he's likely to start believing things like "Jews are not human" or "Jews are intrinsically evil and should be eliminated for the benefit of all". In the end he may turn in his neighbor, who's hiding Jews, to the Gestapo.

The person may, alternatively, decide to help. Once again, there's cognitive dissonance. The subject believes he's a person who would never endanger his family. Yet, what he just did puts his family at a great risk. To ease the tension you'd expect him to say things like "How could I have acted differently? Any decent human being would do the same." or "How would I be able to live with myself if I haven't helped?"

Also, this new understanding of himself as a moral and self-sacrificing person affects his future behavior. If asked for help again how can he possibly justify refusing the plea?

Martin Sústrik, April 29th, 2018

Note from September 30th, 2018: François Rochat and Andre Modigliani in their paper "The Ordinary Quality of Resistance: From Milgram's Laboratory to the Milage of Le Chambon" describe the collective effort in the sorroundings of the French village of Le Chambon that saved ~5000 people. While this is somewhat different to individual rescue efforts discussed in this article, the authors still point out the importance of gradual increase in individual involvement:

At first, helping meant giving some food, or taking people in for one or two nights. Then, as matters became worse, the helpers had to look for extra food and clothing, which was not an easy task. Food was rationed and food stamps restricted to regular inhabitants of the community; the same was true for clothing. Hiding places also had to be secured in case of police raids. Helpers were thus confronted with all sorts of daily problems that they had to resolve. In retrospect, it seems clear that their rescue mission was really built on these day-to-day decisions having to do with very ordinary things, and that their commitment to the task was gradual. … They did one thing at a time, and one thing after the other, each move bringing them closer to becoming the rescuers we admire today. At the outset they were merely decent persons helping those in need. However, these small, early steps ended up making the difference between life and death for thousands of refugees. By starting to help, the rescuers became more deeply involved in the fate of the refugees—they felt strongly pressed to learn to become effective.

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