Remembering the Rescuers

Patrick Henry

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 13-16.

In a no–holds–barred article, "Auschwitz and the Professors," published in the June 1998 issue of Commentary, Gabriel Schoenfeld lashes out against several groups of academics who have distorted the study of the Holocaust by "transforming the murdered Jews of Hitler’s Europe into so many ‘variables,’ ‘case studies,’ and ‘gendered objects.’" While one can readily agree with many of the points he makes, Schoenfeld surely exaggerates when he writes that "the Holocaust is rapidly replacing Christmas as a marketable icon of man’s humanity to man (see the Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its carefully calibrated upbeat message; or see Schindler’s List)."

Clearly the Holocaust was one of the most horrendous instances of man’s inhumanity to man ever recorded. The Holocaust museum is not disputing this. Yet it is important when face to face with such depravity to lift up the instances in which a few non–Jews nonetheless resisted this abomination, risking their lives and in many cases those of their families to rescue persecuted people. Why would we ever want to forget the only people who remembered the Jews during the Nazi plague?

Certainly we must remember the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the hope that we will prevent them from ever happening again. In order to "mend the world," however, we must also listen to other Jewish voices, those of Gay Block and Malka Drucker, PhilipHallie, Pierre Sauvage, and Eva Fogelman,{1} voices of those who have unearthed and celebrated the actions of courageous persons who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Here we want to remember precisely so that such acts of compassion will be repeated in the future. Just as to the evil we say "never again," to the goodness we must say "again and again." These acts of solidarity, although accomplished by only a fraction of the 700 million people who lived in Nazi–occupied countries, are part of the story. Indeed, the only way out of the antihumanist darkness is to follow those lights that did shine, even if only here and there.

Although they would undoubtedly object on the ground that what they did was perfectly natural and that they themselves are absolutely ordinary people, in the war against the Jews these (mostly Christian) rescuers represented the Lamed Vav, the thirty–six unknown just persons whose task is to do good for their fellow human beings and who, the Talmud says, are required for the survival of the world. Inscribed on the Yad Vashem medal commemorating their actions is the Talmudic saying, "Whoever saves a single life is as one who has saved an entire world." By doing what they did, at the darkest hour in the twentieth century, the rescuers saved the concept of the human creature as a being capable of goodness, the very concept that allows our species not only to hope but to do the next good thing.

Our generation was not called upon to rescue Jews during the Holocaust but to restructure the world after Auschwitz. The question to which we must respond is not the excruciatingly unknowable "What would I have done had I lived in Occupied Europe?" It is rather the more urgently concrete "What can we do now to help build a world where another Auschwitz would be unthinkable?" In attempting this monumental endeavor, the rescuers can be our models.

Who, then, were the rescuers and how might we begin to become more like them?

The findings of Block and Drucker, who interviewed 105 rescuers from eleven different countries, and of Fogelman and her staff, who interviewed over 300 rescuers and the Jews they rescued, are similar. On the whole, neither gender, nor age, nor nationality, nor education, nor profession, nor economic class, nor religious leaning, nor political persuasion played a determining role as to who would be a rescuer. Whereas most people surrender personal responsibility for their actions when those actions are dictated by an authority figure, the rescuers of Jews obviously did not. Why not? Block, Drucker, and Fogelman would say because, in many cases, they were raised in homes where love was in abundance, where parents were altruistic and tolerant, and where children were disciplined by reason and explanation.

In these homes they were taught five essential principles: 1) that human beings are basically the same and differences between them are to be respected; 2) that the world is not divided into "us and them" but rather contains a common humanity; 3) that people should have a clear sense of right and wrong, should stand up for their beliefs, have moral integrity, self–confidence, and self–worth; 4) that all of us should be kind and compassionate toward others; and 5) that people should be of independent mind, and never simply follow the crowd.

This type of family life and the five principles mentioned do not constitute a necessary cause nor a sufficient explanation for the rescue work done during the Holocaust. Rescuing was basically a function of character, but it also depended upon external circumstances. It was not absolutely necessary to have been taught in this manner nor was it in all cases sufficient. Some people rescued Jews without this background; others failed to do so despite it. Yet too many rescuers have repeated the same story for us to ignore the points that appear in virtually all accounts of their lives.

In The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Germany (1988), Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliner, who interviewed 406 rescuers, 126 nonrescuers, and 150 survivors, develop a "composite portrait" of the typical rescuer that matches the pattern discovered by Block, Drucker, and Fogelman. Kristen Monroe, in her study The Heart of Altruism (1996), indicts all those, including Hobbes, Freud, and Darwin, who would read altruism in terms of self–interest; on the contrary, she says, there is one common trait among all altruists: "[They] see themselves as bound to all mankind through a common humanity." While Oliner and Oliner did not find this tendency among all rescuers, they nonetheless make the revealing observation that "knowing whether someone was characterized by an extensive or a constricted orientation [to consider others as worthy of moral concern] enabled us to predict who would be a rescuer or a nonrescuer in 70 percent of the individuals we studied."

There are several other important lessons to be drawn from the accounts of the rescuers at this crucial time when, as we enter the new millennium, there will soon be no one with any lived memories of the Holocaust. The first has to do with the language of difference that inundates our world today. While we may not be able to blame this language for the fragmentation and polarities in our society, certainly it has done nothing to improve the situation.

I cannot recall either Martin Luther King, Jr. (or Nelson Mandela for that matter) speaking a great deal about difference or celebrating cultural diversity. Indeed, it was the language of similarity that generated the civil rights movement because it is the language of similarity in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that protects, not groups, but all persons regardless of race or creed.

If the rescuers have anything at all to tell us, it is that in a world obsessed with difference one can make a difference only by insisting on the essential similarity of all human beings. Montaigne is right, of course, to point out that "if our faces were not similar, we could not distinguish man from beast; if they were not dissimilar, we could not distinguish man from man." Differences are real; they must be recognized and respected. Communities are "common unions," however, and are built on the similarities between human beings. The truth revealed in the accounts of the rescuers is that diversity is only cultural, whereas, at the human level, there are no fundamental differences between us.

Like the ethnic cleansers of our day, the Nazis were firm believers in essential differences between human beings. Indeed, the official Handbook of the Hitler Youth Organization stated that "the foundation of the National Socialist outlook on life is the perception of the unlikeness of men." No one epitomized the opposite view of the rescuers more than André Trocmé, the pacifist Protestant minister who inspired a rescue mission in the village of Le Chambon–sur–Lignon in southern France. When a Vichy official threatened him because he knew Jews were being sheltered in the village, Trocmé responded: "We do not know what a Jew is; we only know men." It was precisely this view of the other as "another self" that accounted for the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.

While, at one level, the rescuers represented the Lamed Vav, it is essential, at another level, to recognize that they were perfectly ordinary people like ourselves. To view them as heroes beyond our reach is to run the risk of becoming passive admirers banned from participation—bystanders, as it were. Although exemplary, even heroic, the rescuers nonetheless operated in our moral sphere. Only when we see them in this light are we able to receive the greatest gift they can bequeath us: the ability to see ourselves as beings capable of rescue.

The truth, of course, is that there are only ordinary human beings, all of whom are free. During the Holocaust, some chose to put women and children into gas chambers, others to risk their lives to protect Jews and other targets of Nazi hatred from such a fate. When American soldiers opened the camps in 1945, they were shocked. We knew man was evil but hadn’t suspected he was that evil. Fifty–five years later, convinced that man is that evil, many have trouble dealing with the reality of the rescuers, with what they did, why they did what they did, and why it matters today.

Let’s look at Le Chambon–sur–Lignon in 1940. In Vichy France, in a climate where anti–Semitism and informing on Jews was not only acceptable but patriotic, and where the wheels of evil were turned by thousands involved in the rounding up and deportation of foreign and French Jews, approximately five thousand mountain people risked their lives by welcoming and housing thousands of refugee Jews. No communal effort on this scale and for this length of time occurred anywhere else in Occupied Europe. Originally inspired, at least in part, by pacifist Protestant ministers whose Huguenot background made them feel close to the persecuted, the rescue mission was not limited to Le Chambon–sur–Lignon but involved all twelve Protestant parishes on the plateau with Darbyists, Catholics, Swiss Protestants, Jews, American Quakers, Evangelicals, nonbelievers, students, underground railroad workers, and simple people from all walks of life participating in the rescue efforts.

Houses of refuge were established to feed, clothe, protect, and educate young children who had been smuggled out of internment camps, sometimes just before their parents were deported. By the middle of the Occupation, there were seven funded houses in the Le Chambon–sur–Lignon region, mostly located outside the village. They were financed by Quakers, American Congregationalists, the Swiss Red Cross, even national governments like Sweden. Goodness spread here just as evil did elsewhere.

Five thousand refugees found shelter on the plateau; roughly 3,500 were Jewish; many were children. The countryside somehow absorbed them all. Based on simple notions of common decency—strangers who came to the door were housed and fed—goodness spread from farm to farm, from person to person, from one act to the next.

It would be a great mistake to see such altruism as selfless or as a form of self–abnegation. Here again the testimony of the rescuers is clear and unequivocal: they acted as they did not to lose their lives but to gain them. Many rescuers have said they found their greatest fulfillment through actions that could have cost them their lives.

The case of Philip Hallie makes it clear that the very narration of the stories of the rescuers can produce acts of spiritual rescue today. Hallie’s World War II experiences and his early professional research taught him that life was a battle and only violence could put an end to violence. He relates his experiences as an artillery man firing white phosphorus warheads "that made stone buildings and people burst into flame," emphasizing a specific incident that would haunt him for the rest of his life. It happened during the last months of the war in Europe when his company, after having fired their warheads, went to verify the damage they had done. As Hallie walked through the targeted area, he saw "the blond, beautifully symmetrical head of a young man, with its SS cadet cap still firmly on it, but with no body and hardly any neck. The eyes were open. They were light blue and seemed to be looking dreamily up at the sky. The skin on that face had never known a razor or a beard." This vivid image of the evil he had done in the name of "good" would never leave him; he would never be able to see himself again as anything better than a "decent murderer."

As a scholar and teacher of ethics after the war, Hallie did extensive research on cruelty in human history, which, needless to say, only served to make his vision of the human condition still more bleak. His well–known study The Paradox of Cruelty (1969) confirmed his view that, although cruelty might often need the help of hatred and fear, it took place only in situations of power imbalance. Everywhere he turned, therefore, Hallie found the same law at work: "Harm stop[ped] harm; power stop[ped] power. That’s all there was."

Seated in his office late one night in the mid–1970s, in the throes of a near–suicidal depression brought on by his growing sense of the overwhelming presence of violence and cruelty, Hallie happened upon an account of the village of Le Chambon–sur–Lignon. This was the first time he had heard about nonviolent resistance against the Nazis. "I was seeing spontaneous love that had nothing to do with sheer, brute power," he writes. "I was seeing a new reality, undergoing a revelation. Here was a place where help came from love, not from force." When he reached up to scratch his cheek, he discovered that his face was full of tears. What had caused those tears? "It was joy that did it, overwhelming joy," he explains. Part of the joy came from the knowledge that the people of Le Chambon–sur–Lignon had succeeded in obeying "both the positive [love thy neighbor] and negative [thou shalt not kill] ethics of the Hebrew Bible." Hallie had become a killer to obey the positive ethic of the Scriptures, but he "knew no one who was both clean and noble."

Hallie’s tears were a testimony of moral praise for people who demonstrated both the natural reality of goodness and the fact that good nonviolent actions could combat violence and cruelty. This was a revelation that caused a conversion in Hallie. As the Latin word conversio indicates, it "turned him around" and changed his life. He went to Le Chambon–sur–Lignon, became as fascinated by the mystery of goodness as he was horrified by the reality of evil, and wrote Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. Those tears were also tears of liberation. Unexpectedly, mysteriously, he had been saved from "the coercion of despair."

Hallie was a Jew "rescued" by the French villagers in 1975, saved from suicide or a life of despair. His account indicates that as long as we continue to tell the story of the rescuers, they will continue to perform acts of spiritual rescue in a world dominated by violence and the belief that human beings can only act out of self–interest. Their actions constitute a vivid and powerful communal memory bank that enables us to escape the prison of self–interest and to remember with joy that, even in the most difficult circumstances and against overwhelming odds, human beings are capable of goodness and courageous self–transcendence.


{1}Gay Block and Malka Drucker, eds., Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust (1992); Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (1979); Pierre Sauvage, Weapons of the Spirit (1987); Eva Fogelman, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (1994).

Patrick Henry teaches at Whitman College and is coeditor of the journal Philosophy and Literature.