Altruism and the Holocaust

Nechama Tec

In wartime Europe, a tiny minority of Christians signaled their opposition to the German policies of Jewish annihilation by standing up for the persecuted Jews. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of Europeans, indifferent to the plight of the Jews, did nothing. Efforts to save Jews endangered the lives of rescuers, some of whom were murdered for no other reason than that they were protecting Jews.1 A few Christians in each occupied country were willing to take such enormous risks. Of this handful of rescuers, practically none expected any external rewards.2
This self-sacrificing protection of Jews can, in my view, truly be considered altruistic behavior-the kind of behavior that is "carried out to benefit another without anticipation of rewards from external sources."3

Until quite recently, the extensive literature about the destruction of European Jews paid little attention to altruism. Such a prolonged silence is not surprising. Compassion and help for Jews were both extremely rare and overshadowed by the enormity of the Nazi crimes, and the extreme suffering and devastation they caused. Only when the basic features of the German processes of annihilation were examined could scholars even begin to notice what was less visible, and less obvious-the selflessness and compassion expressed in the readiness of a few to die for others. Once noticed, however, the nobility of their deeds is heightened in the stark contrast between the cruelty of the time and the ability of a few to rise above it and save the helpless.

Nazi Occupation and the Problem of Rescue
What conditions were associated with the altruistic rescue of Jews? Who were the Christian rescuers? And how did they cope with the hostile surroundings?
Nazi control was more direct in some occupied European countries than others, and occurred later in some countries than others. Christian efforts to rescue Jews varied accordingly, and were made more difficult in some places than others by a variety of factors.

The most formidable obstacle to Christian rescue was the degree of control by German occupying forces over a country's governmental machinery. Where the Nazis were in total control, they were prepared to do whatever was necessary to annihilate the Jewish population and would brook no interference from any individual or group in the execution of their plans.

Influencing the decision about how much direct control to exert was the German attitude toward the occupied country's Christian population. In the world of Nazi-occupied Europe, such controls depended on racial affinities. For example, the Nazis defined the Slavs as subhuman, as only slightly above the racial value of the Jews. In contrast, the highest social rank was reserved for the Scandinavians, who bore a close physical resemblance to the "Aryan" prototype valued by the Nazis. The rest of the European countries fell somewhere between these two extremes. The German government, however, was not always consistent in translating these principles into actions. A particular kind of policy and control in a particular locality could change with time.

Another obstacle to Jewish rescue was a high level of anti-Semitism within a given country. In an environment with a strong anti-Semitic tradition, denunciations of Jews and their Christian protectors were more common, and Christian rescuers were likely to experience disapproval, if not outright censure from local countrymen. In areas of pervasive anti-Semitism, even some of the Christian rescuers themselves could be influenced by long-taught anti-Jewish images and values. Indeed, while engaged in the act of saving Jews, some of these protectors had to deal with their own anti-Jewish feelings and attitudes.

The sheer number of Jews within a particular country and the degree to which they were assimilated also affected their chances of rescue. It is easier to hide and protect fewer people. Furthermore, the easier it was for Jews to physically blend in with the rest of the population, the less dangerous it was to shield them. Jews whose physical appearance conformed to the stereotypical idea of the "Jewish look" had a hard time passing for Christians, and often had to go into hiding. In addition, the lack of social assimilation of the Jews into the non-Jewish cultures of Eastern Europe also interfered with their ability to blend into the Christian world. For example, for centuries Poles and Jews had lived apart in two distinct cultural worlds. Each felt like a stranger in the world of the other, and distinctions between them permeated all aspects of life. One of these important differences had to do with speech. In the last pre-war census of 1931, only 12 percent of the Jewish population identified Polish as their native tongue; 79 percent chose Yiddish, and the rest Hebrew.4 Most Jews could be identified by their faulty speech.

The Setting: Poland
My research on altruism has concentrated on Poland, a country designated by the Nazis as the center of Jewish annihilation. Most European Jews were sent to die there. Poland was a place in which the Nazis introduced their measures of destruction early and most ruthlessly, without regard to human cost. It provides the key to an understanding of the destruction of European Jews in general and to Jewish rescue in particular. Moreover, as a country in which the Holocaust drama was played out in the most gruesome ways, it can teach us about similar, albeit less extreme, cases.5
Beginning with the conquest of Poland in late l939 and as part of the systematic Nazi attack on Polish Jewry, Jews were forcefully removed to specially designated areas, usually sealed-off ghettos, out of sight of the Christian populations. By 1941, practically all Polish Jews lived in separate ghettos. Among the many different measures aimed at Jewish destruction in Poland was a 1941 decree that made any unauthorized move out of a ghetto a crime punishable by death. The same punishment applied to Poles who were helping Jews to move to the forbidden Christian world.6 This law was widely publicized and strongly enforced. Immediately, executions of Christians and Jews followed.7 The names of the executed were widely publicized. And since the Germans followed the principle of collective responsibility, the same punishment applied to the relatives of those who defied this law. There are cases on record where entire families of Poles, including infants, were murdered only because one of them had protected Jews.8

In addition to these anti-Jewish measures, the cultural climate of Poland was antagonistic toward Jews. Polish anti-Semitism often translated into opposition and hostility to Jewish rescue, and Poles who were eager to save Jews knew that, by following their inclinations, they would be inviting severe censure by their fellow citizens.9

Though not all forms of anti-Semitism were explicit, all were effective. A particularly common form, which I refer to as "diffuse cultural anti-Semitism," was vague and free floating. In part unconscious, this diffuse cultural anti-Semitism was all encompassing. It attributed to the Jew any and all negative traits. People tended to accept this form of anti-Semitism without much thought or awareness, and it was expressed in such widely used utterances as "Be a good boy or the Jew will get you!" "You are dirty like a Jew," "Don't be a calculating Jew!" and many, many others.

In the Polish language, the very term "Jew" (Zyd) is something polite people are reluctant to use. It is, nevertheless, the only correct term. Others such as "a person of Mosaic faith" or "an Israelite" sound archaic, pompous, and downright phony. But one can insult a person by simply calling that person a Jew (Zyd). The term evokes strong negative images.

Unobtrusive and latent though it is, this diffuse cultural anti-Semitism seems to act as a foundation for all other forms. While many Poles, particularly the rescuers, found other, more explicit expressions of anti-Semitism objectionable, they tended to shrug off this partly unconscious type as insignificant, and to dismiss as mere jokes anything that reflected this form of anti-Semitism. Without being aware of it, even some of the rescuers were influenced by this diffuse kind of anti-Semitism.

While helping Jews, then, Poles had to overcome several layers of obstacles. The outer and strongest layer was the Nazi law that made helping Jews a crime punishable by death. Next were the explicit anti-Jewish ideologies and the pervasive anti-Semitism that made helping Jews both a highly dangerous and disapproved activity. In addition, some of these Poles had to overcome their own diffuse cultural anti-Semitism. Finally, one other serious obstacle was the inability of most Polish Jews to blend physically, culturally, and socially into the Christian world.10

Characteristics of Altruistic Rescuers
Who among the Poles could overcome these seemingly insurmountable barriers? Who was most likely to stand up for the persecuted Jews, who traditionally had been viewed as "Christ killers" and who for still unexplained reasons were blamed for every conceivable ill? What propelled these altruistic rescuers into this life-threatening activity?
My research includes direct information about 189 rescuers gathered through in-depth interviews, archival and published materials. The rescuers were a very heterogeneous group. They varied in terms of their social class, education, political involvement, degree of anti-Semitism, extent of religious commitment, and friendship patterns. While a few of these factors might be considered to have a possible influence on the willingness of individual Poles to rescue Jews, none of them is a reliable predictor of behavior for the protection of Jews.11 For example, although belonging to a certain class (the intelligentsia) and espousing liberal political preferences seem to have pushed an individual toward Jewish rescue, neither push was strong enough to account for this risk-taking behavior.12

Only a close view of these selfless protectors' life-styles and behaviors yields a cluster of shared characteristics and conditions that allows hypotheses to be made about the reasons for their behavior. A selective presentation of findings will illustrate these characteristics and the connections between them.

Individuality. One of the shared characteristics is, I believe, best described as individuality or separateness. It shows that the rescuers did not quite fit into their social environments. This was a condition about which some were aware, and others were not. Whatever the case, these rescuers' individuality or separateness appeared under different guises and was related to other common conditions and motivations.

I suggest that being on the periphery of a community, whether a person is aware of it or not, means being less controlled by the community's expectations and demands. This individuality is accompanied by fewer social constraints and a higher level of independence. This, in turn, has other important implications. Freedom from social constraints and a high level of independence offer an opportunity to act in accordance with personal values and moral precepts, even when these are in opposition to societal requirements. The less controlled people are by their environment, and the more independent they are, the more likely they are to be guided by their moral imperatives, regardless of whether or not these conform to societal expectations.

Independence. Rescuers in my study had no trouble talking about their self-reliance and their need to follow personal inclinations and values. Nearly all of them saw themselves as independent (98 percent).

Along with the rescuers' view of themselves as independent came the realization that they were propelled by moral values that did not depend on the support and approval of others, but on their own self-approval. Again and again, they repeated that they had to be at peace with themselves and with their own ideas of what was right or wrong.

History of Altruism. An important part of the rescuers' ideas of what was right and wrong, and their moral convictions and values, was a long-standing commitment to the protection of the needy. This commitment was expressed in a wide range of charitable acts that extended over a long period of time. Evidence for such selfless acts also came from survivors, most of whom described their protectors as good natured and as people whose efforts on behalf of the needy were limitless and long lasting.

There seems to be a continuity between the rescuers' history of charitable actions and their wartime protection of Jews. Risking lives for Jews fitted into a system of values and behaviors oriented toward helping the weak and the dependent.

This analogy, however, has limitations. Most disinterested actions on behalf of others involve inconvenience, even extreme inconvenience. Only rarely do givers have to risk the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. For these Poles, then, only during the war was there a convergence between historical events demanding ultimate selflessness and their already established predispositions to help.

To illustrate, Maria Baluszko, an outspoken peasant who protected many Jews, said, "I do what I think is right, not what others think is right." At first, she resisted telling me that her aid to Jews was an extension of a tradition that involved helping the poor and the destitute. When I touched upon her reasons for rescue, she was at a loss. Then, instead of answering, she asked, "What would you do in my place if someone comes at night and asks for help? What would you have done in my place? One has to be an animal without a conscience not to help." I had no answer. Impassively, I waited for her to continue. Only at that point she told me, "In our area there were many large families with small farms; they were very poor. I used to help them; they called me mother . . . I used to help . . . When I was leaving the place people cried. I helped all the poor, all that needed help."13

Modesty About Acts of Rescue. People tend to take their customary, repetitive acts of behavior for granted, and do not regard them as extraordinary, even though they may seem exceptional to others. The rescuers' past history of helping the needy might have been in part responsible for their modest appraisal of their life-threatening actions. This modest appraisal was expressed in a variety of ways. Most rescuers (66 percent) perceived their protection of Jews as a natural reaction to human suffering, while almost a third (31 percent) insisted that saving lives was nothing exceptional. In contrast, only 3 percent described the saving of Jews as extraordinary.

For example, to this day, Pawel Remba limps from an injury that occurred when he smuggled Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the uprising. For this and other acts on behalf of Jews, he was awarded the Yad Vashem medal that identifies him as a righteous Christian. (Yad Vashem, an organization established in l953 in Jerusalem as a memorial to European Jews who perished during World War II, also pays tribute to Christians who saved Jews.) When Pawel and I met, he categorically denied that he or others like him were heroes: "I would absolutely not make heroes out of the Poles who helped. All of us looked at this help as a natural thing. None of us were heroes; at times we were afraid, but none of us could act differently."

Refusal to perceive the drama of these life-threatening and risky actions was expressed in other ways as well. Some of these Poles omitted from their accounts events that would attest to particularly noble and courageous aspects of their rescue. This tendency is apparent from a comparison of information collected from matched pairs of rescuers and rescued.

One such example is illustrated by the case of Ada Celka and the girl she saved, Danuta Brill. I interviewed Ada Celka in Poland. A governess by profession, during the war, she had shared a one-room apartment with her unmarried sister and a handicapped father. In 1942, a Jewish woman, an acquaintance, asked Ada to save her child, a girl of eight. When the girl, Danuta, came to share the one-room apartment, the neighbors were told that she was an orphaned relative. To my suggestion that keeping the Jewish girl must have entailed economic hardships, Ada reacted with a flat denial. She also failed to tell me about a few facts that would have enhanced her image.

I heard only from Danuta, whom I interviewed in the United States, that Ada had planned and almost succeeded in smuggling Danuta's parents out of a working camp and in placing them with a Polish family on a farm. This, according to the daughter, involved extraordinary efforts. Ada was not an influential person; she had few connections and no money. Her success in locating a peasant family could be ascribed to her willingness to try again and again and to her strong determination. Finally, all was ready, and detailed plans for smuggling the parents out of their working camp were set in motion. On the chosen day, Ada went to the appointed place next to the camp, but she waited in vain. Danuta's parents had already been deported to a death camp.

Ada also never bothered to tell me that when food was scarce, which it often was, she fed her handicapped invalid father first, and then Danuta. She and her sister ate only after her father and the girl had enough.

Whereas the Jews were glad, even eager, to praise their protectors, the rescuers were reluctant to talk about their noble aid. Even those who did spoke only in timid and restrained ways. I had to prod and probe before any of them mentioned things that would put them in a particularly favorable light. Instead, they consistently underplayed the risks and sacrifices inherent in their actions.

Not only did most helpers deny that their aid to Jews was heroic but they also became embarrassed when this possibility was suggested to them. To underplay the heroism of their actions, half of the rescuers emphasized the fears that they had experienced during their rescuing activities. The underlying assumption in such arguments was that fears were incompatible with heroism.

Felicja Zapolska was one of those who emphasized fear. She felt that "In general, those that helped were sensitive people who tried to overcome their fears. Everyone was afraid, and if anyone would tell that they were not afraid, don't believe it because it has to be a lie."

Other rescuers denied the exceptionality of their deeds. They did this by describing such deeds as expressions of duty, or by pushing the dangers into the background, or by depicting them as just another part of a dangerous environment. Some emphasized the great value of saving a life.

Spontaneity. Given these matter-of-fact perceptions of rescue, it is not surprising that aid to Jews often began in a spontaneous, unpremeditated way. Indeed, in a study I conducted of 308 Jewish survivors, 76 percent said that the aid they had received happened without prior planning.

Universalism. So strong was the need to help among the rescuers, so much was it a part of their makeup, that it overshadowed all other considerations. When asked why they had saved Jews, the Poles overwhelmingly emphasized that they had responded to the persecution and the suffering of victims and not to their Jewishness. What compelled them to act was the persecution, the unjust treatment, and not the people themselves.

There was a compelling moral force behind the rescuing of the Jews-an insistence that what mattered was the victim's position of dependence and subjection to unjust persecution. The rescuers were able to disregard all attributes of the needy, except their helplessness and dependence, and act independently of their personal likes and dislikes. I refer to this ability as the product of universalistic perceptions. Evidence for the presence of these universalistic perceptions comes from a variety of sources. One of them is the finding that 95 percent of these rescuers felt that they were prompted to help by the need of the Jews. This is in sharp contrast to the 26 percent who claim to have helped because it was a Christian duty or the 52 percent who saw their response as a protest against the German occupation. Clearly, these rescuers felt that they were prompted by several motivations; hence, their answers add up to more than 100 percent.

Of the Jewish survivors, 81 percent said that Jewish suffering made these Poles offer protection. Universalistic perceptions are also indicated by the fact that only 9 percent of these rescuers limited their aid to friends. The rest gave help to all kinds of people, including total strangers. When Jewish survivors were consulted, 51 percent of them reported that they were protected by strangers, and only 19 percent noted that they had received aid from friends.

This tendency is further illustrated by the case of Dr. Estowski, who was deeply involved in helping others, Jews and non-Jews. He helped both as a member of the underground and as a private citizen. About his aid he says,

Whoever came to us we always managed to help. I felt that it was my duty to help people. It was not because they were Jews. I had a simple obligation to help people. It was not for us a question of them being Jews or not, just anyone who needed help had to get it. Jews were in a specially dangerous situation; all of us who were helping were aware of this fact-that because of their difficult situation, they had to be helped the most. After all, a Pole could somehow help himself, but the Jew was in a more horrible situation and could in no way help himself.
Some of those I spoke to were aware that to help the needy in general, and the Jews in particular, one did not have to like them. Liking and helping, they knew, did not necessarily go hand-in-hand. For example, gentle Ada Celka, who expressed a deep compassion for the suffering of others, emphasized the difference between helping and personal attraction when she said, "I would help anyone, anyone who needs help, but this does not mean that I like everybody." In different ways, these selfless rescuers showed an ability to disregard all attributes except those of extreme suffering and need.

Conclusion: Six Important Characteristics
Altruistic rescue of Jews by Christian Poles, then, is in part explained by the meaning and interrelationships of six characteristics and conditions that these rescuers shared. I refer to them as (1) individuality or separateness, an inability to blend into their social environment; (2) independence or self-reliance, a willingness to act in accordance with personal convictions, regardless of how these were viewed by others; (3) an enduring commitment to stand up for the helpless and needy, which expressed itself in a long history of doing good deeds; (4) a tendency to perceive aid to Jews in a matter-of-fact, unassuming way, as neither heroic nor extraordinary; (5) an unplanned, unpremeditated beginning of Jewish rescue, a beginning that happened gradually or suddenly, even impulsively; and (6) universalistic perceptions of Jews that defined them, not as Jews, but as helpless beings, totally dependent on the protection of others.14
My research on altruistic rescue indicates that these interrelated characteristics and conditions are not limited to Christian rescuers in Poland. Christian rescuers from other European countries seem to share these characteristics and conditions.

Recently, I was also alerted to an important addition to the study of altruistic rescue, to Jewish rescuers of Jews. While scattered evidence points to the existence of Jews who selflessly helped others, until now, they have not been viewed as a subject of study.

I was made aware of the existence of Jewish rescuers through my research about Oswald Rufeisen, a Jewish youth who had selflessly saved hundreds of people, Jews and Christians.15 After I began to write up the results of this research, I realized that some of the Jewish survivors I had written about had also helped others. Being a rescuer and being a survivor were not two incompatible positions. As I investigated further, I was led to the study of a group of Jewish partisans, the Bielski detachment, whose actions represented the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. My research into the characteristics of these rescuers is continuing.16 The extent to which these Jewish rescuers shared the six characteristics is a subject for further research.

The very presence of Jewish and Christian rescuers shows how in a destructive environment, some people could rise above the surrounding human devastation and personal suffering and engage in self-sacrificing acts of courage, human decency, and goodness. Future comparisons of and research about Christian and Jewish rescuers promise to help us understand the intricate connection between self-preservation and the selfless protection of others.

1Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced The Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 52-69.

2 Ibid., 87-98. The emphasis on altruistic rescuers seems justified. Of the 308 rescued Jewish survivors I studied, only 14 percent reported that they were rescued by paid helpers.

3 Jacqueline R. Macaulay and Leonard Berkowitz, "Overview," in Altruism and Helping Behavior, ed. Jacqueline R. Macaulay and Leonard Berkowitz (New York: Academic Press, 1970), 1-9.

4 Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness, 4

5 Ibid., 6-7, 11-12.

6 Lucy Dawidowicz, ed. A Holocaust Reader (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1976), 67.

7 Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, "Egzekucje Publiczne W Warszawie W Latach, 1943-1945" (Public Executions in Warsaw, 1943-45), Biuletyn Glownej Komisii Badania Zbrodni Niemieckiej W Polsce 6 (1946): 211-24; Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 236; Tatiana Berenstein, et al., eds., Exterminacja Zydow Na Ziemiach Polskich W Okresie Okupacjl Hitlerowskiej (Jewish Extermination in Poland During Hitler's Occupation) (Warszawa: Zydowski Instytut Historyczny, 1957), 121-22; Dawidowicz, ed., A Holocaust Reader, 67-68.

8 Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness, 52-69.

9 Nechama Tec, "Polish Anti-Semitism and the Rescuing of Jews," East European Quarterly 20 (3): 299-315.

10 Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness, 69.

11 Ibid., 150.

12 Ibid., 128. The social heterogeneity of the rescuers is also apparent in other publications. Two such classic examples are Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewin, Ten Jest Z Oiczyzny Mojej (Krakow: Wydawnictwo Znak, 1969); and Philip Friedman, Their Brother's Keepers (New York: Holocaust Library, 1978).

13 To protect the true identity of the people I interviewed, all the names are fictitious.

14 The present discussion about rescuers follows closely that in my book When Light Pierced The Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland, 150-93. Some of these characteristics had appeared in other publications. For example, what I refer to as individuality was identified as marginality by Perry London, "The Rescuers: Motivational Hypotheses About Christians Who Saved Jews from the Nazis," in Altruism and Helping Behavior, ed. Macaulay and Berkowitz, 241- 250. Two more recent articles mention the rescuers' matter of fact attitude toward their rescuing of Jews and their unpremeditated offer of help. See Hubert G. Locke, "Reflections on the Psychology of Rescuers and Bystanders," Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies 7 (1993): 8-11; and Kristen R. Monroe, "A Different Way of Seeing Things: What We Can Learn from the Rescuers of Jews," Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies 7 (1993): 12-14.

15 Nechama Tec, In The Lion's Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

16 Located in the thick, jungle-like Belorussian forests, led by the charismatic leader Tuvia Bielski, this group of partisans took on the dual role of rescuers and fighters. Suspended in a hostile environment, eager to survive and save, the unit grew and expanded, and totaled over 1,200 members, mostly older people, women, and children whom no one wanted, when the Russian army took over the area in 1944. The Bielski partisans are the subject of my book, Defiance: The Story of the Bielski Partisans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). [This book is reviewed on p. 377 of this issue of Social Education-Ed.]

Nechama Tec is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, Stamford. She is the author of When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland; Dry Tears; In the Lion's Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen and Defiance: The Story of the Bielski Partisans.