The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Germany by Samuel B. Oliner and Pearl Oliner (Free Press/Macmillan: $24.95, 428 pages)
The Holocaust dares us to put ourselves in the place of the victim: What if it had happened to me? What would I have done if I had been condemned to Auschwitz or Babi Yar? But now comes a book about the Holocaust that asks a very different but no less excruciating question: What would I have done if I had been given the chance to save my neighbor from Auschwitz or Babi Yar at the risk of my own life?
"World War II brought a new dimension of evil to the world," write Samuel B. Oliner and Pearl Oliner in "The Altruistic Personality," their monumental study of "rescuers" who assisted the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
"Yet, in the midst of this catastrophe, there were exemplars of great humanity. Outstanding among them are those non-Jews who committed themselves to helping Jews despite the awesome personal risks. . . . If perpetrators and collaborators constitute the tragedy of this human experience, rescuers constitute its hope."
Based on Ongoing Study
"The Altruistic Personality" is based on the so-called "Altruistic Personality Project," an ongoing study of "rescuers" that has been conducted since 1982 by Samuel Oliner, a sociology professor at Humboldt State University. Oliner and his fellow researchers have interviewed about 700 men and women, including more than 400 Gentile rescuers, each of whom acted to save Jewish lives without threat or reward, as well as 150 survivors of the Holocaust, and another 125 non-Jewish "bystanders" who did not try to help the Jewish victims around them.
Rescue is very generously defined in the Oliners' book. One family of Dutch rescuers did no more than keep the suitcases left behind by Jewish neighbors who had gone into hiding. But their small act of good faith was enough to bring down the wrath of the Third Reich. When the police came upon the suitcases during a sweep, they found clothing marked with the telltale Jewish star--and the kindhearted Gentiles were taken away.
Others were more heroic, and sometimes astoundingly so. The Oliners tell of Poles who consigned themselves to the Warsaw Ghetto "in order to provide help to those they loved," a Dominican brother in Italy who struggled to find hiding places for Jews in convents and monasteries, a Hungarian army officer who defied the orders of the SS to work his Jewish labor battalion to death--and faced off an armed SS officer who intended to execute them: "I put my finger on the holster of my gun and held it there. I said, 'I am going to take these people out.' "
We are witness to moments of extraordinary tenderness and rollicking good spirits in the face of catastrophe.
"We had an enormous amount of fun," one Dutch rescuer told the Oliners. "You couldn't buy clothes or anything, so everybody wore each other's dresses and the men wore each other's shirts in order to have the feeling of being dressed up. We had fantastic parties in the dark because there was no electricity."
Laughter was all the more courageous because of the constant threat of betrayal: In the midst of an impromptu songfest around a piano, one Jew asked the Italian priest who sheltered his family: "Do you realize that if you turned us in, you could get a bounty of twenty pounds sterling?"
The Oliners treat the rescuers with deep respect and even reverence. (Samuel Oliner is himself a Holocaust survivor whose escape from the Warsaw Ghetto was assisted by a Gentile rescuer.) Much of the book consists of the vivid first-person testimony of witnesses to the Holocaust and serves as a moving tribute to the heroism of the rescuers, who were painfully few but whose moral and physical courage were enormous.
Precise, Scholarly Work
But the Oliners approach their subject as scholars, not storytellers, and the reminiscences of the rescuers are put to use as the raw material of a sociological study. (The book includes a substantial appendix that sets forth the methodology of the study, including the carefully designed questions that were put to each respondent: "On what occasion did you become aware of what the Nazis intended to do to the Jews? How did you feel the first time you saw a Jew wearing the yellow Star of David?") Their findings are mostly presented in the precise and dispassionate tone of the scientist.
What do we learn about the psychological makeup and motivation of the rescuers?
True believers made heroic rescuers, whether the object of their faith was Marx or the Almighty. Love, compassion and a caring for others were more important than sympathy for the Jewish victims or anger toward the Nazi oppressors: "For most rescuers," the Oliners explain, "helping Jews was an expression of ethical principles that extend to all of humanity and, while often reflecting concern with equity and justice, was predominantly rooted in care."
What Creates a Hero
Yet the Oliners seem to concede that mere science cannot readily explain what creates a hero: "Different rescuers found different meanings in what was happening to Jews," they write, "but once their plight was understood through the prism of the individual's orientation, the necessity to act became compelling."
"The Altruistic Personality" deserves to be (and, I'm sure, will be) studied as a pioneering work of social science and a truly original contribution to the literature of the Holocaust. But the Oliners recognize that their book is also a prayer, a confession, a tribute to the sanctity and the power of a few moral men and women in a world of evil.
"Rescuers . . . made a choice that affirmed the value and meaningfulness of each life in the midst of a diabolical social order that repeatedly denied it," the Oliners conclude. "Can we do otherwise?"
To which we must all say: Amen.