Published in First Things (1999).



"There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose [goodness] continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living." -- Hannah Senesh


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 himself seems to have gone off the deep end when he writes: "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)."

What I write here, then, will run the risk of falling under the rubric of "The Americanization or Schindler's Listing of the Holocaust." So be it. The Holocaust was indeed one of the most horrendous instances of man's inhumanity to man ever recorded. It was, however, first of all and fundamentally, the most egregious example of man's inhumanity to Jews over a two thousand year period where man's inhumanity to Jews was incessant. An incredibly small fraction of non-Jews nonetheless resisted this abomination and summoned the courage to risk their lives and in many cases those of their children to rescue persecuted people. Why would we ever want to forget the only people who remembered the Jews during the Nazi plague?

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Certainly we must continue to heed the Jewish voices urging us to remember the atrocities committed against the Jewish people by the Nazis in the hope that by remembering what was done we will prevent it from ever happening again. In order to "mend the world," however, we must also listen to other Jewish voices, those of Philip Hallie, Pierre Sauvage, Eva Fogelman, Gay Block, and Malka Drucker,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 again and again in the future. The verb "re-member" has its surgical sense of putting things back together again and these acts of solidarity, although accomplished by only a fraction of the 700 million people who lived in Nazi-Occupied countries during World War II, were part of the picture. Indeed, these lights that shone only here and there in the overall darkness enable us to see and to find our way out of the labyrinth of blind hatred within which they were performed.

Although they would undoubtedly object on the double 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. Without them, the Holocaust would have marked the death of Man. This is why the Yad Vashem medal they receive contains 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 being as a being capable of goodness, the very concept that allows the human 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?" but 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, we do at least have a model to work with--the rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, those persons whose courageous self-transcendence destroys the axiom that human beings can only act out of self-interest. 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 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, as children, in a significant number of 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, and because in these homes they were taught five essential principles: that human beings are basically the same and differences between them are to be respected; that the world is not divided into "us and them" but rather contains a common bond of humanity; that they should have a clear sense of right and wrong, should stand up for their beliefs, have moral integrity, self-confidence, and self-worth; that kindness and compassion toward others should be practiced; and that they should be of independent mind, self-sustaining, and never follow the crowd.

This type of family life and the five principles mentioned do not constitute a necessary cause nor a sufficient one regarding rescue work during the Holocaust. Rescuing was basically a function of character but 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. While it does not mean, then, that all who received this training rescued Jews, too many rescuers have repeated the same story for us to ignore these significant points that appear in virtually all accounts of the rescuers. Oliner and Oliner, who interviewed 406 rescuers, 126 nonrescuers, and 150 survivors, point out that not all rescuers developed their altruistic tendencies from good family relationships. Their "composite portrait" of the typical rescuer, however, as well as that found in Nehama Tee's study, closely resemble the one to be gleaned from Block, Drucker, and Fogelman. Kristen Monroe, whose study is a powerful indictment of all those, including Hobbes, Freud, and Darwin, who would read altruism--especially in the case of rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust--in terms of self-interest, finds 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 universally among rescuers, they nonetheless make the revealing observation that: "Knowing whether someone was characterized by an extensive or a constricted orientation enabled us to predict who would be a rescuer or a nonrescuer in 70 percent of the individuals we studied."2

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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 of difference for the fragmentation and polarities in our society, certainly it has done nothing to improve the situation.

In the world at large, homelessness is rampant, new very dangerous nuclear crises of nationalism have arisen between India and Pakistan, and ethnic cleansing continues in Europe. At home, homelessness has reached new heights, relations between Jews and blacks have plummeted, the distance between the rich and poor has greatly increased, and according to a 1997 Harvard University report, our schools are now more segregated than at any time since 1954, the year when Brown vs. The Board of Education outlawed segregation in public institutions. Most tragic of all is the fact that in the United States the 1990s have witnessed well over 400 biased motivated murders (hate crimes), two of which, the brutal slaying of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas and the horrific murder of Matthew Sheperd in Wyoming, are among the most despicable crimes ever committed on American soil.

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 individuals regardless of race or creed.

If the rescuers have anything to tell us at all, it is that in a world obsessed with difference one can only make a difference by insisting on the essential similarity between 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. As the idea of "common union" suggests, however, communities are built on the profound similarities between human beings. The truth that emanates from the accounts of the rescuers is that diversity is only cultural, whereas, at the human level, there are no 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 states 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 and that might enable us to make a world of difference in our own world which is also obsessed with difference.

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The case of Philip Hallie, the author of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, the book that first told the story of the rescue mission in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, makes it clear that the very narration of the stories of the rescuers can produce acts of spiritual rescue today. Hallie's two different prefaces to this volume in the 1979 and 1994 editions and the autobiographical chapters of his posthumous Tales of Good and Evil, Help and Harm (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997) allow us to trace his evolution over a sixty year period that takes us geographically from "The Cockroach Building" where he was raised in Chicago to Europe and finally to Middletown, Connecticut, and morally, thanks to the discovery of communities of rescue, from the coercion of despair to the reality of hope. Although there are fluctuations, regressions, and ultimate reconciliation in that evolution, the major turning point in Hallie's life occurred with his discovery of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France that took the form of life-threatening sheltering of refugees from their persecutors.

Hallie's World War II experiences and his professional research only compounded his childhood view 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 "which 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 (Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1969), confirmed his view that, although cruelty might often need the help of hatred and fear, it only took place in situations of power imbalance. Everywhere he turned, therefore, Hallie found at work the same law: "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 quasi-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."

Those 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: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. 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 recollect joyfully that, even in the most difficult circumstances and against overwhelming odds, human beings are capable of goodness and courageous self-transcendence.

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While, at one level, the rescuers represented the "Lamed Vav," it is essential, at another, 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.

Philip Hallie was, finally, able to do so. When he died in 1994, he was the president of The Connection, the first and largest drug and alcohol halfway house in Connecticut, founded in 1972 by Kätchen Coley and Nancy Flanner. The very name of The Connection must have pleased Hallie whose entire ethical vision is infused with a deep human need to create links and forge relationships. Hallie, who had been rescued from "the coercion of despair," was now involved in rescuing others from the same abyss.

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 and often those of their children 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. As real as "the banality of evil," although practiced by only a tiny fraction of people, was "the ordinariness of goodness." If we look closely both at the rescue mission on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in south central France and at what was happening around it we can readily perceive both phenomena at work.

France's Vichy government, on its own, without any pressure whatsoever from the Nazis, alone among all occupied Western European nations, wrote its own anti-Semitic policies, extending the definition of Jew beyond contemporary Nazi practice and imposing a quota system to limit the number of Jews in certain spheres of life, while it interned foreign Jews in camps throughout the country. Its legal system cooperated with Nazi goals to a greater extent than any other Occupied nation. In addition, not only did 3,000 foreign Jews die in French-run internment camps, but we should recall that it was Pierre Laval, second in command under Marshal Pétain, who, when the Nazis required that Jewish males (aged 16-60) and females (aged 16-55) be deported, furthur requested that Jewish children also be deported along with their parents. When these forced deportations to the death camps began in the summer of 1942, the French police cooperated readily with the Nazis, joining only Bulgaria among all Occupied nations in rounding up Jews not only from the Occupied Zone but eagerly evicting them from the Unoccupied Zone as well, and ultimately turning over 76,000 Jews, roughly 25% of the Jewish population--1/3 of whom, astonishingly, were their fellow citizens and 10,000 of whom were children--to be exterminated.

While evil spread in a climate where anti-Semitism and informing on Jews were not only acceptable but patriotic, and where the wheels of evil were turned by thousands involved in the rounding up, transportation, confinement, registration, and as of the summer of 1942, deportation of foreign and French Jews, approximately five thousand mountain people risked their lives and those of their children by welcoming and housing thousands of refugee Jews. No other communal effort on this scale ever occurred for this length of time 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, we know today that 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, non-believers, 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, 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 three thousand five hundred were Jewish; many of them 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.

Regarding the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust, almost all people living in Occupied Europe acted out of traditionally conceived self-interest. The rescuers obviously did not. To say that they did would be to stand language on its head. In an interesting, concise article, Michael Bader points out that neither traditional Freudian psychoanalysis nor more modern psychoanalytic views are willing to consider "a wish to improve the welfare of the other as a primary human striving." 3 Even when altruism has been recognized, according to Bader, it has been systematically subordinated to other impulses and consistently discredited as a foundational motivation. Yet, if the rescuers have taught us anything, it is the truth of primary altruism. It would be equally erroneous to explain the altruism of the rescuers as "self-less" behavior. There is no such animal. There is always an acting self in a particular situation. The great mistake is to see altruism or self-transcendence as either "self-less" or a form of self-sacrifice. Here again the testimony of the rescuers is clear and unequivocal: self-transcendence has very little to do with self-sacrifice and everything to do with self-fulfillment.

As we enter the new millennium, if we wish to change course, our task will be to create individuals who resemble the rescuers and communities that will produce such individuals. To preach or teach the inevitability of traditionally conceived self-interest in all human activities is the greatest tool for the maintenance of the status quo. We must recognize altruism as a foundational motivation, a nutriment for human beings, and self-transcendence as the road to self-fulfillment.

We must imagine a new world before we can create it. Imagine a world where politics actually grows out of ethics rather than ours where global ethics are predicated upon nationalistic self-interest! We will only be able to create that world when we define the human beings who will populate it differently from how they have traditionally been defined. By declaring the decade 2001-2010 "the Decade of Nonviolent Education," the United Nations has challenged us all to move in that direction.



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

2. Samuel P. Olner and Pearl M. Olner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: Free Press, 1988), p. 253; Nehama Tee, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Kristen Renwick Monroe, The Heart of Altruism. Perceptions of a Common Humanity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 184.

3. Micheal Bader, "Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth. The Psychological and Social Problem of Altruism," Tikkun 13(1998): 13-15.