In studying rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, Samuel and Pearl Oliner conclude that the rescuers were people who believed they could influence events. In psychological terms, they possessed an internal locus of control. They viewed themselves as people who had some influence over the course of their lives. While they couldn’t completely control their destinies, neither were they pawns in the hands of Fate.
Many other Germans viewed themselves as victims, subject to the psychic wounds of defeat after WW1 and the ensuing economic chaos. Psychologists refer to attributing events as beyond one’s ability to influence them as an external locus of control.
Furthermore, the Oliners write, “An examination of the early family lives and personality characteristics of both rescuers and non-rescuers suggests that their respective wartime behavior grew out of their general patterns of relating to others.”
Many of the German non-rescuers who stood by while Jews died didn’t necessarily remain passive because they overtly rejected or hated Jews or other outsiders. Their acceptance of tyranny was mainly one aspect of their personalities. The non-rescuers were people who distanced themselves from any relationship they considered burdensome. Non-rescuers had constricted personalities, while the personalities of the rescuers were extensive ones. Non-rescuers hunkered down and closed up; rescuers opened their arms
But how did rescuers get to be the people they were? Why does anyone take risks on the behalf of others? Sometimes when confronted with the acts of altruism we are left with less than scraps to help us understand the setting in which they were born.
Fortunately, research has helped illuminate some of the mystery by studying rescuers honored at Yad Veshem. The Oliners were able to question hundreds of rescuers of Jews in Germany in order to get more insight about the roots of altruism. They found that one of the keys to understanding rescuers was the rescuers’ parents’ method of discipline. Rescuers’ parents relied upon reason and explanation. When their child harmed another, they suggested ways to remedy the hurt. Physical punishment was used sparingly. Instead they made great use of persuasion and advice.
The major lesson from Fogelman’s and the Oliners’ research is that altruism can be learned. Morality doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. What the children learned every day from their parents through acts of kindness and tolerance and through encouragement toward independent thinking helps explain why they became rescuers. These values became ingrained and habitual. Altruistic behavior had been so instilled in them that personal risk was not a consideration. They had to do what they did in order to be true to themselves. Being a rescuer was almost a natural outcome of their upbringing.
Says Dr. Fogelman, “At a time of worldwide upheaval, when civilized norms were held in suspension, a few individuals held fast to their own standards. They were not saints. Nor were they particularly heroic or often all that outstanding. They were simply ordinary people doing what they felt had to be done at that time.”
The implications of the Holocaust findings can instruct parents seeking to raise moral children. We can help our children to be good people. We teach them every day by word and by example. When we assist others, we help our children to be caring. When we see people as individuals, we teach respect for differences. When we encourage independent thinking, we help keep them from being swayed by the mob.
These are values worth passing on to our children in any time. As Eva Fogelman concludes in her book, “It is appealing to contemplate a day when those seeking moral heroes need only look as far as their mirror.”