Eva Fogelman, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, New York, Anchor Books: 1994. Pp. xx + 393. *
Rescuer testimony indicates, again and again, that those who rescued do not think of their activity as heroic or extraordinary. Rather, rescue seemed normal, self-evidently the thing that had to be done. Interestingly, the same observation was made by Hannah Arendt about the opposite of rescue: the doing of enormous evil was normal, self-evident. Arendt termed this “the banality of evil” — “banal” in the sense of normal, prosaic, or matter-of-fact; not in the sense of trite, hackneyed, or stale. The evidence from rescuers, then, brings up the other mystery of the holocaust: the banality of good. If it was not heroics and was not aberration, why did some people rescue? If it was not extraordinary, why did some normal, ordinary people rescue Jews when the overwhelming consensus tolerated, or actively supported, their persecution and extermination? Eva Fogelman — historian, psychotherapist, and second generation survivor — has had a long professional and personal interest in rescuers. Conscience and Courage represents her effort to bring together and analyze the data she has gathered over the years. Fogelman interviewed over 300 rescuers and has reached some important conclusions.
Fogelman points to four classes of factors which set the stage for rescue: first, well developed inner values, which came from deep in childhood, that stressed acceptance of difference in others, a conviction that individual action matters, and religious or moral convictions that supported those values (6); second, a loving home, reasoned and firm guidance in childhood, a model of altruistic behavior in the person of a caregiver or other authoritative adult, practice at thinking and acting independently of the opinion of others, and a serious illness or death in one’s family (42, ch. 14); third, a strong sense of one’s own competency to find creative solutions to very difficult problems and to handle the secrecy, fear, and terror of rescue (59,75); and fourth, “channel factors” and an “enabling situation,” that is, the availability of a safe hiding place, of someone to request the rescuer’s help, of a potential victim who could “pass,” of food, and of a support organization to provide ration cards, counterintelligence, money, etc. Sympathy was not enough; the timing had to be right (60-2, 208, 254).
If the factors which set the stage for rescue were in place, then a moment of awareness came (ch. 3). For some, it was in the form of a “transforming encounter”; for others, it was in the form of an accumulation of incidents (41, 52, 54). In either case, the awareness of deep injustice surfaced and, if the timing was right, the first act of rescue was accomplished (ch.4). “A core confidence, a strong sense of self, and a supportive situation had allowed bystanders to undertake the rescue. But once the decision to help had been reached and the rescue had begun, a different self — a rescuer self — emerged, to do what had to be done and to keep rescuers from becoming overwhelmed by new responsibilities and pressures” (68, italics original). The “rescuer self” enabled the rescuer to lie, to steal, even to kill. It enabled the rescuer to bear the total secrecy and to sustain the duplicity of leading a double life — that of rescuer and that of a normal member of the community. The “rescuer self” enabled the rescuer to assume a role and, through that role, to cope with the daily tasks as well as with the daily terror. The concept of the “rescuer self” (esp. ch. 5) is one of Fogleman’s most important contributions to the study of holocaust rescue and the altruistic personality.
A second important contribution lies in Fogelman’s analysis of children of rescuers, especially those children and adolescents who became rescuers themselves (146-8, 225-7, ch. 12). These young people were ambivalent. On the one hand, they were proud of their parents and their own roles as rescuers. On the other hand, they were jealous of the strangers who received so much attention, were deeply isolated from friends by the secrecy of rescue, were given responsibilities far beyond their years, often witnessed killings and other brutalities inflicted on family members and potential victims, and quite often (in 25% of the cases) their very lives were placed at risk by their parents. Still, those who persevered acquired their own “rescuer self” which enabled them to lie, to steal, and to cope with the fear and terror.
A third contribution lies in Fogelman’s typology of rescuers. Not satisfied with the answer that this is a “mystery of goodness,” Fogelman evolves five categories (ch. 8-12): the moral rescuer (32% of the sample), within which she distinguishes those impelled by religious (12%), ideological (14%), and emotional (6%) motives; the Judeophile rescuer (28%) motivated largely by previous contact with Jews; the professional rescuer (5%) motivated by the ideals of his or her profession; the network rescuer (22%) motivated largely by political considerations, among which rescue of Jews was but one goal; and children who were rescuers (12%) motivated at first by parental approval and then by their own convictions. To this, Fogelman adds a chapter on gender and rescue noting, contrary to much research on gender and morality, that women and men rescuers simply do not fit the predicted stereotypes though many women did, in fact, tend toward the usual role-expected forms of rescue (ch. 13).
Finally, Fogelman writes with great sensitivity about the post-war histories of her interviewees (ch. 15-16). The threats to their lives in the aftermath of the war, the continuing fear of discovery, the isolation from those they had rescued, the lack of recognition for their work, and the inability to mourn their own terror and the loss of their rescuer selves — especially among the children — all contributed to a dimension of suffering and unhappiness that these people surely did not merit. Fortunately, the growing public recognition of their efforts and, as Fogelman notes, the very interview process itself helps set their rescue work into the broader context of their lives and contributes toward a healing of the wounds of these courageous people.
And then there are the stories themselves (scattered throughout the book but esp. in ch. 6). One cannot read these stories without weeping for the love and the courage these people manifested, without crying for the lost child in each of us who needs that love and who would also like to be able to love others that much.
I knew something about the courage but I did not realize how terrifying life was, on a day to day basis. How does one buy food for extra people, or do their laundry, or dispose of their human waste without arousing suspicion? How does one drill potential victims on how to act if apprehended with minimum danger to one’s own family? How does one deal with the severe illness of someone who is in hiding, or with the interpersonal tensions in such a situation? Even peeling potatoes could be a source of danger (151-2). I also naively assumed that moral rectitude adequately compensated the rescuers. I did not know about their suffering — their losses during rescue and the permanent psychological, and sometimes physical, damage they suffered. What does one say to Beatrice Steenstra, a child of rescuers, who saw her father’s ear bitten off by a German dog and then found out that he had been killed because of his rescue work (129-30)?
This book has been very helpful. One could have wished for a bit more organization; the data on any topic is dispersed in many places. One could also have wished for a better location of this analysis within the general framework of altruistic studies with which Fogelman in clearly familiar. But life is not neat and theoretically complete, and it surely was not so in those times and in those places. Conscience and Courage is an important contribution to the study of the banality of goodness.
* Appeared in Journal of Psychology and Theology, 1994: 23:62-3
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