The Rescuer Within Us

By Melissa Green
Orange Park, Florida


The unmitigated responsibility of the Holocaust lies not with the Nazis, nor with any of the members of the Third Reich. A maniacal minority exists in every society; it is the responsibility of all people to take a stand in what is right and to defend their own people. The Holocaust is a result of a country populated with bystanders. It is the duty of all people to study this episode in history in order to prevent another Holocaust and to ensure that our world today is populated not with bystanders, but with Rescuers.

The Holocaust was a war against the Jews. Hitler and the members of his Nazi regime made it their mission to rid the world of a race which they deemed inferior. In the World War II era six million Jews were brutally murdered through the Nazi plan of extermination. However, there were only somewhere between 50,000 - 500,000 non-Jews who knowingly risked their lives and often the lives of their loved ones to save the lives of those in need, thus becoming Rescuers. While a mere fraction of the action population, their significance far outweighed their sum total.1

Few people took a stand to become Rescuers. Political scientist, Kristen Monroe identified the Rescuers as "John Donne's People." The phrase evolved from John Donne's Devotions, "No man is an island, Intire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the Maine;... Any man's death diminishes me. Because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."2 The employment of the phrase to Holocaust Rescuers expresses how Rescuers viewed a common humanity among all people as opposed to singularity of the individual.

There must be some explanation for the Rescuers' motivations. According to sociobiologists, genes are the source of altruistic behavior. It is impossible for a species to survive unless the progenitors are able to pass on a trait of altruism. For the species to survive, there must be individuals who are willing to risk their own lives for the greater good. In order to prevent future genocide, there must always remain the few who will make the ultimate sacrifice to benefit the greater good. However, it is unlikely that the Rescuers were inspired solely biologically.3

Psychoanalytic theory conflicts with the sociobiological theory, suggesting that learning rather than genetic transmission is responsible for altruistic behavior. Evidence suggests that humans and higher primates learn most of their skills and habits, both aggressive and moral, from their caregiver.4 For some, rescuing was a way to express outrage at the acts of the Nazis.5 Eighty percent of the Rescuers studies recalled a strong moral role model present at some point in their lives. Only through the repressions of society and the natural stages of maturation can a person learn to repress aggressive behavior and express a desire to help others. With each person who chooses to become a Rescuer will come future generations who will also make the righteous choice.6

With thee possible explanations of the desire to aid those in need comes the question of motivation. An experiment by Perry London hoped to determine the psychological differences existing between the personality types of Rescuers and Perpetrators. Initially, Dr. London believed that the most significant contributing factor in the personalities of Rescuers was the "desire to participate in what were inherently exciting activities."7 However, he later concluded that a predilection for hazardous activities did not serve as a motivation for Rescuers as much as it affected the form of action that would be taken.8

People who enjoyed dangerous activity would merely choose more risky courses of action. A prime example was Ernst Trier Morch, MD, PhD, a Danish citizen who was a member of the underground resistance movement in Denmark. He assisted thousands of Danish Jews, and due in part to his efforts, not one Danish Jew died in the Nazi gas chambers. Dr. Morch took dangerous chances by helping publish an underground newspaper which involved stealing printing presses and other necessary materials. He smuggled Jews out of Denmark on fishing boats, often having to directly confront Nazi guards and use trickery to conceal the illegal contents of the boats. He concocted a mixture of rabbit's blood and cocaine to disguise the scent of the Jewish passengers. On any given mission, it was very possible that Dr. Morch could have had to make the ultimate sacrifice with his life, but he never gave the matter a second thought.9 10

No excuse exists for a bystander who simply did not possess the knowledge to become a Rescuer. It is the duty of all people, whether in wartime or peace, to be aware of the circumstances which are governing the world around them. Knowledge and comprehension is often the only weapon the common person can possess.

Many bystanders chose to remain uninvolved because of the risk rescuing involved for their families. They did not wish to exchange the life of a stranger for the lives of loved ones. The lives of Rescuers were often completely overtaken and many people were unwilling to make such a personal sacrifice. It was the Rescuer, however, who saw that defiance of the Nazi policies of death and destruction in any manner possible far outweighed every concern for personal safety.11

Frequently, people who would be Rescuers never received the opportunity because of a simple lack of available material resources. Certain items were necessary to help the victims. They required money, appropriate shelters, contacts from which to purchase forged papers and transportation. Sixty-three percent of Rescuers reported being employed immediately before the war, but due to the abundance of the illegal market during the war economic status prior to the war was not a large determination between Rescuers and non-rescuers.12

Often people who contributed to the rescue effort did so for personal gain. The was difficult on everyone involved, and food and money were scarcities. The kind of help that could be gained from these profiting Rescuers was usually ephemeral and relatively risk-free, such as selling information of planned arrests or directions to a fleeing Jew. This method of Rescue should not be entirely discounted, but also not exalted as a selfless choice to help those in need.13

When asked what motivated them to take a stand against the Nazis, most Rescuers respond reminiscent of this particular Dutchman who sheltered a Jewish family for two years, "I did nothing unusual; anyone would have done the same thing in my place."14 If only it were so. A population of several hundred million non-Jews lived in areas controlled or influenced by the Nazi regime.15 Had those residing in these areas had the presence of mind and courage of the Rescuers, there would have been no Holocaust. However, many of the Rescuers did not wish to be viewed as remarkable or extraordinary. Joop Westerweel, a Dutch underground figure, believed that his many acts of selfless Rescue were simply the right and moral modes of behavior and therefore should not be exalted as portentous. He asserted this belief in a smuggled message to his friends, stating, "...I am a very ordinary person so please don't idealize me..."16

A prime example of the fact that one person could have effectively prevented friends and neighbors from meeting their death in concentration camps was the King of Denmark. When the occupying Nazis made the decree that all Danish Jews would be forced to wear the distinguishing armband, the King chose to wear one himself. By going out among his people with the mark of the Jews prominently displayed on his arm, he let his people know that Jews were still Danes and deserved their protection. The next day, the Danish citizens proudly walked the streets with the Star of David on their sleeve, thereby making a commitment to protect their countrymen.17

The non-effect of the bystanders, in terms of sheer statistics, transcended the effect of the Rescuers, but every time a person knowingly and willingly risked their life for the lives of others the community as a whole benefitted. Chana Szenes, a known Rescuer, is quoted by Simon Weisenthal as saying, "All the darkness cannot extinguish the light of a single candle, yet one candle can illuminate the darkness."18 No matter who many bystanders there were, there was still the shining beacon of hope of the few Rescuers. They must not be forgotten.

The number of Rescuers is so miniscule that it is difficult to believe they made any difference at all. Many bystanders felt that their contribution to the Rescue effort would make no difference, so they did not attempt to help others, and they assuredly made no difference. A Jewish aphorism expressing the extreme importance of risking one life to save another is, "He who saves one life, saves the world entire."19

Rescuers were not exclusively those who directly saved the life of a person or people. What desperately needed rescuing during the Holocaust was the dispirited minds, hearts and souls of the enslaved masses. There were Rescuers who lived among the prisoners as one of them, but still managed to give of themselves. Lucille E., a survivor, relates one such story, "there was a young man scrubbing the floor...he talked to me in a language I couldn't identify. He couldn't understand me... . In his hand was a little ball of brown paper and he...gave it a push next to my foot... . Later on I found out it was dry bread that had been half eaten and crumbled.20 Strangers would give what little they had to help strangers.

The generations that have come after the Holocaust are now the hopeful Rescuers. With each passing day the population of survivors of the Holocaust is decreasing. Every day in every way each person makes choices, whether to be a perpetrator, a victim, a bystander or a Rescuer. Revisionists and Holocaust Denialists exist as perpetrators while the truth of history and tragedy becomes the victim. If the general population again chooses to become bystanders, then the future of society will once more face the Holocaust. If, however, society takes a stand now to teach every person about the travesty of the twentieth century, then the educated populace shall become the Rescuers.




1 Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality; Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe: What Led Ordinary Men and Women to Risk Their Lives on Behalf of Others? (New York: The Free Press, 1988).


2 Eva Fogleman, Conscience and Courage, (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), pg. 158.


3 Oliner and Oliner, pgs. 8-10


4 Oliner and Oliner, pgs. 8-10


5 Eva Fogleman, pg 158.


6 Eva Fogleman, "What Motivated the Rescuers?, Dimensions Vol. 5 No. 3, pg. 8-9.


7 Fogleman, pg. 9


8 Fogleman, pg. 8


9 Samuel P. Cox, In Class Lecture.


10 Dr. Ernst Trier Morch, In Class Lecture, October 27, 1995.


11 Oliner and Oliner, pg 112.


12 Oliner and Oliner, pg 129.


13 Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 (New York: Aaron Asher Books, 1992), pg 195.


14 Oliner and Oliner, pg 113.


15 Hilberg, pg 195.


16 Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 153-154.


17 Samuel P. Cox, In Class Lecture.


18 Peter Hay, Ordinary Heroes: The Life and Death of Chana Szenes, Israel's National Heroine (New York: Paragon House, 1989), pg 16.


19 "Survivors of the Holocaust" Documentary, Presented by: The Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.


20 Lucille E., Interviewed by: Ellen S., Maria J.B., Brian P., August 14, 1990. "Holocaust Oral History Project." San Francisco, 1990.



Cox, Samuel P., In Class Lecture. "Dr. Ernst Trier Morch, MD, Ph.D."


E. Lucille. Personal Interview by: Ellen S., Maria J.B., Brian P., 14 Aug. 1990.


Fogleman, Eva. Conscience and Courage. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.


Fogleman, Eva. "What Motivates the Rescuers?" Dimensions Vol. 5 No. 3.


Hay, Peter. Ordinary Heroes; The Life and Death of Chana Szenes, Israel's National Heroine. New York: Paragon House, 1989.


Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders; The Jewish Catastrophe 1933- 1945. New York: Aaron Asher Books, 1992.


Morch, Dr. Ernst Trier, MD, Ph.D. "Speech." St. Johns Country Day School, 27 Oct. 1995.


Oliner, Samuel P., and Oliner, Pearl M. The Altruistic Personality; Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe: What Led Men and Women to Risk Their Lives on Behalf of Others? New York: The Free Press, 1988.


Survivors of the Holocaust. Presented by: The Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, with Steven Speilberg. TBS, 8 Jan. 1996.


Tec, Hechama. When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi- Occupied Poland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.



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