Offering a dissenting view of the much-acclaimed film Schindler's List, Michael Andre Bernstein notes that in his local video store, "there is now a shelf of films about both the Holocaust in particular and World War II in general. Its label reads, simply: 'Videos in the Category of Schindler's List' " (The American Scholar, August 1994).
For better or worse, it is undeniable that Steven Spielberg's film has shaped the image of the Holocaust in the minds of millions of Americans. And in its depiction of the Nazi attempt to destroy the Jewish people, Schindler's List has drawn attention to a group whose role in these terrible events should not be forgotten: the rescuers, those who risked their own lives to save Jews.
Most discussions of the Holocaust speak of two groups of people: Nazi perpetrators and Jewish (and other) victims. But the perpetrators and their intended victims were not, in fact, the only people on the scene during the Holocaust. Three main groups actually can be identified: killers, victims, and bystanders, a small but significant number of whom became rescuers.
Think about it in terms of the following numbers: The Holocaust was carried out by a relatively small number of German officials, in the thousands. Their task was to find and kill as many of the Jews in Europe as they could, a number they estimated at 11 million (it was actually closer to 9 million). These Jews were scattered in some two-dozen European nations, with a total population exceeding 300 million. Thus the Holocaust was a triangular affair involving several thousand Germans trying to find and kill several million Jews dispersed among approximately 300 million non-Jews. More than 90 percent of these non-Jews would have described themselves as Christians.
The behavior of this huge group of Christian bystanders was crucial. Both the perpetrators and the intended victims actively sought their help. The killers wanted collaborators, people who would help them annihilate the Jews. The victims needed rescuers, people who would help them avoid annihilation. The situation-and sometimes particular Germans and particular Jews asking for help-forced these bystanders to decide how to relate to both killers and victims. Their choices were momentous ones that both cost and saved human lives.
How did the Christian bystanders actually behave during the Holocaust? A small minority helped to destroy Jews, who were killed not only by Germans, but by people from several other nations as well. The great majority sought refuge in neutrality. The problem with this response was that while the Germans could tolerate bystanders who were "neutral" (neutrality, in effect, meant complicity), Jews almost always needed the active intervention of their non-Jewish neighbors to survive. Another small minority risked their own lives and the lives of their families to help Jews survive. Jews call these people "the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust" or "Christian rescuers."
THE RIGHTEOUS GENTILES
The Righteous Gentiles are honored as heroes in Israel and everywhere Jews commemorate the Holocaust. At the Holocaust memorial and museum in Israel, Yad Vashem, thousands of evergreen carob trees have been planted in what is called the "Garden of the Righteous." Each tree is planted in honor of a Gentile rescuer. After rigorous research to determine that a person qualifies as a rescuer, Israel's custom has been to fly the honoree to Israel for a solemn recognition ceremony.
More than 11,000 rescuers have been officially honored. The name of each verified rescuer can be found not only in Israel but now also in the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington on a striking display that will be continually updated. There is a research department at Yad Vashem that works solely on the recognition of rescuers.
Mordecai Paldiel, who heads this office, has told me that circumstances will make it impossible for Yad Vashem to be able to identify all who aided Jews during the war. His conservative estimate is that at least 100,000 non-Jews acted to rescue Jews during the war, and that each rescuer, on average, helped one Jew to survive. Thus, at least 100,000 Jews, and probably more, lived to see the end of World War II because of the actions of non-Jewish rescuers. Paldiel's task is to find and honor as many of these rescuers as possible-and then to help perpetuate their memory on behalf of the nation of Israel.
RESCUERS AND THE CHURCH
But what should Christians remember about the rescuers, and what can we learn from them? While Yad Vashem continues its work, rescuer research elsewhere is also booming. Social scientists are studying rescuers, probing background, character, and motivation. Rescuers and rescued are writing their autobiographies. Newspaper stories about one rescuer or another seem to appear almost daily. There is only one problem: almost no Christians are involved in rescuer research and analysis.
The reason this is a problem is that, as many Jews have noted, the rescuers are "our" heroes. The great majority of them were self-identified Christians, which is fully to be expected of people who lived in what was once called Christian Europe. Jews call them "Christian rescuers" and for years have wondered why the church pays so little attention to them. Is it that taking notice of Christian rescuers also requires us to take notice of the many more Christians who stood by and watched or even actively participated in the killing?
Yet it is precisely this tragic mix of Christian behavior during the Holocaust that ought to attract the attention of Christian scholars and others who care about the quality of our discipleship. Spread before us is an extraordinarily well-documented case study in Christian morality. We see some Christians courageously and compassionately saving Jews; we see other Christians turning Jews away; we see still others brutally murdering Jews. We also see each kind of action done explicitly in the name of Jesus.
Questions abound. Why was there this range of Christian behavior? How were rescuers different from nonrescuing Christians? Was it something about their faith, or upbringing, or personality? The contemporary applications are obvious: What can the church do today to nurture the kinds of people who will act with compassion and courage on behalf of others rather than do nothing or participate in evil?
For several years I have been engaged in a study of the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust. Here are some of the major questions I have asked and some of the answers I have discovered:
Who were the rescuers? Rescuers were men and women from every nation in Nazi-dominated Europe. They were rich and poor, young and old, people from all social classes and occupations. When politically affiliated, rescuers tended to be involved more with democratic and leftist groups than with rightist parties, but they could be found all across the political spectrum. Essentially, rescuers represented a cross section of European society at the time. Who would become a rescuer could not be predicted by any measure that sociologists use. This finding has often led me to wonder who the rescuers would be among my friends, students, colleagues, and family, and to know that the answer to that question would undoubtedly surprise me. Only God knows our hearts (Luke 16:15).
Were rescuers committed Christians and nonrescuers not? No such claim can be sustained. How encouraging it would be for Christians if it could be reported that rescuers were Christians, or committed Christians, or evangelicals, and nonrescuers not. But research shows that rescuers do not appear to have differed from nonrescuers on any test of religiosity, including self-identification as a Christian and level of religious commitment. The hard truth is that what Jesus seeks is believers who will live like disciples, doing what he taught us to do, such as acting on behalf of "the least of these" (Matt. 25:31-46). When people are in need, it is especially clear that it is the quality of our practice of the Christian life that is relevant, not the quantity of religious zeal that we announce. Jesus said as much: "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
Were rescuers raised differently from nonrescuers? There is some tantalizing evidence along these lines. Several studies, notably a work by Samuel and Pearl Oliner (The Altruistic Personality, 1988), have compared the childhood socialization of rescuers and nonrescuers. In greater proportion than nonrescuers, though not universally, rescuers tended to be close to their parents and to be treated with warmth and affection. They report less physical punishment and more reasoning as a form of discipline. Many had parents who both taught and modeled caring responses to others in need, as well as outrage at social and political injustice. More rescuers than nonrescuers were taught the universal (rather than "just for my group") applicability of moral principles such as justice and love.
All of this evidence reinforces fundamental Christian convictions about the centrality of the family and the awesome responsibilities and opportunities of Christian parents (Deut. 6:6-9; Eph. 6:4). It also says something about what exactly we should be teaching our children.
Were rescuers people of a certain kind of character or personality type? Anyone who watched Schindler's List learned of the less-than-sterling character of the high-living and adulterous Oskar Schindler. Yet here was a man who, in the moral crucible of the Holocaust, forged a relentless commitment to rescuing innocent Jews. All of this is to say that there was no single rescuer character type, nor were rescuers uniformly paragons of virtue.
Research has revealed some interesting tendencies, however. Rescuers are more likely to have been people with a strong sense of social responsibility and capacity to empathize with suffering people. They also tend to demonstrate a consistent commitment to helping needy people, before and after the Holocaust as well as during it.
Rescuers tended to be people with a healthy self-esteem and a sense of independence and competence. Perhaps this enabled them to believe that they could actually disobey the Third Reich and live to tell about it. Some rescuers appear to have been adventuresome types, and others drew upon a sense of social marginality as a resource for compassion. Another mark of rescuer character is the nearly universal unwillingness to accept praise for their deeds. "It is what anyone would have done," they say of behavior that almost no one did. For them, to rescue Jews was the perfectly natural and obvious course of action. People needed help, so help was offered. Such actions and attitudes, in the face of death, are an expression of marvelously well-formed character (Luke 6:43-45) and a model for the church today.
What motivated the rescuers? Rescuers have given a wide variety of answers to the question of what motivated them. Here are the major reasons for rescue that have been cited:
* Personal ties with Jews. A significant number of rescuers acted, at least in part, on the basis of a personal relationship with a particular Jew in need. Rescuers were more likely to have been people who had Jewish friends before the Holocaust, not because they had greater opportunity to make such friends, but because they were more open to such friendships. These friendships then bore fruit during the Holocaust, as rescuers "laid down their lives," sometimes literally, for their Jewish friends (John 15:13). We see the moral importance of friendship, and of Christian openness to diverse kinds of friends. Jesus was one who could be found at the home of nearly anybody, from tax collector to sinner to Pharisee (Matt. 9:10-11). Do we cross social boundary lines, including the stranger among us, the way he did?
* Group influence. Some rescuers report that they saved Jews because of the moral example or exhortation of a group that was important to them. Such groups included family, friends, church groups or subgroups, resistance networks, neighbors, or community leaders. Western ethics long has built its theories around the lone individual making moral decisions based upon rational considerations. But anyone who has lived among people rather than as a hermit knows that we are indeed profoundly influenced in our decisions by those whose opinions matter to us. Perhaps we ought to ponder who those influential people and groups are in our lives and whether each merits the place it occupies. As well, we ought to ask whether the church can recover its appropriate role as such a community of moral action and accountability.
* Patriotism and political convictions. A considerable number of rescuers acted on the basis of patriotism and various other political convictions. This occurred in Germany, where a patriotism that led to rescue was both countercultural and a capital crime. More often, it happened in lands under German occupation, such as Denmark and Holland, where the assault on the Jews was seen as an assault on a portion of that nation's citizens as well as on national values. Those most likely to help Jews for patriotic reasons were people involved in underground resistance movements engaging in a wide range of anti-Nazi activities.
This finding helps to show the appropriateness of a life- and justice-affirming patriotism for Christians. A rightly conceived patriotism can be a powerful resource for right action. But the activities of other kinds of "patriots," those who murdered the innocent in the name of their tribe or nation-and continue to do so today-demonstrate the extraordinary danger of an uncritical patriotism that will follow the nation's leaders even into genocide. There are God-given limits on any appropriate Christian patriotism (Acts 5:29).
* Justice, care, and compassion. Rescue was quite often the instantaneous response of one individual to another in need. Rescuers sometimes employ the language of a principled commitment to justice and human rights when describing why they responded to the needy person as they did. Sometimes rescuers saw the outrageous mistreatment of a Jew and simply knew that they must personally redress such injustice. One hears the cry of outrage of the prophets in the voice of such rescuers. "Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isa. 1:17).
Others talk about the moral obligation to care for people, especially those in need. These were often people who had been taught to be kind, merciful, and generous, to do something to help when help is needed. "But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds … and took care of him" (Luke 10:33-34).
A third group cannot give a reason why they helped, beyond the fact that they were simply moved to the depths of their being by the plight of a Jewish person or family desperately in trouble. They did not think about what to do; they simply acted with compassion to help those who needed help.
* Christian faith. A minority of rescuers tell researchers that they acted to rescue Jews on the basis of explicitly Christian motives. Of course, from a Christian perspective, every motive already listed has a place in the Christian life, as the biblical references show. But there were other motives that only the "religious" Christian rescuers cite.
For example, some Christians were influenced toward rescue by a sense of special religious kinship with Jews. This religious philo-Semitism particularly characterized rescuers from the theologically orthodox Reformed churches in the Netherlands and in France. This is an extraordinarily important finding for evangelicals, all of whom should be seeking to free Christian theology from the evil of anti-Semitism (Rom. 9:4-5) without compromising biblical faith in the process.
Devout Christian rescuers often cite the teachings of Jesus and other biblical texts as requiring them to rescue Jews. The most important of these for rescuers were the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12), the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the double love command (Matt. 22:34-40), and the Great Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46). Some Christians saw that Nazism was an outbreak of the demonic that was completely irreconcilable with Christian faith. Their response was to rescue Nazism's primary victims. A handful of Christian communities acted together to rescue Jews, such as the French Protestant village of Le Chambon. This community was especially influenced by the remembered experience of their own persecution at the hands of Catholic France, which led them to reach out to another persecuted religious community.
Once convinced that rescue was God's will for them, Christians were sustained by the classic resources of Christian piety-prayer, worship, Bible study, and community support where that was available. Some Christians believed that they were under special providential care as they rescued, while others gained courage from the thought that if they were caught and killed for rescue, they would face God with a clear conscience. There are few forces more powerful than the faith of committed Christian men and women who know that they are doing the will of God and are empowered by God's Spirit as they do it.
FOLLOWING JESUS CHRIST
Those of us who have pledged that Jesus Christ is our Lord must live in accordance with his teachings and conform our lives to his will and example (Matt. 7:21). This is what it means to call him Lord and to be his disciples. It was this same Lord Jesus who told his first disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matt. 16:24).
Can there be any doubt what Jesus would have done if a Jewish family came to his door and asked for his help in surviving the Holocaust? Can you imagine him turning that family away, or running off to get the Gestapo? Never. The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust were people who followed Jesus by the conduct of their lives. They bear witness to the church by their example. They ask us to consider whether we, too, are following Jesus Christ in the conduct of our lives.
David P. Gushee is assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. This article is based on his new book, "The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: A Christian Interpretation" (Fortress).
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingDon’t Pretend the Ugandan Homosexuality Law Is ChristianNot everything that’s a sin is a crime—let alone one punishable by death.Français简体中文繁體中文
- From the MagazineEve’s Legacy Is Both Sin and RedemptionThe first woman tried to get free of God. But when she aligned herself with God’s purposes, she became the ‘Mother of All the Living.’
- RelatedShould We Keep Singing Hillsong?When the megachurch’s former pastors are in the news with allegations of scandal and abuse, what a contentious name it is.español简体中文한국어繁體中文
- Editor's PickPCA’s 50th Anniversary Comes During a Season of GriefPresbyterians expect less fight and more fatigue as they gather following the Covenant shooting and the deaths of Harry Reeder and Tim Keller.