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"From Bystander to Rescuer: The Journey and Motivations of Holocaust Rescuers"

Book Essay on:
Eva Fogelman, Conscience and Courage
(New York: Doubleday, 1994), 393 pages.
UCSB: D804.3F64 1994

by Erin Eve
March 19, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning
$5 at amazon

About Erin Eve

Erin Eve is a Cultural Anthropology major at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She has had the pleasure to travel the world and the opportunity to live in Japan, India, and Germany. Although a young child during her stay in Germany, Erin has always had an unabashed desire to learn about Germany’s history, particularly the Nazi regime. Erin’s parents took great lengths to instill morals in her. Those who risked their lives to save others, particularly those involved in the anti-slavery movement and Holocaust rescuers, have been great role models for her.

Abstract (back to top)

Through the chronicles of various Holocaust rescuers Eva Fogelman investigates the motivations of altruism as specific to those who helped Jews during World War II. She takes a multifaceted approach and looks not only at their situation at the time of their assistance, but also at how their past shaped them into rescuers. She identifies the progression of the rescuer self in a three step process. She identifies key aspects and characteristics that various rescuers have in common, breaking them into five categories. I argue that Fogelman’s categories, although each unique and distinct, have some fluidity and that some rescuers fit into multiple boxes.

Essay (back to top)

From Bystander to Rescuer:
The Journey and Motivations of Holocaust Rescuers


Eva Fogelman’s book Conscience and Courage delves into the world of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. She says that she wants to pay tribute to these wonderful people who for so long have been neglected by historians. She attempts to bring to light not only their stories, but explores their personalities and motivations for their heroic acts of defiance to the Nazi Regime. She takes a middle of the road approach to assessing these aspects. She does not rely solely on psychological or sociological findings, but rather also uses her own research conducted during the Rescuers Project. She logically balances all views, both scientific and social, and comes to a convincing conclusion about the general personalities and motivations of non-Jewish rescuers.

Main Question

Fogelman’s biggest and most difficult question was what provoked and motivated these rescuers to risk their lives to save someone whom their authoritarian government deemed unworthy? Fogelman’s book is based on this overarching question. She takes an in depth look into the lives of these people to figure out what gave them the penchant to help others during this tragic time. She takes a very succinct, linear approach to answering this question.


She first looked into the rescuers past and upbringing. This was something that had never been looked into before, although it seems extremely logical. No one had yet turned to the rescuers pasts for a glimpse into why they acted so altruistically during the Holocaust. Although research on the development of morality and conscience as fostered by parent-child relations were done by Eli Sagan, Fogelman was the first to apply this research to rescuers (255). Fogelman hypothesized that the rescuer self that emerged at this critical time was not spontaneous, but rather had been fostered during the rescuers childhood, and given the opportunity to flourish during the Nazi regime. She found her hypothesis to be true. Most rescuers had compassionate and loving families. Their parents taught them the difference between right and wrong through logic-based decision making rather than authoritatively forcing the decision on them. They had been raised in caring homes where one or more authority figures acted as a role model for helping others, usually this was a parent, but could be an older sibling, teacher, or religious leader. Although in her other sections Fogelman is able to counter opposing views, she does not look too deeply into the lives of those who were not raised in these environments. Perhaps they were not available in her data, or questions about her conclusions were not prevalent yet since she was the first to research this trait.

Bystander to Rescuer

Fogelman uses Bib Latane and John Darleys’ bystander intervention findings as the basis for her categorizations of the process that induced rescuers to act (41). Whereas they had five steps she has three. First the person must become aware of the situation at hand. Second, they must asses what resources they have to offer, and last but most importantly they must have the opportunity to act.


A person’s past and upbringing alone does not prompt them to act. Rather they must be aware that there is problem in the first place. For Fogelman this was the first step towards rescuing efforts, whereas Latane and Darley broke this into two categories, noticing and interpreting (41). The person has to realize the horrendous nature of what is going on around them. The scales must fall from their eyes. They must, as Daniel Goleman’s research found, lose their tunnel vision and create a new frame of reality (46). They have to realize that the propaganda they are being fed is not the truth. They have to in some cases be jolted from the sheltered reality they live in. For many rescuers it was witnessing the beating and rounding up of women and children by vicious Gestapo agents, the execution of Jews in forests where they had dug their own mass graves, or the desperate and unlivable conditions of the ghettos. For Oskar Schindler it was the crowded train platform that was overflowing with people who had lost their humanity. For another it was the orphaned children walking the streets of the ghettos with no one to care for them. Rescuers had to become informed and in touch with the outside world.

For many these experiences triggered their empathy. They recognized the humanity in every individual regardless of their race, gender, or religion. Fogelman points this out as the “essential ingredient in awareness” (42). Numerous rescuers confided in Fogelman that they realized that if they did not do anything then who would; who would be the ones to stand up for justice and freedom?

Services to Offer

Once they were aware of what was going on they had to figure out what they had to offer. For some it was a hiding place behind a false wall in an attic or basement, for others it was leaving food inside the ghetto or on a country road, or their organizational ability and connections to move people from one safe house to another. They had to asses the nature of their living quarters and their own financial and economic ability to support another or multiple people. If any of these were substantially lacking a bystander would rarely be transformed into a rescuer.

Opportunity and Action

After figuring out what they had to offer in the form of assistance, they had to be given the opportunity to help. They may have had all the food stamps in the world but if no one came to them for help how could they use them. For some the assessment of their ability to provide for another was done in an instant only when the opportunity presented itself. This was especially true for people who took in children. One woman was faced with taking in a Jewish baby, and in a minute she analyzed the situation and took the child without even consulting her husband. Father Falkowski, who was anti-Semitic but held steadfastly to the teachings of the church, took in a disheveled boy who rapped on his window for help in the middle of the night. Many times ordinary people were thrown into the situation by a simple knock at the door and they were transformed into rescuers.


After discussing the road to becoming a rescuer and the various combinations that led an everyday bystander to become a rescuer, Fogelman addresses the precise motivational categories that most rescuers fit into. She wanted to answer the question, what traits did rescuers have in common? She broke them down into five categories: moralists, Judeophiles, concerned professionals, network rescuers, and child rescuers. She contradicts the notion that psychoanalysts tout which states that people only do helpful acts for unconscious selfish reasons. They think that rescuers merely wanted personal gratification. Fogelman concedes that this may play a small role, but it seems so miniscule considering how much these people risked. Rather “empirical research and analysis has begun to clear social and psychological patterns…that prompted an individual’s initial rescue efforts” (158). The five “categories define not only the initial motivations of the rescuers but in large measure the essence of who they were as people” (159).


Moralists were motivated by their humanitarian conscience. Deciding to do what was right was almost innate for these people. They had a strong set of beliefs and values which were manifested into their actions. They had a firm notion of who they were and their place in society. They had what Jean Piaget called autonomy or self sustaining independence, which was nurtured when the person was a small child. These people sought justice and respect for all people. However, due to the complexity of this category Fogelman chooses to subdivide this category. The subcategories of morality are ideological, religious, and emotional. Ideological rescuers had a sense of duty to uphold justice. They felt they had to stand up for what was right. Religious moralists were people who gained their notions about right and wrong from their religion. Most understood and practiced the idea of tolerance towards all. They turned to their faith for answers in hard and trying times in their lives. Occasionally, some had to turn away from the church in order to not expose their rescuing activities, but they felt that this sacrifice was for the greater good of God’s people. Emotional rescuers were extremely empathetic. They had great compassion for those being persecuted by the Nazis. “Theirs was a morality based on caring and responsibility,” as explored by the work of Carol Gilligan (164). They did not act out of a sense of duty to maintain the balance between right and wrong like ideological persons did, rather their heart strings were pulled by the pitiful situation that Jews and other so-called undesirables, especially children, were put into.

Some moralists also fit into other categories. Some were Christian, but loved Jews since they had some similarities of belief. Others were professionals, like social workers, who had empathy for the orphaned children of the ghetto. Beliefs in morality permeate each following category.


The next type of rescuer was what Fogelman terms Judeophiles: people who were especially attached to the Jews via some type of relationship, whether it was a co-worker, friend, or lover. For Oskar Schindler it was his relationship with his accountant that led him to save as many Jews as he could through factory work. It was Stefania Podgorska Burzminska’s relationship with her employer’s family that led her and her sister to hide and save 16 Jews. However, since Stefania was so young and naive she can also be categorized as a child rescuer. Each person had a unique relationship that helped them to garner respect for the Jews and see them as everyday ordinary people, not the degenerates that the Nazis made them out to be.

Concerned Professionals

Thirdly there were concerned professionals. These were people who were already in assistance type jobs, and what drew them initially to this work led them to aid Jews. These people were the doctors, teachers, social workers, nurses, diplomats, politicians, and psychologists. They were already involved in helping jobs and merely expanded their job description. Many times they offered help in defiance of government stipulations. Doctors were able to hide Jews in quarantine rooms. Social workers were able to get more food stamps for families who were hiding Jews. Diplomats issued immigration or protective custody papers to save people. They were able to keep up a façade that their profession lent them and in turn provide assistance to Jews.

Network Rescuers

Network rescuers were a band of numerous people all striving for the same ideal, and at the same time trying to defy the Nazi regime. They were able to support each other in their efforts. Although many times anonymity was necessary, the knowledge that you had others on your side helped some rescuers to continue in their stressful work. A new type of family was found based on trust and reliability. Networks provided stability, and “they were by far the most cohesive” group (204).


For those with families their biggest dilemma was if they should risk the lives of their loved ones for a stranger. This was also a question Fogelman wanted to answer. Many responded to this question with the answer that they were unsure why, and even to this day do not understand how they were able to put their families in such a precarious situation. There was no reason behind their decisions, just the knowledge that it was the right thing to do. Many rescuers said that it was something they simply had to do because if they were not going to help save the Jews, then who would.

Child Rescuers

Lastly, Fogelman explores the lives of the children whose parents involved them in rescue work. She terms them child rescuers. For the older rescuers their parents had acted as role models for helping and altruism, but these young children were thrown into the mix and given an extremely large burden to carry. Most of the children initially helped out in order to please their parents. Some of the children were made to keep secrets and do illicit undercover work. Many times they were able to provide alibis in compromising situations. They could also easily slip past guards undetected because their innocence provided a good front. Some paid dearly for their parents’ actions, including one young woman whose growth was stunted because her spine was injured while being interrogated by the Gestapo. Many children’s naiveté to the seriousness of the situation allowed them to continue in their work without the thought of repercussions, especially teenagers like Stefania Podgorska Burzminska. Many children became extremely involved in rescuing activities, but once they were no longer needed as trusted confidants many struggled with their new identity.

Targeted Audience

Since Fogelman’s book takes both a socio-psychological and oral narrative approach to history, I to want to suggest it first to people in these particular fields. However, the stories that she shares makes it such a powerful book that truly everyone should read it. I especially enjoyed the fact that in the epilogue she relates it to contemporary human struggles. The Holocaust is not a one time incident and sadly it continues in some form or another around the world today from Bosnia to Darfur. Perhaps this book would prompt people into action to help prevent the continuing of such despicable acts. Fogelman does however realize that moral courage cannot necessarily be taught. Yet maybe her book would be, as she suggests, the pivotal point in a person’s life that makes them realize that there is a problem and then act. It affected me profoundly and I think that others would be moved in the same manner.


Fogelman explores each facet of a rescuer and leaves no stone unturned in her research. Her ability to refute opposing views in an academic manner with supporting evidence leaves very little untouched. She talks about past, present, and future and how it has impacted the rescuer. She talks about distinctions between men and women rescuers. She details explicitly every group’s motivations, and even those who do not fit neatly in a category.

Fogelman’s ability to ride the line is due to her concession of the fact that no one rescuer completely fits into a neat category and that each person’s circumstances were complex. She also does not let her definition of a rescuer be completely dictated by that of Yad Vashem in Israel, which confers honors on those it deems “The Righteous Among the Nations.” She allows for flexibility and fluidity in her definition. She is more or less inclusive of anyone who assisted Jews despite their motivations, even those who did it for selfish reason. The simple fact that they helped is a good enough reason for her to receive accolades for their actions.

Numerous personal accounts are highlighted in this book; these real life testimonies help to lend credence to Fogelman’s findings. Her conclusions are not based on abstract scientific studies, although some such as Milgram’s obedience to authority studies do help support her findings, but rather many of her conclusions are based on real life events and situations as relayed by both rescuers and those they rescued.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/07)


  • Helen Fine, “Good People vs. Dirty Work: Helping Jews Evade the Holocaust” Contemporary Sociology , Vol. 18, No. 2. (Mar., 1989), pp. 191-193. http://links.jstor.org/
    This is a review and summary of Samuel and Pearl Oliner’s book The Altruistic Personality.

Books and Articles

  • Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed (New York: Harper and Row, 1979) 336 pages.
    An in-depth look at the French Protestant town of Le Chambon and their rescuing efforts. Cited by Fogelman.
  • Samuel Oliner, Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe(New York: Free Press, 1988) 419 pages. UCSB: D810.J4O418 1988.
    This book is the first research that systematically differentiates rescuers, nonrescuers, and bystanders. It explores the traits of morality and altruism and applies to Holocaust rescuers. Their research is based on rescuers recognized by Yad Vashem (see web sites).
  • Carol Rittner, Sondra Meyers, The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (New York: New York University Press, 1989), 175 pages.
    A compilation of various personal oral testimonies and reflections of rescuers, survivors, and scholars. Also available in video form.
  • Kristen R. Monroe; Michael C. Barton; Ute Klingemann “ Altruism and the Theory of Rational Action: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe” Ethics, Vol. 101, No. 1. (Oct., 1990), pp. 103-122.inks.jstor.org/
    Empirical research and synthesis of 13 different interviews with rescuers aimed at answering questions about the theory of rational action and conscious human behavior.
  • Samuel Oliner, Do Unto Others: Extraordinary Acts of Ordinary People ( Cambridge, MA:Westview Press, 2003) 232 pages. UCSB: BJ1474.O395 2003.
    An overarching analysis of altruistic behavior, social responsibility and compassion when it comes to helping others. This book does not just focus on Holocaust Rescuers but is a great resource on the psychological underpinnings of those considered heroes.
  • David Crowe, Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of his Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List ( Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2004) 766 pages. UCSB: D804.66S38C76 2004.
    A biography of Oskar Schindler. Schindler is used as an example of a Judeophile by Fogelman.
  • Emmy Werner, A Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews During World War II ( Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2004), 212 pages.
    A factual story about the Danish resistance to German orders to hand over all Jews and their harrowing efforts to smuggle them out of the country. Takes a psychological approach to breaking down the actions of the rescuers. Well structured and an easy read.
  • Irene Opdyke, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer (Laurel Leaf, 2004) 304 pages.
    A personal memoir. Opdyke is also used as an example of a moralist by Fogelman.

Web Site

  • www.yadvashem.org The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority with links to information on the Righteous Among Nations. Its sole purpose is to document the history of the Jewish people during the Holocaust period.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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