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How Altruism Saved the "Undesirables"

Book Essay on: Altruism, :
(: , 2010), pages. UCSB:

by Nicola Norris
March 22, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at

About Nicola Norris

Nicola Norris is currently an undergraduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara achieving her B.A. degree in History and B.A. degree in Dance. Nicola's emphasis in history are Ancient Civilizations, but she also likes to take classes about the 20th century. She also has been dancing for 18 years and is continuing her dance in Modern and Ballet at UCSB. In the future Nicola plans on becoming a teacher and opening dance programs at schools that do not have programs.

Abstract (back to top)

Altruism is unique in that it must be present in a society for the population to survive. In this essay it explores how altruism exists in a society and since it does exist how it existed during the Holocaust. The essay explains certain rescuers and applies them to the criteria to be considered altruistic. Through the essay people will get the idea of how important these altruistic rescuers were to the survival of many Jews targeted by Nazi ideology.

Essay (back to top)

The outcome of the Holocaust was a combination of Nazi ideology and Hitler’s Final Solution, which killed 6 million Jews and 5 million “non-Aryan” people. This is one of, if not the darkest chapters in history. The survivors of the Holocaust make this moment in time unforgettable and provide proof of those ghastly years under Nazi power. Each survivor’s account is unique in that different contributions ensured their survival. One contribution is that of the altruistic people who risked life and limb to save others’ lives. “The fact is that 700 million people lived in Nazi-occupied Europe; to date 11,000 have been honored by Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews” (Novick, pg. 180). Acts of altruism during the course of World War II were rare and thus it is said by commentators that: “the ratio of unrighteous to righteous gentiles was a thousand to one” (Novick, pg.180). During the Nazi regime altruistic people went against the political power of the state to save Jewish lives for three main reasons: because they were acting out of nature and instinct, because they did not believe in Nazi ideology and because they were emotionally connected to the Jewish people they rescued. Also, in general they needed the ability and resources to protect Jewish lives.

Altruism is “behavior that reduces the fitness of the individual performing the behavior (the actor) but increases the fitness of the individual affected by the behavior (the recipient)” (Boyd & Silk, pg.176). In other words, it is a selfless act by a person who helps another to benefit other persons. The word itself is credited to August Comte and was later used in the research of Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth century (Oliner & Oliner, pg.4). Altruism, however, was not popular among the social scientists of the time. The reason it was not studied to the extent it is now is because psychologists like Sigmund Freud believed that no one person would act out from a motive that did not benefit the self (Oliner & Oliner, pg.5). Nonetheless, as altruism does exist, its main purpose is for the survival of the society as a whole. As Emile Durkheim explains: “No society could exist unless its members acknowledge and made sacrifices on behalf of the other. Thus, altruism is not merely ‘a sort of agreeable ornament to social life’ but its fundamental basis” (Oliner & Oliner, pg.5). Without altruism on the behalf of certain people then the society would perish.

The dictionary definition of altruism: “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others” (Dictionary.com) can be problematic. It can be problematic because the act itself can be rewarding. For example: if someone was drowning and someone else saved him or her, this would be considered an altruistic act. However, the reward for the rescuer would be that they did the right thing and would have personal satisfaction. This satisfaction is internal pleasure and it is difficult to know or quantify the actor’s feelings and thoughts on his act with any certainty (Oliner, pg.6). In examining altruistic acts we either disregard the inner satisfaction because we do not know a persons inner psyche or consider internal pleasure as a motive to the act rather than a reward from the act. To make it clear; to determine if the act was altruistic or not altruistic the reward must be defined as an outer satisfaction because the inner satisfaction cannot be understood or known.

For an act to be considered altruistic there are certain criteria that must be met. The first criterion are that the act be directed towards helping another; the second is that it involve a high risk or sacrifice to the actor; the third is that it must be accompanied by no external reward; and the fourth is that it is voluntary (Oliner & Oliner, pg.6). These criteria’s help interpret what an altruistic act is and take away any problems when evaluating. Altruism is unique in that a person must act without accepting any reward but what is even more unique is that it was present during a time of chaos and war. What makes the Holocaust rescues different from normal altruistic behaviors is time. Ordinary altruistic acts last about a couple of minutes whereas during the Holocaust altruistic acts could last for years because of the duration of World War II and the power of the Nazi regime. The duration of these altruistic acts last is what makes altruism particularly to explore during the Holocaust. Before examining examples of altruistic acts, the personalities of the people, who are considered altruistic, are captivating because they believe that what they did is the human thing.

Not only do the criteria of altruism need to be met for the act to be considered altruistic but also the actor has to go through a change to be considered altruistic. The actor will undergo a transformation into what Eva Fogelman calls “the rescuer self or the new self” (Fogelman, pg. 68). This transformation arises to maintain a psychological equilibrium. As the rise of Nazi power in Europe began, so did the discomfort from of people living in the state. The discomfort caused disunity to the self. This disunity would become a catalyst for some bystanders to become rescuers and to find psychological equilibrium. One event that was influential to the transformation was Kristallnacht. “In most of the cases quite different feelings are revealed: shame at the act itself, alarm at its extent and, in particular, regret for the wasteful destruction to property” (Landau, pg.230). The reaction from this night explains that those who were not radically involved in the Nazi party were ashamed of the government that ran their country. People witnessed firsthand the violence directed towards undesirable persons and opened their the eyes to reality of Nazism. “Some, sorely shaken by the savagery, turned away from Nazism, especially after 1938 when they found the hooliganism and terror of Kristallnacht utterly abhorrent” (Landau, pg.236). There is no question that Kristallnacht helped rescuers and bystanders to decide to move away from the Nazi party and decide to take action in an altruistic way, and their decision eventually saved Jewish lives. Kristallnacht, however, was only a catalyst for rescuers to act because rescuers are literally chosen by nature to act in altruistic ways.

While the rising resentment of the Nazi government began, so did the transformation of people into altruistic rescuers. But what is important to understand is that even though these rescuers were undergoing a transformation due to external sources of discomfort, their transformation was also contributed to an innate biological factor. “According to sociobiologists, genes are the source of altruistic behaviors” (Oliner & Oliner, pg.8). In order for a society to be successful there must be a certain number of people that are altruistic. “They maintain that no species could survive unless certain individuals within it were ready to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group and that such inclinations are transmitted genetically” (Oliner & Oliner, pg.8). There are factors, aside from genes, which explain why people become altruistic. Psychoanalytic theory holds that learning also explains altruistic behaviors (Oliner & Oliner, pg.9). People learn from guardians and caregivers and they contribute to the development of altruism in the self. With the help from guardians and caregivers, a person’s self will mentally mature and be able to navigate through the stages of moral reasoning (Oliner & Oliner, pg.9). Also, what is learned from the guardians and caregivers give the learner the conception of right and wrong. “This clear sense of right and wrong is called autonomous morality” (Fogelman, pg.161). Autonomous morality develops after age eight and the outcome from when it develops gives the person a strong sense of mutual respect for one another’s peers (Fogelman, pg.161). The combination of genetics and behavioral developments together played a part in the ability of rescuers to commit altruistic acts during the Holocaust.

In light of the knowledge that altruism is a combination of genetic factors and behavioral developments, the question of how people acted altruistically in the conditions set by World War II and Nazi ideology is raised. As stated before, Kristallnacht was a catalyst to the decision of people in the Third Reich to act, but if wartime propaganda and Nazi ideology influenced most of the nation, why did it not influence the altruistic people? Samuel Oliner, Pearl Oliner as well as Eva Fogelman claim to understand why altruistic rescuers were not influenced by propaganda and Nazi ideology. They believe in continuity in personality: that no matter the influence from outside forces an altruistic persons decision would be made altruistically (Oliner & Oliner, pg.11). Therefore, there is a consistent personality in the person who would act altruistically. If the people were predisposed toward making altruistic decisions in their prewar lives, then the influence from wartime propaganda and Nazi ideology everywhere around them would not have influence over them. “They are consistent with my own observations, that the basic compassion and moral integrity that triggered rescuing activity was repeated over and over during the rescuers’ lifetime” (Fogelman, pg.82). It is logically follows that if these altruistic people are faced with another obstacle in life, which demand that they act altruistically, they will do so because of continuity in their innately altruistic personality.

Altruistic acts during the Holocaust had their risks. But the risks to the altruistic people where outweighed by the acts they committed. In a speech by Heinrich Müller he responds to the sensitivity of Germans towards the Jews:

“It has repeatedly come to our notice recently that persons of German blood continue to maintain friendly relations with Jews and appear with then in public in a blatant fashion […] my orders are that in such cases the person of German blood concerned is to be taken into protective custody for educational purposes or in serious cases to transferred to a concentration camp, Grade 1. The Jewish participant is invariably to be taken into protective custody and transferred to a concentration camp for the time being”(Landau, pg.235).

Punishment from Nazi authorities ranged from a beating to death. The Nazi’s used public hanging of the altruistic people as well as the people they were rescuing to reinforce the punishment for those who befriended Jews (Fogelman, pg.168). But no mater what the risks were, altruistic people helped because they believed that it was the right thing to do.

Altruistic acts were selfless in order to achieve the rescuer’s goal of helping someone else, and in the case of the Holocaust; their goal was to help save lives. An altruistic person is willing to sacrifice him or herself to stand for what they believe in and what is right. They are born and built to act altruistically. Altruistic rescuers’ characteristics had an impact on their rescues and to understand how their personalities derived one needs to look at the types of rescues committed by the altruistic people. There are four types of rescues that occurred during the Nazi regime: “(1) helping Jews sustain life as they were progressively stripped of their rights, segregated, isolated and incarcerated; (2) helping Jews escape from centers of incarceration; (3) smuggling Jews out of the country; (4) and helping Jews maintain an underground existence within the national borders” (Oliner & Oliner, pg.50). The earliest form of rescue was sustaining life as it was before the rise of antisemitism. Rescuers could help in ways like teaching Jewish children in the arts, getting food and medicine for Jewish families and even taking Jewish children to the park, without the Star of David on clothing, to preserve social normality. They also were able to store personal items when families were evacuated from their residence (Oliner & Oliner, pg.51). Even though these acts were lower risk than the other three, little things like helping children or hiding valuables were considered altruistic.

The second type of rescue was helping Jews escape from places like the ghettos and the camps. Out of the four this was the hardest thing to do because of the SS men guarding the area. The third type was smuggling Jews out of the country to ensure survival. Smuggling consisted of: contact with the people who wanted to be smuggled, being able to get and forge papers of identification, escorting the victims to the people who would smuggle them, paying for the whole process and providing a safe place of refuge (Oliner & Oliner, pg.62). There were problems with transporting Jews to another country, one of them being that it was very expensive. Also, plans for smuggling were not one hundred percent effective. One little mistake, such as betrayal, bad documentation, or children being a nuisance would disrupt the smuggling plans. Art Spiegelman gives a great example of smuggling plans being unsuccessful in Maus. Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, Art’s father and mother, attempts to escape with the aid of smugglers, who wind up betraying them to the Nazis. Even though this is not an example of an altruistic act ,it is a great example of how smuggling could be unsuccessful. “It was a big commotion, Gestapo came on every side. In Katowice, it was only to them the smuggler phoned” (Spiegelman, pg.155). Vladek and his wife were caught trying to smuggle out of the country and as a consequence were sent to the death camp at Auschwitz.

The fourth type of rescue was hiding Jews in homes or any extra space a rescuer had. “Of the Jews in Holland between 1942 and 1943, twenty thousand and perhaps as many as thirty thousand saw going into hiding as their only alternative to deportation” (Müller, pg.175). The most well known story of this type of rescue is Miep Gies from The Diary of Anne Frank. Miep Gies acted altruistically through this rescue by providing security to the hiding place, bringing food for the Frank and van Pels family, and helping Anne maintain normalcy in hiding. Anne wrote in a diary entry: “Miep is just like a pack mule, she fetches and carries so much” (Müller, pg.176). Though Miep Gies was able to get food for her and the families in hiding, she needed to be careful because shop owners and workers could grow suspicous of the amount of food Miep Gies was buying. Hiding Jews was a full time job. It consisted of feeding, cleaning, providing shelter and protecting from suspicious neighbors. The Frank Family and van Pels family were betrayed by a worker from downstairs and were deported. Miep Gies, however, was lucky, as she did not receive punishment. Because of Miep Gies’s altruistic actions, the Frank and van Pels family were able to live their lives just a little bit longer.

Whether the altruistic person is a gentile or a Jew attacked by Nazism, these people shared common characteristics, which made sure that their acts of altruism could be successful. “The rescuer’s self was vigilant, inventive, and quick to take the unexpected in stride, holding together when the stress of living in confined quarters unhinged others” (Fogelman, pg.71). Rescuers had to act swiftly and sly and if they could not the consequences were horrific. Fogelman describes an incident from one of the members of her interview, Annie P., which demonstrates the slyness involved when her grandfather hid Jews in his rose garden. “He questioned Annie: Did she know where the Jews were hiding? Annie said nothing. The German threw her down and kicked her again and again. Still Annie said nothing. She kept the secret”(Fogelman, pg.73). Annie had severe spinal damage from the German’s beating and consequential lost the use of her left leg, which required her to wear a brace. But Annie was loyal and never revealed the Jews’ whereabouts. All twenty-five of the Jews survived.

Rescuers always had to alert, because within second they could be forced to come up with a solution to a problem (Fogelman, pg.75). Some rescuers who hid, protected, or helped Jews escape took on façade personas in order to accomplish their altruistic missions. They would become a different person to ensure their survival as well as the one they are rescuing. Jerzy Bielecki was Auschwitz prisoner number 243 and he rescued Tzila Cybulska by taking on the role as an SS officer. “July 21, 1944, Bielecki appeared at the door of Cybulska’s barrack, dressed in an SS uniform he had pilfered from the German warehouse, barked out the number tattooed on his friends arm, and marched her out of the camp, as SS were in habit of doing, in an escape operation that was one of the most daring of its kind” (Yad Vashem, pg.3). Bielecki altruistically helped a friend escape by taking on a role to ensure their survival. And in 1983 Cybulska reunited with her rescuer Bielecki in Poland. The transformation to the rescuer’s selves kept their fear under control and “successfully outwitting the authorities and protecting others encouraged rescuers to keep up and, in some instance, expand their activities” (Fogelman, pg.79).

There are other acts of altruism aside from the rescuers among righteous gentiles. There are also altruistic people within the Nazi system. An example is Ala Gertner and the Pachta family from Anne Kirschner’s biography: Sala’s Gift My Mother’s Holocaust Story. Sala Garncarz, Ann Kirschner’s mother, was a Polish Jew during World War II and extraordinarily survived seven different labor camps. But for fifty years after her liberation from the labor camps, she kept all these horrific experiences a secret. Not until the day before her heart surgery did she speak of these five years in labor camps, under Nazi rule, to her daughter. She gave her daughter 350 letters and photographs that describe her imprisonment of the Nazi ideals of eugenics and the final solution. The letters also described Ala Gertner and the Pachta family, who helped Sala’s survival in an altruistic way.

Ala was able to help get better jobs and gain status for Sala in the camp. Ala was a secretary for the camp and later a secretary for Jewish Council of Elders, which benefited Sala by giving her the opportunity to work indoors sewing clothes for Mrs. Anna Pachta and Ala was even was able to arrange a vacation from the camp so that Sala could visit her family in Sosnowiec, Poland. Ala’s first altruistic act was getting Sala a job with the Pachta family. The Pachta family took care of Sala by giving her large amounts of food and one occasion even took her out to the town among many German civilians. “Sadly the sewing machines are broken today, Elfriede declared, draping a uniform over the sewing machine, and removing Sala’s blue and white armband. Let’s walk into town, she said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world” (Kirschner, 85). This was one of the most dangerous things that the Pachta family could do. The Germans frowned upon helping the Jewish population in the Third Reich. And yet the family protected Sala and gave her some sense of being human. Even after she was sent back to the camp and could not work for them anymore they supplied her with food, clothes, and other necessities. Ala was able to get jobs for Sala, such as working for the Pachta family. Both Ala and the Pachta family helped Sala in an altruistic way, which benefited her survival.

Another example of an altruistic person helping within a concentration camp is that of a SS man named Rudasch. As is explained in, In the Shadow of the Flames: Six Lectures on the Holocaust by Lilli Kopecky, Rudasch helped Lilli by delivering letters to family and friends to inform them of the realities in Auschwitz. When Lilli was suspected by Oberscharfuehrer Herbert Kirschner of illegal activities in the camp she was sent to his office and questioned about Rudasch’s activities. “The other SS men suspected Rudasch, but it could never be proven that he helped us. In any case he was punished by being transferred to Birkenau as a mere guard. There, as well, he helped as much as he could” (Kopecky, pg.20). Rudasch is an example of an altruistic man who was supposed to believe in Nazism, but went against it by helping victims of Nazi crimes. He was later put on trial for war crimes, but Lilli’s friend and fellow Auschwitz survivor Hermine Markovits testified on his behalf and no charges were pressed against him.

Altruism was present during the Holocaust because many people acted out of nature and instinct, were against the Nazi ideology and had strong ties with the people they were supposed to persecute. Rescuers’ ability to obtain resources and their strong personalities gave their rescues the chance to succeed. As is exemplified by the story of Anne Frank not all stories of rescues had happy so, these altruistic rescues saved many Jewish lives. The Anti-Defamation League describes a book called Foundation of Christian Rescuers: “What is important about the book is that reader comes away understanding that rescue of Jews was a rare phenomenon” (Novick, pg.180). Though the act of altruistic rescue were a rare phenomenon, these acts helped to start the discussions about the Holocaust in the world and provide evidence to all those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. 6 million Jews and 5 million other people died from Holocaust. Their stories will always be remembered.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/22/10)

Book Reviews

  • Robert Boyd & Joan B Silk, How Humans Evolved Fifth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009.

    Robert Boyd and Joan B. Silk explore through the evolution of Humans. They demonstrate how humans are from a chain of bipedal, apelike creature that lived in Africa three million years ago. The book is broken into four parts. Part two emphasizes primate ecology and behavior, which altruism is discussed in great detail. Kin Selection and Reciprocal Altruism describe altruism in humans, which explain how altruism is present in a society.

  • Eva Fogelman, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

    Eva Fogelman wrote this book to give altruism back its good name. She describes the altruistic acts of rescuers during the Third Reich. She emphasizes in the sample of individuals who risked their lives and their families to save the undesirables in the State. The book is divided into three sections: the rescuers, the motivation and postwar. In each section she describes the process in which it takes for an altruistic rescuers to commit the actions he or she did.

  • Lilli Kopecky, In the Shadow of the Flames: Six Lectures on the Holocaust Emory University: Center of Research in Social Change, 1982

    Lilli Kopecky wrote these series of lectures and made it into a book because she wanted people to remember her experience during the Holocaust, especially her grandchildren, which include Jon Kopecky. Lilli is an Auschwitz survivor who was lucky enough to have connection within as well as outside the camp. She met altruistic people who helped her towards her survival as well as was lucky in some instance, which also helped her survival. Her story is just one of many Auschwitz survivors. Her story is proof of the horrors in Auschwitz as well as proof of he gas chambers.

  • Ronnie S. Landau, The Nazi Holocaust. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 2006.

    Ronnie Landau describes that the Holocaust was the most momentous events of modern history. He begins with a background of antisemitism in history and then he applies that to Nazi Germany with the election of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship. Then he goes into the Holocaust and the people involved and the bystanders that stood by. Landau provides appendixes that give the direct laws and books by the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust. This book overall tell the rise of the Nazi Germany to the fall of Nazi Germany.

  • Melissa Müller, Anne Frank the Biography. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 1998.

    There have been many attempts to analyze Anne Franks Diary. Anne Franks Diary is one of the most read autobiographies on the Holocaust. The original version is read in grade school, which introduces children to the horrors of the Holocaust. Müller is able to capture Anne’s story by interpreting her diary. She is able to narrow down the investigation to who betrayed the Frank and van Pels family. Müller also describes the altruistic people that help the Frank family, most recognized is Miep Gies. Miep Gies as well as Anne father, Otto Frank, are able to publish Anne’s diary and fulfill Anne’s dream: to become a well-known author. Melissa Müller’s book became popular among the public that it was made into an ABC movie.

Books and Articles

  • Oliner, Samuel P. & Oliner, Pearl M,

    The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: Free Press, 1988. Samuel Oliner, a Holocaust survivor himself, is able to answer the questions why did people help Jews and how did they help Jews during the Third Reich. He is the founder and director of The Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute. He currently a professor of sociology at Humboldt Sate University. In his book he interviewed 700 European rescuers who acted altruistically to answer the questions above. In conclusion his able to provide evidence through testimonies of the European rescuers.

  • Peter Novick,

    The Holocaust in American Life. New York: First Mariner Books, 1999. Peter Novick explores how the Holocaust was discussed in the United States. He divides his book up into three parts, which demonstrates how the knowledge of the Holocaust in American life went from during the war to present life. He brings up arguments about why the United States did not act during the war, why after the war the Holocaust was not talked or taught in schools about and how now the Holocaust is widely accepted to discuss, which created memorials to remember those who suffered

  • Art Spiegelman,

    Maus A Survivor's Tale. Vol. 1&2. New York: Pantheon Book, 1986. Art Spiegelman is one of the world’s best-known comic artists. In Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art is able to reenact his father, Vladek Spiegelman, life during the Third Reich. He uses symbolic animals to describe the different types of races during the Third Reich: a mouse represent the Jews, a cat represent the German’s, a pig represent the Polish and a dog represent the American’s. Through this entertaining comic book, he captures the horrors of antisemitism and the Holocaust. Also he emphasizes the altruistic people who help him as well as the luck factor his father had to survive during that time.

  • Yad Vashem,

    “The Righteous Among the Nations.” Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. March 4, 2010 . To be recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations is a huge honor. This website is designed to search through the people recognize and read their story. To be recognized by Yad Vashem, a rescuer must have acted altruistically. It is important to understand that these rescuers wee very rare during Nazi Germany and the people who acted saved lives. The main principal of Yad Vashem is to give gratitude to the State of Israel and to those non-Jewish who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Relevant Websites

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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.

prepared for web by Nicola Norris on 3/22/10; last updated: 3/22/10
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