On the occasion of the Holocaust Remembrance Day happening today in Israel, I wanted to explore connections between the Holocaust and EA. My first thoughts were toward the importance of remembrance: can collective memory prevent future generations from repeating past mistakes? But then, I recalled my trip to Poland and the concentration camps years ago. I remembered our guide mentioning a study identifying four characteristics of The Righteous Among the Nations. I think that identifying the characteristics of those who chose "good" during one of the darkest times in History can be of particular interest to the EA community.  Unfortunately, I didn't find this study, but here is an extract from the Yad Vashem Museum article that explores the subject:

"Most rescuers were ordinary people. Some acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions; others were not idealists, but merely human beings who cared about the people around them. In many cases they never planned to become rescuers and were totally unprepared for the moment in which they had to make such a far-reaching decision. They were ordinary human beings, and it is precisely their humanity that touches us and should serve as a model. The Righteous are Christians from all denominations and churches, Muslims and agnostics; men and women of all ages; they come from all walks of life; highly educated people as well as illiterate peasants; public figures as well as people from society's margins; city dwellers and farmers from the remotest corners of Europe; university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.

Scholars have attempted to trace the characteristics that these Righteous share and to identify who was more likely to extend help to the Jews or to a persecuted person. Some claim that the Righteous are a diverse group and the only common denominator are the humanity and courage they displayed by standing up for their moral principles.  Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner defined the altruistic personality. By comparing and contrasting rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust, they pointed out that those who intervened were distinguished by characteristics such as empathy and a sense of connection to others. Nehama Tec who also studied many cases of Righteous, found a cluster of shared characteristics and conditions of separateness, individuality or marginality. The rescuers’ independence enabled them to act against the accepted conventions and beliefs.

Bystanders were the rule, rescuers were the exception. However difficult and frightening, the fact that some found the courage to become rescuers demonstrates that some freedom of choice existed, and that saving Jews was not beyond the capacity of ordinary people throughout occupied Europe. The Righteous Among the Nations teach us that every person can make a difference."





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I think the best-known study on the subject is

Oliner, S. P. (1992). Altruistic personality: rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. Simon and Schuster.

Two other good articles on this subject are 

  1. Fagin-Jones, S., & Midlarsky, E. (2007). Courageous altruism: Personal and situational correlates of rescue during the Holocaust. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(2), 136-147. 
  2. Midlarsky, E., Fagin Jones, S., & Corley, R. P. (2005). Personality correlates of heroic rescue during the Holocaust. Journal of personality, 73(4), 907-934.

Really like this post. Simple, clear and very provocative. It would be great to see it shared more widely. 

If we could get people to ask themselves "which camp do I belong to?" and then to act accordingly ... 

Most of us look back at history and assume we would have been the exceptions - the people opposing slavery, protecting Jews, giving to the poor, etc. But the reality of our actions today (my own absolutely included) belies this for most of us. 

Your post is a timely reminder for us to ask ourselves some questions. 

This brought tears to my eyes, thank you for posting. The Yad Vashem Museum is so beautiful and heavy. Looking for common denominators among the exceptional few who became rescuers seems like a high potential value pursuit for EA.

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