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Lessons in moral behavior: a few heroes.

The advent of Kristallnacht, in 1938, began an era in which Europe turned inward, not to emerge until the final destruction of Nazi Germany in 1945. With a savagery and disregard for its culture, its citizens and its honored traditions, Europe waged war upon itself and the world. One emblematic facet of this self-destruction was the Holocaust, a systematic form of "ethnic cleansing" that, while not new in the annals of human history, was pursued with such rigor as to become a benchmark for measuring human atrocity.

Most historical accounts of this madness focus, most properly, on the victims and the perpetrators. Recent studies (Tec, 1986; Oliner & Oliner, 1988) and essays (Block & Drucker, 1992), however, examine a third category of participants: the rescuers. A few ordinary citizens displayed extraordinary courage, will and force of conviction during this tragic era. Disregarding great personal risk, housewives, barbers, farmers, lawyers and diverse others refused to turn their backs on their friends and neighbors and became, as a consequence, heroes of conscience. The lives of a few such heroes serve as shining lessons in moral courage.

The Quest for Heroes

It is hard to spot real heroes. They usually do not have multimillion-dollar sneaker endorsements, wear the most stylish clothes or even espouse the varied and sundry popular causes. As a matter of fact, real heroes rarely have a lot to say. And they are often hard to find in a crowd. Therefore, we need to seek them out and listen to them closely. They have a unique wisdom, and some extraordinary stories, to share with us.

In contemporary society, we long for heroes; occasionally the desire becomes an obsession. Perhaps the hunger to admire and to emulate is the rub, because we transform these needs into adoration and worship. Furthermore, we all too often confuse the substance of heroism with other less enduring standards, such as those displayed by our ubiquitous "role models." We fail to seek out true heroes in favor of the fashionable people who adorn magazines, sports arenas and the electronic media.

The lesson for childhood is clear. Children need real heroes, people who have something to say, who possess principles and, most of all, who display values that will serve for a lifetime (Katz, 1977). Heroes are enduring and substantive; they are neither faddish nor fleeting. As Aire Van Mansum, a modest Dutch rescuer of Holocaust victims, states of his role as a rescuer,

I wouldn't say I had courage. If you'd have asked me before |the war~ if I could have done it, I'd have said, "Oh, no, not me!" But if the moment's there and there's somebody in need, you go help, that's all. (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 32)

The behavior of many Holocaust rescuers is characterized by substance rather than style, reality rather than illusion. This attribute affects their views of life, as well as their relationships with others. Bert Bochove explains his time of moral courage:

You know, I like having a lot of people around to take care of. The war was terrible, but in some ways it was the best time of my life. There were always so many people around, and I got such satisfaction from helping out, from keeping people safe and comfortable. (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 46)

When Bochove died on August 13, 1991, his family chose a plain pine casket over the more elaborate velvet-lined ones. They describe their efforts to purchase a modest casket:

The man there said, "But you don't want that. Those are Jewish ones." Then we saw the pine box and that's what we chose. At the cemetery, when the casket was lowered a little, we saw that there was a Jewish star on top. And we thought, "That's just the way it should be." (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 47)

Some Antecedents of Heroism

It would be easier to recognize heroes if we understood the essential forerunners of heroic behavior, if moral courage were a constant, identifiable attribute of all rescuers. Unfortunately, that is not the case. As Malka Drucker writes,

Rescuers do not easily yield the answer to why they had the strength to act righteously in a time of savagery. It remains a mystery, perhaps a miracle.... Some had humane upbringing, others did not. Some were educated, others were barely literate. They weren't all religious, they weren't all brave. What they did share, however, was compassion, empathy, an intolerance of injustice, and an ability to endure risk beyond what one wants to imagine. (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 5)

Other researchers, such as sociologist Nehama Tec (1986), report that, while the Holocaust rescuers she studied were neither uniform nor specifically identifiable by a group norm, several discernible personality configurations were, in fact, evident. Each possessed a sense of independence and a sense of duty, enabling them to act according to their own principles, apart from accepted community standards. In fact, many possessed a sense of universal ethics that transcended immediate concerns (including personal safety). Rather than mirror existing community standards or practices, these extraordinary people instead followed a code of ethical behavior that reflected the highest, rather than minimal, expectations for personal conduct.

Many rescuers displayed a long history of performing good deeds, even as children, exemplifying the Talmud expression, "Whoever saves a single life, is as one who has saved an entire world." Irene Opdyke, a Polish rescuer, in speaking of her childhood, notes that her mother, although lacking a formal education, taught her children the importance of helping others through simple acts of charity and, by so doing, encouraged similar behavior on their part.

Block and Drucker (1992) interviewed Holocaust rescuers and heard a variety of childhood memories and experiences that suggest an unusual intolerance of injustice and mistreatment of others. Rescuer Marion Pritchard remembers being shocked when, as a 4-year-old, she observed another child being beaten by a parent. Of her own childhood, she notes:

I was never punished and always encouraged to express my feelings, both negative and positive ones, in words. And when I asked questions I got answers. I was never told I was too young or anything like that. I was treated with respect and consideration from the time I was born. (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 33)

The parents of some rescuers were indeed special people themselves, often playing either direct or more subtle roles in the lives of their extraordinary children. Ivan Beltrami, a French rescuer, recalls that when his brother, a Resistance network chief, returned "from almost two years in Buchenwald and people congratulated him for his bravery, my father said, 'Don't congratulate him; it was his duty!'" (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 124).

Implications for Parenting

Parents and educators find it difficult to contemplate an occasion when we or our children would be called upon to play the role of rescuer. We must, however, call upon ourselves and our children to act as rescuers by actively pursuing a more just society. Racial injustice is still far too common, hatred of others is a frequent expression of personal anger or failure, and inhumanity of various sorts is displayed, often in random disregard and indifference toward others.

Children must be helped to develop their own sense of what's right and what's wrong through active inquiry and questioning. Oliner and Oliner (1988) explain that the development of altruistic behavior is dependent upon the ability to engage in active decision-making, to recognize and balance decisions in terms of both their value and their consequences. Parents and educators can assist this process by recognizing that inquiry is basic to human behavior and that the process of decision-making is an important variable.

Children must also be encouraged to stand against any injustice, both small and large. As Irene Opdyke notes, children need to be reminded to act courageously, to do what she did and "Stand up when you hear name-calling, when you see skinheads" (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 196).

Another characteristic of heroic behavior that can be learned is commitment to others. Children can be taught concern for others through helping care for members of their family and through volunteer and charitable activities in their communities. Early training starts with learning to care for the younger and older persons in our lives, as well as for people less fortunate than we.

Finally, parents need to remember that we are our children's heroes, and we need to exhibit those traits that we most admire. As Anna-Marie, daughter of Bert Bochove, recalls,

I think our whole family is...a little bit more aware of people's feelings than most people are. If someone has a flat tire or something, we stop to help. I don't know if I would have done what he did. I've thought about it. I probably would. (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 47)

Stewart Cohen is Professor of Human Development, Counseling and Family Studies, The University of Rhode Island, Kingston.


Block, G., & Drucker, M. (1992). Rescuers: Portraits of moral courage in the Holocaust. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers.

Katz, L. G. (1977). What is basic for young children? Childhood Education, 54, 16-19.

Oliner, S. P., & Oliner, P. M. (1988). The altruistic personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: Free Press.

Tec, N. (1986). When light pierced the darkness: Christian rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. New York: Oxford University Press.

There's no day that goes by that I don't think about the war. When I go to talk to schoolchildren, they ask me, "Why was this war so much more important than other wars?" I tell them, "It's because it was the intention to wipe out a whole race. That has never happened. It has happened by accident, or in part, but never had it been the intention." When they ask why I rescued Jews, I tell them it's because they were persecuted not because of what they did but because of the way they were born, and that was something they couldn't help. And I relate this to apartheid. I think children need to realize that all that bad in the war, that was done by the Germans, could have been done by themselves. This possibility lives inside of them, too.

Semmy Riekerk in Block & Drucker, 1992
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Author:Cohen, Stewart
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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