Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 28 April 1996; on the web by permission, August 2003

This book is already eight years old, but I learned of it only last summer, at a conference at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, where Sam Oliner gave a talk. Chances are this book is news to most CNT readers, too. The Oliners' decades-long research program at California's Humboldt State University has made few headlines. This book's publisher is known and respected mainly in academic circles.

But what a story! Sam Oliner was a 12-year-old Jewish boy in Poland in 1942, when the Nazis forced him and his family into the ghetto at Bobowa. Two months later, as the Nazis were evacuating the ghetto's residents for extermination, the boy managed to escape. A Polish peasant woman named Balwina took him in, disguised his identity, and found him a job. The others in his family perished. He survived not just to tell the tale (in a memoir published in 1986) but to conduct, in collaboration with his wife, what must surely rank among the more important sociological studies ever done.

How did Balwina and the thousands of other Gentiles who risked their own lives to rescue Jews from the Holocaust differ from those who stood by and did nothing? This is the question the Oliners set out to answer. They interviewed a sample of 406 German, Polish, Italian, Dutch and French Gentiles whose actions of rescue had been investigated and authenticated by the Yad Vashem authority in Jerusalem. They also interviewed a sample of 126 nonrescuers and bystanders, this latter sample matched with the first by age, sex, education, and geographic location during the war. Then they compared the two samples on a wide range of variables.

In the hands of scholars with less breadth, this study might have done no more than illuminate that darkest of chapters in human history. The Oliners, however, viewed their data as a case-study of altruistic behaviour in general. How do people who risk personal disaster in order to help others, with no promise of reward, differ from people who do not? What kind of background or upbringing lends itself to altruism?

The Oliners' basic finding is that far more than bystanders, rescuers had formed friendly personal relations in the course of their upbringing with people different from themselves in social class and religion. As might be expected, rescuers were more likely to have grown up with Jewish friends and neighbours. But their ability to empathize, nourished by diversity of friendships, extended also to Gypsies and people richer or poorer than themselves.

No less striking is the authors' evidence that rescuers, far more than bystanders, came from close, loving families where discipline was light and based on talking and reasoning as opposed to physical punishment. Rescuers reported having learned a value on caring from their parents. Bystanders were more likely than rescuers to report having learned values on obedience and economic competence.

Rescuers and nonrescuers differed little in their formal religious backgrounds, though the former were slightly less likely to have attended Catholic schools. The degree of parental religiosity did not distinguish the two groups. Rescuers were more likely, however, to describe themselves as religious than nonrescuers were.

The main conclusion of this book is that rescuers had greater capacity for what the Oliners call "extensivity," meaning the extension of self to include others, attachment to others and a sense of responsibility for others' welfare. Rescuers showed more trust in people generally, thought more highly both of themselves and of others, and were disinclined to exclude others from the community. Bystanders, on the other hand, had led constricted lives, were centred on themselves, were more likely to be suspicious and insecure, and they reserved a sense of obligation to a small circle from which others were excluded.

At the end of the book, the Oliners dispute the common priority on teaching personal moral autonomy and independence of mind as defenses against submission to authoritarian political regimes. Quoting H. J. Forbes, these authors suggest that independence of mind may "promise the philosopher but deliver the tyrant." Their priority, consistent with their data, is instead on cultivating from childhood, especially in homes and schools, diverse kinds of caring relationship. Rescuers, they say in summary, "were and are 'ordinary' people. They were farmers and teachers, entrepreneurs and factory workers, rich and poor, parents and single people, Protestants and Catholics. Most had done nothing extraordinary before the war nor afterwards. They were not heroes cast in larger-than-life molds. What most distinguished them were their connections with others in relationships of commitment and care."