Saving the Forsaken

If this book had carried an epigraph, it might have been “A little religion is a dangerous thing.” For one of the striking conclusions of this sociological study of altruistic behavior among non-Jewish Europeans toward Jews during the Holocaust is that the mildly religious, not the very religious or the adamantly irreligious, were least likely to show it. The author, Pearl Oliner, heads (with her husband Sam) the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt State University. Saving the Forsaken is based on the Oliners’ interviews with several hundred elderly Europeans in the 1980s. The subjects were asked to reflect on their activities during what Germans today call the Nazi-time.

The Oliners’ 1988 book, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, was based on the same data. It drew the praise of David Gushee, a moral theologian at Union University and the author of The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: A Christian Interpretation (1994). Gushee called their book “the largest rescuer study to date,” and drew on it heavily for his own book.

The Oliners’ interviewees included Catholics and Protestants, the religious and irreligious, rescuers of Jews and bystanders. They located most of their interviewees through Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to Holocaust victims that verifies, documents, and honors rescue activity. Saving the Forsaken, solely the work of Pearl Oliner, differs from its predecessor by focusing less on the personality type of individual rescuers than on the cultures that formed them. It assesses the impact of religious culture, or its absence, on the willingness of people to rescue those in need.

Oliner extracts from her and her husband’s data five assessments of the interviewees’ predispositions: whether they (1) accepted or rejected people markedly different from themselves; (2) supported or shunned networks of political and community relations; (3) remembered having, as children, positive or negative relations with their parents; (4) inclined towards or against sharing resources with others; and (5) drew strength for acting largely from internal or external sources.

Oliner’s conclusions, not altogether surprising, are that rescuers were more likely to exhibit the predisposition represented by the first option in each of these five sets of personality measures. Appendices of extensive statistical analysis, which only sociologists or others with left-brain aptitudes will easily navigate, complement the main body of text, which presents and interprets the participants’ stories in more easily digested narrative form.

What distinguishes Oliner’s work here from other studies of its kind is her attempt to identify the distinctive influences of European Catholicism, Protestantism, and irreligion in cultivating an altruistic impulse. She excludes “explicit theological beliefs” from the analysis, in favor of attitudes such beliefs may influence or imply, for example, “outgroup altruism”: inclination to care for cultural outsiders. A finding Oliner suggests may not have been obvious is that a rescuer’s prior integration into already established social networks factored significantly into her or his decision to help Jews, as the Calvinist Christians of Le Chambon, France, who acted as a community, most impressively illustrate.

Catholic readers will warm to the conclusion Oliner draws from her data that, “Catholics generally as compared with Protestants generally...were significantly more marked by a Sharing disposition,” evinced “strong empathic feelings for those in distress,” and a stronger tendency than Protestant interviewees “to identify with the poor.” This does not imply that there were more Catholic than Protestant rescuers, for Protestants ranked higher than most Catholics on other factors favoring outgroup altruism, such as a sense of personal potency. Neither Catholics nor Protestants scored highest on the most influential measure, though, which was openness to cultural otherness. That distinction fell to the irreligious, many of them atheistic Marxists or socialists.

Oliner notes several of her study’s imperfections which limit the conclusions that can be drawn from it: The participants were not selected at random; they were recalling and interpreting events from distant memory; and their responses to questions could have been influenced by judgments about themselves they anticipated or projected onto the interviewers. Apart from these self-confessed limitations, the book also occasionally suffers from the jarring effect of reading psychosocial vocabulary into religiously motivated heroic behavior. For example, the claim that Protestants scored high on measures assessing “self-potency”-that is, confidence in their self-initiated actions to effect change-rings strangely out of tune with the spiritual heritage of Luther. The idea that “Protestant rescuers had a much lower sense of self-esteem than did [Protestant] bystanders” may more nearly capture, in secular terms, the self-image of some Calvinists. It also skirts the question of whether psychological measures of self-esteem can accurately reflect the inner motivations of the devoutly religious of any stripe. Oliner herself inadvertently attests to this when she suggests that “Protestant rescuers appeared to evaluate themselves by different standards [than self-esteem].” I should hope so, religious readers may want to say.

Students of Catholic mysticism may flinch at the identification of detachment (the theme of a sermon by Meister Eckhart) as an obstacle to developing the instincts to share. Oliner’s efforts to distance theology from her measures, on the implied grounds that it must compromise the scientific objectivity of her proceedings, may actually distort her representations of her religious subjects by restricting characterizations of their behavior to terms foreign to the cultures that nurtured them.

Oliner’s motive is noble: to uncover the social factors favoring the appearance of altruism so that they may be reproduced in our own times. But the underlying, optimistic assumption, that altruism is a function of reproducible social conditions, doesn’t address the reaction many have to the question, What would you have done in 1940s Europe? We simply do not know, however high we might rank on measures of outgroup altruism. Those of us born after 1945 are grateful not to have been subjected to so dire a test of goodness. When we reflect on those times, we gain a new appreciation of what it means to ask not to be led into temptation. We also gain an understanding of a datum that social science lacks the means to measure: the mystery of the motive behind resistance to the irresistible temptation to abandon goodness when our own survival is at stake.

Published in the 2006-01-13 issue: 

Ernest Rubinstein is the theology librarian at Drew University and the author of Religion and the Muse: The Vexed Relation between Religion and Western Literature (SUNY Press, 2007).

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