Ordinary Heroes

Sociologist and Holocaust survivor Samuel P. Oliner writes about what motivates altruists and heroes who put the welfare of others alongside their own. Reaching out to others has been the force behind much that is good in the world.
Samuel Oliner
photo courtesy Samuel Oliner

In June of 1942, when I was 12 years old, the Nazis ordered my family to leave our home in the village of Bielanka in southern Poland, and move to the ghetto in the town of Bobowa. They gave us 72 hours. So we left behind all our worldly possessions except for what we could carry, mostly bedding and utensils, and rode the 10 miles to Bobowa in a horse-drawn wagon driven by a kind Catholic Pole.

In my immediate family, there were five of us. My biological mother had died of tuberculosis when I was seven, and my father had married a woman named Esther, with whom he had two more children, a girl and a boy, Shayia and Jaffa. In the Bobowa ghetto, we lived in a room 20 feet by 20 feet, along with my grandfather Herman, his wife, and two other families—a total of at least 20 people. We slept on straw covered with some sheets we had brought. It was a world of total misery and hunger.

From time to time, I would sneak away from the ghetto to nearby villages and try to get some food from the peasants—trading needles, watches, pens, and other items that these farmers needed in exchange for potatoes, fruit, eggs, bread, and other edible items. At night, I would sneak back into the ghetto. Then we had food to eat. Sometimes we would cover up the windows when we were eating because beggars would come by and knock on the window. Although we didn’t have enough food to share, if they saw us, we would give them some slices of bread and potatoes.

Life continued like this for two months.

Then, early on the morning of August 14, Nazi soldiers surrounded the ghetto. The Einsatzgruppen, made up of Germans and Ukrainians serving under the Nazis, went from house to house banging on doors and yelling, “Alle Juden ‘raus! ‘Raus!” They drove us out of our dwellings into military trucks waiting in the middle of Bobowa’s town plaza.

Terrified and still in pajamas, I climbed onto the roof. I saw a soldier throw a small child out of an upper window of a tall house nearby. Another had grabbed a girl by the arm. She was fighting back, begging him to leave her alone.

When I came back down off the roof, my father was gone. Esther was holding Shayia tight, rocking back and forth. She understood that something bad was going to happen to the Jewish people of the Bobowa Ghetto. She stared at me sadly for just a moment and then pleaded, “Anloif mein kind und du vest bleiben beim leben.” (Run away, my child, so that you will live.)

I did not know what to do or where to go. But she had told me to go. With tears in my eyes, I ran and hid in the attic.

After several hours, which seemed like a lifetime, I escaped from the ghetto. Peasants along the way told me what had happened. The trucks had taken the others, including my family, to a forest. There the Einsatzgruppen forced them to undress in the most vile and humiliating way and made them walk about 60 feet across huge planks laid across a mass grave. Then they shot them and watched them fall into the grave. Some were only wounded, but as the bodies piled up on top of each other, those who were still alive were trapped under the dead.

There was absolute chaotic madness in the forest of Garbacz that day, the peasants said. Such fear and screaming! It took 18 hours to kill a thousand people and bury them with a thin coat of soil. I heard later that a Jewish man I knew had crawled out from under the layer of soil and escaped. But his mind had totally snapped, and while he was wandering from place to place, the Gestapo caught him and executed him.

In just two days that August, my whole family was murdered.

I could not believe that such cruelty and evil was possible. What did the soldiers feel as they were killing innocent men, women, and children, I wondered. Were they able to love their wives and children?

After that, I wandered around the countryside for three days, dazed and in disbelief. I slept in barns or in fields and ate food off the land—carrots, apples, and pears. I thought hard about what to do next, and I decided to go across the hills to the village of Bystra, where a woman named Balwina Piecuch lived with her husband Jacek and their children, Staszek and Zosia. Balwina knew my family from before the war and had gone to school with my father, Aaron, in the local village of Mszanka.

When I knocked on her door one night, Balwina immediately recognized me. She knew what had happened at Garbacz. She saw how scared and disheveled I was, took me in, and comforted me—hugged me, fed me, and offered to let me sleep in the attic. As I climbed the stairs, Balwina said, crying, “You poor boy. I will help. You must live.”

To make it less likely that I would be betrayed and caught, Balwina decided I must become a Catholic boy and look for work. She taught me the catechism, and I learned the Lord’s Prayer ... “Our father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name ....” I memorized it well. She changed my name from Samuel Oliner to Juzek Polewski and showed me how to pretend I was Catholic by genuflecting and making the sign of the cross when I walked by the numerous Catholic shrines.

I invented a story about myself—that I was 15 years old instead of my real age of 12, that my very poor mother and brother couldn’t keep me around the house, so my mother had asked me to find a job as a cowhand or stable boy.

When I left Balwina’s house to look for work in a village across the hills, she hugged me and insisted that I let her know where I was.

Ironically, I found a job at a Jewish farm in the nearby village of Biesnik. The Jews who owned it had been exterminated, and the farm was rented to a childless non-Jewish couple. When I told them my story they hired me, but insisted on meeting my mother to negotiate my wages. I kept making excuses about why my mother couldn’t come any time soon. During my first Christmas with them, they sent me back to visit my “mother,” so I sneaked back over the hills, through the snow, and ended up at Balwina’s house. There I was received with love, assurances that the war would come to an end soon, and encouragement to have hope so that I might survive to tell the world what had happened to my family and to me. Staszek, who pretended to be my brother, would come from time to time to warn me that the Gestapo was searching for Jews or to pass on encouraging information from Balwina.

After liberation by the Soviet army in March 1945, I left the childless couple for whom I worked, and who never knew I was Jewish, and I went back to Balwina’s house.

Balwina Piecuch’s act of kindness and caring not only saved my life, it formed my life. I emigrated to the United States, became a sociologist, and spent my career working to understand what motivates altruists like Balwina and the hundreds of thousands of other people who put the welfare of others alongside their own.

Samuel Oliner
photo courtesy Samuel Oliner

Understanding heroic kindness
Over the past 20 years I and my associates have interviewed 1,500 people who have helped others—non-Jewish and Jewish rescuers of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, heroes—both military and civilian, hospice volunteers, moral exemplars (people who make a difference in their community), and philanthropists. Our purpose was not only to begin to understand their motivation, but also to identify the
characteristics that distinguish them.

Altruism simply means devotion to the welfare of others, based on selflessness. Specifically, I have characterized altruism as a behavior that is directed towards helping another; that involves some effort, energy, and sacrifice to the actor; that is accompanied by no external reward; and that is voluntary. I divide altruism into two categories: conventional and heroic. Conventional altruism differs from heroic only in that it does not usually entail risk to the life of the helper.

Who are these people who put the welfare of others alongside their own?

They are deeply empathetic. We found a clear correlation between empathy and altruistic behavior—helpers simply could not stand by and see others
suffer. We also found that altruists, unlike bystanders, had internalized the ethic of caring and social responsibility they learned from their parents and significant others. As children, they were likely to have been disciplined by reasoning and taught to consider the consequences of their misbehavior. The capacity for love and compassion was yet another important characteristic, as well as a sense of self-esteem and efficacy (a sense of self that tells them that they can succeed at some task, even dangerous ones). Ecumenically inclusive religious or spiritual beliefs, such as regarding all people as children of the same God, worthy of protection and love, are other important factors associated with helping. We found that among certain rescuers, such as those in Holland, religious factors were more important than for those in Poland, where compassion for the victim was of greater significance in rescue.

When we interviewed rescuers in their homes and in their own languages—French, German, Italian, Polish, and Norwegian—these qualities were evident in their descriptions of their motivation:
“Our religion says we are our brother’s keeper.”
“We had to help these people in order to save them, not because they were Jews, but because they were persecuted human beings who needed help.”
“I sensed I had in front of me human beings that were hunted down like wild animals. This aroused a feeling of brotherhood and a desire to help.”
“I was always filled with love for everyone, for every creature, for things. I am fused into every object. For me everything is alive.”
“They taught me to respect all human beings.”
“My parents taught me discipline, tolerance, and service of other people when they needed something.”

Not everyone loves a hero
Some people believe there’s no such thing as heroism, and that helping others is a matter of self-aggrandizement. The media often belittle helpers, labeling them “do-gooders” and “busybodies,”and explaining away their actions as “glory seeking.”

Some behavior experts claim that altruism has negative consequences for the recipient of help, creating a sense of helplessness and disempowerment. Other scholars, such as Ayn Rand, proponent of the philosophy of objectivism, also reject altruism. Rand defines altruism as the principle “that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.” Altruism, she argues, is a sort of pathology that leads to suffering and “unearned guilt on a personal level.” Self-interest, she claims, should be the primary code of ethics, and no person should sacrifice themselves for others.

According to these views, the 70-80 million Americans who volunteer in hospices, prisons, homeless shelters; the thousands of Carnegie heroes (individuals who risked their lives to save strangers and were recognized for their heroism by Carnegie Hero Commission); rescuers of Jews during World War II who endangered their lives and those of their families; the military heroes who receive the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Victorian Cross; and moral exemplars such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, are simply selfish “do-gooders.”

Decades of research by psychologists and over a thousand interviews by the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute have shown that altruism exists in the psychologically healthiest of individuals and is not only of incalculable benefit to the community and society in general, but it is also essential for the survival of the planet.

Teaching selflessness
If we want to teach our children altruism, we must reconstruct our school curriculum so that our children learn not only reading, writing, math, science, and computers, but also the consequences of indifference to our fellow humans.

First, we must recognize that we cannot build bonds among people by intellect alone—that is, through thought and contemplation. Our religious and other institutions must appeal not only to the intellect but to our emotions and to group norms. Compassion and empathy, as several studies have shown, are most
effectively taught through stories.

Second, we must build bonds through the experience of caring, not only among members of our own community but also with people outside our community. Our institutions must do more than talk about caring; they must also model it, giving, receiving, and expecting caring from all participants. School staff, faculty, and administrators, family members, priests, ministers, rabbis, and mullahs must forgo empty platitudes and model caring behavior on a daily basis.

Moral behavior is the consequence of empathy, caring for others, a strong attachment to the moral community, and an ethical obligation to all life. Reaching out to others at considerable personal risk, as Balwina Piecuch did, and as many, many others have done, has been the force behind much that is good in the world. It has saved innumerable lives and inspired new acts of generosity and heroism.

Selflessness is as old as war and, I believe, more deeply human. In a poem written 700 years ago, Poland’s Queen Jadwiga captured the essence of altruism. She called it love.

Nor can that endure
Which has not its foundations upon love,
For love alone diminishes not, but shines with its own light,
Makes an end of discord, softens the fires of hate,
Restores peace in the world,
Brings together the sundered, redresses wrong,
Aids all and injures none.
And who so invokes its aid will find peace and safety,
And have no fear of future ill.

Dr. Samuel P. Oliner is emeritus professor of sociology at Humboldt State University and founder/director of the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute. He is also author and co-author of numerous articles on the Holocaust, altruism, prosocial behavior, and national and international race relations.
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