Psychology at the U.N.

The International Day of Holocaust Remembrance: Honoring the courage of rescuers

This column discusses the U.N.’s efforts to promote awareness of the Holocaust and commemorate those who risked their lives to rescue others from persecution, as well as the role of psychology in mobilizing against dehumanization and genocide.
By Juneau Gary and Neal S. Rubin, APA Representatives at the U.N. Department of Public Information, Column Co-Editors


Denying historical facts, especially on such an important subject as the Holocaust, is just not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable to call for the elimination of any State or people. I would like to see this fundamental principle respected both in rhetoric and in practice by all members of the international community.

— United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution by consensus, designating January 27 — the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau — as an annual International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust (U.N., 2005). By this resolution the General Assembly condemned all forms of religious intolerance against any person throughout the world. Additionally, this resolution specifically rejects any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event and commends those States which endeavor to preserve historical sites of Holocaust significance. The resolution also directs the U.N. and member states to develop educational programs about the Holocaust that promote awareness of history with a view to mobilizing the world community to reject all future forms of intolerance and genocide. Through the U.N. Outreach Programme, the Department of Public Information (DPI) has facilitated the development of educational programs and mobilized civil society to promote Holocaust Remembrance and enhance awareness of the risks posed by past and potential crimes against humanity.

A second resolution was passed by the General Assembly in 2007, followed by a resolution from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that encouraged the Director General of UNESCO to collaborate with the U.N. Secretary General in promoting awareness of the necessity for Holocaust remembrance and for rejecting all forms of Holocaust denial (UNESCO, 2007). Together, UNESCO, the U.N. Outreach Programme, and the DPI coordinate educational programs and annual activities to promote Holocaust Remembrance through the arts, academia, personal narratives and other media.

2013 International Day of Holocaust Remembrance

This year, the theme of the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust was “Rescue during the Holocaust: the courage to care.” It was inspired by the book, "The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust" (Rittner & Myers, 1986). While we tend to hear about the most famous of these rescuers — Raoul Wallenberg (a Swedish diplomat in Budapest) or Oskar Schindler (a German industrialist in Krakow) — the majority emerged from all walks of life, from every age group and from many nations. “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” (Yad Vashem, 2013). Examples of rescuing acts include the following:

  • They hid Jews in their homes or on their property for days, months, or years;
  • They created false identifications and bogus documents in order to help Jews temporarily assume a non-Jewish identity;
  • They provided food and other basic necessities;
  • They directed Jews to safe concealments such as sewers, cemeteries or safe houses;
  • They introduced Jews in their homes as relatives or adopted children;
  • They warned Jews about imminent round-ups and/or hid them during raids;
  • They placed Jewish children in convents with nuns in order to safeguard their heritage; and 
  • They smuggled Jews to safe or safer locations or countries (Yad Vashem, 2013).

In spite of their diversity, rescuers had at least one characteristic in common: "the courage to care" about others. They also rescued their Roma, Sinti or LGBT neighbors and friends from certain death by the Nazi regime. They did not rescue, help or shelter these persecuted groups for fame and glory; they did it out of principle, moral values, compassion, concern for human rights and courage arising from their individual and collective "courage to care."

Coincident with this year’s commemoration was the news headline: “Leon Leyson Dead: Youngest ‘Schindler's List’ Survivor Dies At 83” (Huffington Post, 2013). Mr. Leyson’s death directed additional public awareness to the humanitarian and rescue work of Oskar Schindler and so many other unsung heroes. It also served as a reminder that as the remaining Holocaust survivors and rescuers pass away, it becomes all the more significant for the U.N. to focus on remembrance of this horrific period in human history and on highlighting the humanitarian efforts of rescuers during WWII as they shielded fellow citizens from mass atrocities and genocide.

During the week of January 21, 2013, the U.N. Holocaust Programme, U.N. Outreach Programme and the global network of U.N. Information Centers co-sponsored programs that paid tribute to these courageous humanitarians and rescuers. At the U.N. Headquarters in New York, the week-long events consisted of exhibits, panel discussions, films, educational activities and a DPI briefing for the non-governmental organization (NGO) community, titled “Rescue during the Holocaust: The Story of Danish Jews.”

The annual Holocaust Memorial Ceremony culminated the week of events and was attended by a wide range of dignitaries. The keynote speaker for this solemn ceremony was Dr. Mordecai Paldiel from Yeshiva University in New York City. He is a Holocaust survivor and an expert on the acts of rescue during the Holocaust.

Psychology of Rescuers

It has long fascinated psychologists why ordinary people take extraordinary risks to intervene and protect others from danger, including interventions during mass atrocities and genocide. What are the significant psychological dynamics or personality characteristics that contribute to the development of rescue behavior? While this is a complex question that cannot be adequately addressed in this forum, Nechama Tec (1986), as well as other social scientists (e.g., Monroe, 2008; Oliner & Oliner, 1988), assert that rescuers share similar personality characteristics:

  • They have a strong sense of individuality (i.e., they are not followers and would not become bystanders);
  • They are motivated by moral values that relate to the sanctity of life;
  • Their behavior is grounded in self-approval rather than in approval by others; and
  • Their self-identity is rooted in empathy, altruism and a commitment to alleviate the suffering of others.

Global Commemorations for the Rescuers

Many Holocaust museums around the world have commemorated the work of famous and unsung rescuers who saved countless Jewish friends, neighbors and strangers. Through these museums’ educational and awareness exhibits and programs, visitors may learn about the selfless acts of rescuers. The Global Directory of Holocaust Museums is a good starting point to locate a Holocaust museum in a specific country. It lists and links to Holocaust museums in 17 countries. The U.N.'s Holocaust Museums and Memorials provides a similar list of Holocaust museums in eight countries. Here are some examples of English language exhibits in alphabetical order by country, obtained from these resources:

  • Australia (Melbourne): The Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Center is featuring an exhibit, “The Rescuers.”
  • Israel (Jerusalem): Yad Vashem is the pre-eminent world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. Its “Righteous among the Nations” program pays tribute and honor to non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. Collectively, the honored represent 44 countries.
  • South Africa (Johannesburg): The So. African Holocaust and Genocide Centre is sponsoring an exhibit, “Rescuing during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care.”
  • United States (Washington, DC): The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is showcasing an exhibit, “Risk and Resistance: The Elise Kann Jaeger Collection.” It explains the significance of forging identification documents to protect Jews. This museum is also promoting an online exhibit, “Rescue and Resistance” that highlights the diverse work of nine rescuers.

Finally, although not a museum, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous preserves the legacy of rescuers through a national education program and its teacher resources. Their traveling exhibit on rescuers was showcased at the U.N. and is available for rental by small museums, historical societies, schools and community, religious and cultural centers.

Conclusion

Annually, the U.N. and its affiliates co-sponsor a Holocaust Memorial Ceremony. This event partially ensures that representatives of the U.N.’s Member Nations, NGOs and civil society will "never forget." Honoring those who had the courage to care reminds us of the importance of each individual’s personal responsibility in defending the human dignity of vulnerable persons and peoples.

Psychological science has the potential to advance humanitarian behavior by understanding the psychological characteristics and circumstances that engender courageous caring for others. Psychologists may contribute to the educational aims of the International Day of Remembrance by identifying how and why some people perceive others as “them” and not “us,” thus helping to mobilize against dehumanization, prejudice and genocide. Recounting psychologically informed narratives of those with the courage to care as a component of remembrance may inspire each of us, in our ordinary lives, to do extraordinary things: to protect other vulnerable people.

We conclude with the words of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: “On this International Day, let us remember all the innocent people who lost their lives during the Holocaust. And let us be inspired by those who had the courage to care — the ordinary people who took extraordinary steps to defend human dignity. Their example can help us build a better world today.”

References

Huffington Post. (2013). Leon Leyson dead: Youngest ‘Schindler's List’ survivor dies at 83. Huffington Post, 1/14/13. Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/14/leon-leyson-dead_n_2471477.html

Monroe, K. (2008). Cracking the code of genocide: The moral psychology of rescuers, bystanders, and Nazis during the Holocaust. Political Psychology, 29(5), 699-735.

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

Rittner, C., & Myers, S. (1986). The courage to care: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. New York: New York University Press.

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

United Nations. (2005). 60/7. Holocaust remembrance. Retrieved from www.un.org/Docs/journal/asp/ws.asp?m=A/RES/60/7

United Nations. (2007). 61/255. Holocaust denial. Retrieved from www.un.org/Docs/journal/asp/ws.asp?m=A/RES/61/255

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2007). UNESCO resolution 34c/61 on Holocaust remembrance. Retrieved from www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/docs/UNESCO%20res.shtml

Yad Vesham. (2013). Righteous among the Nations. Retrieved from www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/about.asp.

About the Authors

Juneau Gary, PsyD (APA main representative to DPI) is a Professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Kean University in New Jersey. Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP (APA representative to DPI) is a Professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology of Argosy University in Chicago. Both are APA NGO Representatives to the United Nations Department of Public Information and are co-editors of this column.