Finding the roots of altruism. Beyond self-preservation

The Altruistic Personality, by Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliner. New York: The Free Press. 414 pages. $24.95. IN his helplessness, Shmulek, a boy of 12 whose family had been sent to Nazi extermination camps, turned to a Polish peasant for sanctuary and succor. She did not turn him away. Rather, Balwina, a Christian, endangered her own life in an effort to help the Jewish child survive the war.

Today Shmulek is Samuel P. Oliner, professor of sociology at Humboldt State University in California and senior author, along with his wife, Pearl M. Oliner, of ``The Altruistic Personality.''

But the book is not Shmulek's tale. It is Balwina's and that of the few thousand like her who risked their lives to help Jews survive the Holocaust. If the Nazis were evidence of man's shame, then these selfless rescuers are emblems of man's nobility and glory.

What made this minority, thought to be less than one-half of 1 percent of the European population under Nazi domination, move beyond self-preservation to altruism?

In 1982 the Oliners undertook a study to answer that question. Using a four-point definition of altruism, they sought to uncover any characteristics that would distinguish rescuers from the general population. To fit their altruistic-behavior model, behavior had to be directed at helping others, involve high risk or sacrifice to the helper, be voluntary, and be accompanied by no external reward.

As the Oliners' careful documentation shows, rescue behavior demonstrated during the Holocaust fitted this criteria. The Oliners interviewed 406 rescuers, and, for contrast, 126 non-rescuers (some of the latter were active in resisting the Nazis but did not engage in rescues). Their study included 150 Jewish survivors who had been helped.

A few of the rescuers were involved in rescue activity for only a few hours or days. Most, however, continued in it for two to five years. Some of the rescues were undertaken by organized networks. Most involved individuals acting alone or with members of their immediate families.

The rescues recounted in the Oliners' book took a variety of forms, but the basic tasks of rescue were four: helping Jews sustain life as their rights and freedoms were withdrawn; helping them escape incarceration; helping them maintain an underground existence within the country; and helping smuggle them out of the country.

The study identified two distinct motivations for rescuers. Some were impelled chiefly by deeply held moral values. Here's how a Danish rescuer describes his activity and motivation:

``In 1943, on the twenty-ninth of August, we heard that the Nazis were going to ... put Danish Jews into German concentration camps.... We organized a refugee organization ... and arranged for people to go over to Sweden. The harbors were controlled partly by the German Navy but also by the Coast Police - a special department of the Danish police force.... After a week's time, we managed to get all people of Jewish extraction out of the country - 7,000 of them.''

He added, ``The main reason I did it was because I didn't want anyone to hurt my friends, my neighbors, my fellow countrymen, without cause. It was based on good morals and good traditions.''

A second motive for rescue arose from an ethic of caring, a concern for the welfare of others.

Here are the words of a Dutch rescuer: ``My mother said, `I don't think you have the right to do this. Your responsibility is for the safety of your own children.' I said to her that it was more important for our children to have parents who have done what they felt they had to do, even if it cost us our lives.... They will know we did what we thought we had to do. This is better than if we think first of our own safety.''

In explaining her motives further she said, ``We helped people who were in need. Who they were was absolutely immaterial to us.''

The Oliners assembled a composite portrait of the typical rescuer: He or she came out of a close family in which the parents were models of caring behavior and communicated caring values. They were gentle disciplinarians who stressed the potential impact of one's actions on others. At the same time, the parents set high standards that included the ``ethic of caring'' for others without concern for rewards or reciprocity.

The composite portrait presented in this book suggests the possibility of a worthy human effort: the conscious development of a society rich with unselfish commitment and caring.

Eleanor Moller is on the Monitor library staff.

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