Learning from Heroic Helpers

A fair amount of research has been done on the heroic helpers of the Holocaust, people who endangered their lives to rescue Jews, to see what characteristics led to their helping and what differentiates them from the many others who stayed passive bystanders – or even became perpetrators.

In “The Psychology of Rescue,” psychologist Ervin Staub (2015) states that interviews with Holocaust rescuers and the people they helped indicate that many rescuers had one of the following kinds of moral inclination:

  1. empathy, the emotional response to the suffering of others;
  2. prosocial value orientation, which is a sense of caring “combined with a feeling of responsibility for the welfare of other human beings”;
  3. belief in basic principles of morality and justice and seeing the victimization of the Jews as unjust (p. 102).

Staub explains that these kinds of moral inclination correspond to what other research has shown in people who help others generally. Other shared characteristics among rescuers were the tendency to not devalue Jews or strongly differentiate their own group from Jews. Rescuers also tended to hear good things about Jews within their families as they were growing up as well.

Rescuers were asked about their childhood experiences as well. Many had a “moral parent” who influenced them with his or her positive action within the community. Some rescuers reported being taken along on activities helping others when they were children. Staub notes again that “what rescuers said about how they were raised is very similar to what research finds with children who become caring and helpful” (p. 103). In families where children become helpful and caring, parents are less authoritarian and use gentle discipline with reasoning rather than physical punishment. Staub, whose research includes studying the development of caring and altruism in children, asserts, “Affection and caring for the child, guidance, and discipline in the context of reasoning – not forceful and punitive discipline – are core elements in raising caring children” (p. 103).

For me, reading that rescuers had some kind of moral motivation behind their actions made sense. According to Staub, prosocial value orientation – the idea that one views one’s self as responsible for others –  “seems the most significant motivator of people helping others” (p. 102). Do I have prosocial value orientation? Do I feel responsible for the welfare of other human beings? Yes, I do. I wouldn’t be writing this blog – the writing and publishing of which sometimes really scares me, especially when I write something that makes me feel particularly vulnerable – if I didn’t feel that I have a responsibility to help people in the ways I can, especially as a fairly privileged person in this society. I speak about trying to understand “others” – not just people of color, but also the racist people who seem to be hurting and lashing out at people of color – because I can (not because I think everyone can or should). But writing this blog is a far cry from hiding and saving people, while endangering my own life in the process. I also know a fair number of people currently putting their butts on the line much more than I am. So I wonder a bit at the extent of my own prosocial value orientation. (Can one have prosocial value orientation only a little bit?)

But to me the shocker was the correlation between the heroic helpers of the Holocaust and helping and caring people in general, especially the similarity of childhood experiences. As I consider my own childhood experiences, I realize that my family rarely did anything in the community, much less helped or volunteered within it. We were not joiners. (If anything, there was a feeling of estrangement between my family and the community we lived in. My parents were younger, more liberal, and more hip than most other parents.) While my parents certainly had their virtues, I didn’t have an example of a parent highly engaged in helping behavior in the community. I do remember getting a certificate that said “Most Helpful Camper” at camp, but I also remember wishing I’d gotten something else, like most creative or popular.  I don’t think I much valued being “helpful” as a child, and I don’t know that my parents promoted that value either.

So now thinking about trying to raise a caring and helpful child in light of this information, I realize that my own limited helping behavior may be undermining the prosocial value orientation I want to instill in my child. (In fact, after I first read about the childhood experiences of caring and helping people, I spoke with my husband about helping and volunteering in our respective childhoods. We also decided that my son and I will go and help a particular person in our community who is in need. This person is not a traditional “other” to us, but helping her is needed. And a start.)

Consider your own childhood and how it shaped your feeling of comfort around helping and volunteering. For some of you, helping and volunteering may already be a habit. (I wish I had such good habits!) If you are still actively parenting younger children, consider what you’ve shown your children about the importance of helping others in the community. Is your example supporting your sentiments or contradicting them? If you want to change the example you’re providing, what reasonably easy first step can you make? (Small steps lead to big steps, but big leaps can be hard to put into practice because they are so uncomfortable. Most of us really resist being uncomfortable.)

I consulted two other pieces of research that are pretty interesting on the subject of heroic helpers. One is Stephanie Fagin-Jones and Elizabeth Midlarsky’s (2007) “Courageous Altruism: Personal and Situational Correlates of Rescue during the Holocaust,” which compared a group of Holocaust rescuers to Holocaust bystanders. This study, like the ones that Staub was referencing, showed a gulf between rescuers and bystanders. Specifically, this study found that the positive psychology traits of “social responsibility, altruistic moral reasoning, empathic concern, and risk-taking significantly discriminated the rescuers from the bystanders” (p.143). Not only does this study affirm big differences between rescuers and bystanders, but I see overlap here with Staub’s ideas above. Empathy/empathic concern are obviously similar, but social responsibility may overlap with prosocial value orientation, and altruistic moral reasoning may connect with moral principles. (Of course, in Staub’s discussion, rescuers/heroic helpers do not necessarily have all three moral inclinations; one is enough.) The personality trait of risk-taking seems more in line with the influence of a moral parent; if you are influenced by the caring and help that a parent shows in the community, then you may be more likely to take risks to help, similar to the power of habit.

What’s unclear to me from this research, though, is whether these positive personality traits can be modified and deliberately developed over time or whether these personality traits are generally considered unchanging. I would guess these traits can change and be cultivated because people do change over time, but without knowing about deliberate cultivation for sure, these connections are less useful.

Another study, though, focuses on qualities (not personality traits) that can be cultivated through deliberate action. Kohen, Langdon and Riches’ (2017) “The Making of a Hero: Cultivating Empathy, Altruism, and Heroic Imagination” finds four commonalities in the backgrounds of those who take heroic action to help others not in the Holocaust, but in emergency situations:

They imagined situations where help was needed and considered how they would act; they had an expansive sense of empathy, not simply with those who might be considered “like them” but also those who might be thought of as “other” in some decisive respect; they regularly took action to help people, often in small ways; and they had some experience or skill that made them confident about undertaking the heroic action in question. (p.3)

Here, again, we see the vital importance of empathy. Here Kohen, et al. (2017) discuss an expansive sense of empathy that extends to others or “them” beyond us-them divides. The authors note that “working to see ‘others’ as similar to ‘us’ is one effective way to develop empathy (p. 7). To cultivate ourselves as those who help others, we can practice seeing “others” as similar to “us.” Because this is primarily a matter of perspective, we can practice this even when not actually encountering but just seeing those we think of as “others,” even from the safe confines of our cars as we’re driving past. I can also work to point out how “others” are like “us” to my child.

Kohen, et al. also note above that these heroes take regular action – that the heroic intervention that brings these heroes to public awareness is not their first helping action. This correlates in my mind back to the examples of moral parents, but even more so, the power of becoming habituated to helping. (Just as perpetrators become habituated to harming others and bystanders get used to distancing themselves from the distress of seeing others suffer yet not doing anything to help, helpers get habituated to helping. Michael Bess (2008) reports in “Deep Evil and Deep Good” that when the villagers in Le Chambon who saved countless Jews were interviewed many years later how they did what they did, they answered, “After a while, we got used to it” (p. 52).) We can develop habits of helping, which will make acting heroically easier in the moment. Certainly, I need to develop a habit of helping that my son can see and take courage in.

Kohen, et al. also talk about the importance of competence. It’s obvious that if you want to save a drowning child, you should know how to swim. An off-duty lifeguard is likely to help the child without breaking a sweat because of competence. (In more recent studies of the bystander effect, they’ve found that people with special competence are much more likely to help – such as nurses helping people who’ve fallen or are having a medical emergency. Not knowing what to do in an emergency situation is a powerful predictor of passivity.) Here we might think of what kinds of competence we have or can develop that would be useful in the kinds of situations we’d like to help in. For example, my particular competence is with writing, so while writing doesn’t translate into heroic action in an emergency, still I can use my competence with writing to be helpful to others.

But my absolute favorite of all these – and the reason why I really wanted to bring this piece in here – is the importance of imagination. These heroes had imagined similar situations and how they would act. Perhaps imagination was vital for Holocaust heroic helpers as well; they may have imagined being asked for help, or being in a situation to help, before it happened. (Being able to imagine effective intervention has also been found as important to bystander action in bystander studies.) I’ve long thought of the imagination as an important moral tool – we can use it to imagine others as similar to us or to put ourselves in others’ shoes. This article affirms that we can also use it to imagine situations and how we can help others. So, for example, my goal is not to save a person between subway tracks, but to be a good ally to marginalized groups in our society. So imagining how best to respond when encountering different forms of prejudice is not just daydreaming; it’s productive mental practice, similar to the way that sports psychology promotes mental practice of specific skills.

Now it’s your turn to learn from these heroic helpers. What mental practice can you engage in to imagine situations and help others? How can you develop your empathy? Which “others” could you imagine as more like “us”? What can you imagine doing with your particular competence?  What small helping actions can you take to get into the habit of helping?


Bess, M. (2008). “Deep Evil and Deep Good.” In Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II. New York: Vintage.

Fagin-Jones, S. and Midlarsky, E.. (2007). “Courageous Altruism: Personal and situational Correlates of Rescue during the Holocaust.” The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2:2 136-147.

Kohen, A., Langdon, M. and Riches, B.R.. (2017). “The Making of a Hero: Cultivating Empathy, Altruism, and Heroic Imagination. Journal of Humanistic Psychology (2017) 17 pp. University of Nebraska Digital Commons.

Staub, E. (2015). “The Psychology of Rescue.” In The Roots of Goodness: Inclusive Caring, Moral Courage, Altruism Born of Suffering, Active Bystandership, and Heroism. NY: Oxford University Press. 99-106.

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