What Makes Some Victims Champion Human Rights and Others Not?: Altruism Born of Suffering and Trying to Understand My Grandfather

I first came to study the psychology of genocide and racism because I wanted to understand my grandfather, a German Jew who himself had experienced anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany, right up to his leaving with Youth Aliyah to emigrate to Palestine in January 1939.

It boggled my mind that a person who had himself experienced prejudice and who had seen the extreme suffering that prejudice can lead to (in the Israeli Army, he had the job of training survivors from Auschwitz and other death camps as soldiers) was not a champion of human rights. Instead, he was prejudiced against Palestinians, Arabs, Germans his age or older (though that I could better understand – he had a personal beef with those peers and adults who had oppressed him as a child and teen until he was 17), blacks, and gays. (There may be other people he was prejudiced against, such as Latinos, but these are the prejudices I distinctly remember.)

But why? Why didn’t his own suffering of prejudice and oppression educate him in its dangers and commit him to universal human rights and anti-prejudice? Why didn’t his own suffering lead him to what Ervin Staub and Johanna Vollhardt call “Altruism Born of Suffering” (ABS)?

I learned in my reading through the years that victims often become perpetrators in both child abuse and human rights situations.  But Staub and Vollhardt’s (2015) article on family and political violence and its effect on ABS illuminate the issues for me in a new, more detailed way.    Discussing the negative impact of family and political violence, they explain:

[E]ven when it does not lead to significant trauma symptoms, intentional victimization is likely to create psychological wounds and transformation that turn people away from, and at times against[,] others. It is likely to make people feel diminished and vulnerable, and to see other people and the world as dangerous. (p. 116)

These psychological wounds and transformation need to be healed in order for people to change their views of themselves (as vulnerable victims, who probably lack agency to help themselves and others) and others and the world (as dangerous).

When not healed, Staub and Vollhardt (2015) explain:

The experience of violence can make people more readily perceive later threat. . ..Boys who had been harshly treated tended to see actions by others as hostile when their peers did not, and responded to perceived provocation with aggression. . .. The same appears to be true of people who have experienced discrimination and violence because they are members of an ethnic, religious, political or other identity group. While varied experiences can mitigate this, in the face of new threats individuals and groups with such past experiences are more likely to engage in preemptive, violent “self-defense”, thereby becoming perpetrators. Thus, past victimization appears to be one of the influences that can contribute to the evolution of mass violence. (p. 118)

So the past experience with violence can make a person hyper-vigilant to threat and more likely to engage in preemptive attacks on others, turning a past victim into a perpetrator. So it’s very important to ending racism and discrimination and promoting universal human rights that healing of victims takes place.

Past victimization leading victims to become perpetrators is one of the ways I understand that “hurt people hurt others.” Victims can become helpers, though:

[O]nce the psychological changes take place that. . .are necessary to shift from a defensive orientation to concern about others, a person’s own suffering can become a source of especially pronounced awareness of human suffering, empathy with others in need, and feelings of responsibility for their welfare, resulting in strong commitment to helping. (Staub and Vollhardt, 2015, p. 133)

Healing is key for turning from a victim of intentional violence into a champion of human rights.

Many experiences can promote healing, including therapy, writing, social support, and learning about the causes and consequences of violence (Staub and Vollhardt, 2015, p. 126).

My grandfather is dead, so I can’t ask him about whether he’s healed or whether he’s sought out healing experiences like the above. I’m pretty sure he didn’t go to therapy, though I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have shared that with me. Writing is, as a writer, very interesting to me. Exploring my grandfather’s experiences in writing (poetry) is what got me to these questions in the first place. I don’t know about his level of social support. My perception of him was that he was a loner in many ways, a German Jewish immigrant in a city where most Jewish immigrants would’ve been from eastern Europe (with a culture distinct from Germany’s) or, eventually, Israel, though he clearly didn’t fit into that culture either.

What I do know is that my grandfather read about the Holocaust, the Nazis, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict throughout his life. He was always talking about what he learned at family dinners and holidays. He shared with me his own idea of how to compensate Palestinians for their land near the end of his life (though he never seemed to budge from the idea that the Palestinians should make way for Jews).

But this reading could be more indicative of an obsession than the development of a kind of understanding or perpetration that led to healing. So it could be that Grandpa never fully healed from his own experience of discrimination, which would’ve made it impossible for him to engage in empathy for others and develop a commitment to help. (Honestly, Grandpa was not very emotional or demonstrative. His one solace seemed to be work. Some family members have theories about his having had Asperger’s. It seems clear to me that he could’ve suffered from PTSD and just turned his emotional life off.)

Apart from the idea that Grandpa may never have healed, there is another possibility to explain his discriminatory behavior. Perhaps he had altruism born of suffering (ABS), but only for his own group, Jews. If he only helped his own group, he still could remain prejudiced against other groups and not promote universal human rights. Staub and Vollhardt explain that even if healing occurs and altruism results, it’s unclear what causes helping to be inclusive, extending to people who’ve suffered differently or are from one’s out-groups.

Staub and Vollhardt (2015) state:

We have so far limited findings on this point. In the study of responses to the victims of tsunami, both people who had experienced natural disasters and those who had suffered from interpersonal or group-based victimization were more empathic, felt more responsible, and volunteered more frequently to help members of groups living in a different part of the world, compared to people who had not suffered. Israeli Holocaust survivors engage in behavior aimed at helping Palestinians. However, in another study, rape victims were more empathic than control subjects only with other rape victims, and not with people who had different problems.

These findings. . .require further research about to what extent and under what conditions will altruism born of suffering be inclusive, extending to people who have suffered in different ways, and who belong to different groups. (p. 134)

So how do people who’ve suffered intentional violence become altruistic and helpers to others beyond their group? It’s possible, because there are Israeli Holocaust survivors who help Palestinians, as mentioned above. But Grandpa didn’t get there. And several years after Grandpa’s death, the psychology of genocide and helping is still helping me to understand him better.

How do these ideas resonate with you?



Staub, Ervin and Johanna Vollhardt. (2015). “Altruism Born of Suffering: The Roots of Caring and Helping After Victimization and Other Trauma.” In The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil: Inclusive Caring, Moral Courage, Altruism Born of Suffering, Active Bystandership, and Heroism. by Ervin Staub. New York: Oxford U Press. 115-140.


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