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Saving the ForsakenReligious Culture and the Rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe$

Pearl M. Oliner

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780300100631

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300100631.001.0001

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The Very Religious

The Very Religious

(p.18) 2 The Very Religious
Saving the Forsaken

Pearl M. Oliner

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the altruistic behavior of very religious rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. These include a nun, a Dutch Protestant male, and a church minister. This chapter compares the very religious rescuers with equally religious nonrescuers in terms of the five summary factors and their associated measures. The findings reveal that the nun and the Dutch Protestant became rescuers only when aroused by their religious leaders, which gives apparent credence to the hypothesis that if the church had taken a clear stand, the Holocaust might never have happened.

Keywords:   religious rescuers, altruistic behavior, Jews, Nazi Europe, religious nonrescuers, religious leaders, church, Holocaust


In November 1942, I received a letter from the Secretariat of the Catholic Society of the region of Toulouse. The Archbishop of Toulouse, Monsignor Saliège, had proclaimed to all the churches of the area that he was the defender and firm supporter of all the oppressed victims of the war. He had done so by having all the local priests read his letter to the parishioners of the region.

A month later, in December 1942, and with the permission of the Bishop of Rodez, I made the decision to help rescue the persecuted. Only three other nuns and I were aware of the undertaking; the other eleven nuns at the convent, we decided, would not participate: we judged it safer that the whole group not know and we didn't want to put them in jeopardy.

Six months later, the first six children (between five and fifteen years old) arrived at the convent. One child had come from Paris; the other five were from Nancy. They were all Jewish children, all from a camp at Bruyère near Toulouse. All had just been separated from their parents. Right after that, about sixty more children came. By the beginning of the year 1944, a grand total of seventy-eight to eighty-four children from seven nationalities lived at the school. Seven adults, mothers of some children, were hidden in the basement of the convent.

The sisters were very worried and concerned for the safety of the children; it (p.19) was their job to teach them how to act in accordance with their new civil status. We gave all of them different last names. The sisters had to constantly drill them so that they would answer correctly if questioned by outsiders. They also had to learn the Catholic prayers. All went well for them; all were returned to their own families three or four months after liberation.

My reasons for involvement were human sensibility, Christian sensibility, love for children and young people, patriotism, retaliation and resistance against the Nazis.

Sister Alice, the nun quoted above, belonged to the “very religious category”; like all the others, self-identified as such. Thirty years old and busily engaged as a teacher when she received the archbishop's pastoral letter, she was then living, along with her convent sisters, in a small French town of some 4,000 people. Despite her cloistered circumstances, she represents several attributes of very religious Christians generally, rescuers and nonrescuers, as well as the particular characteristics and circumstances that aroused some very religious rescuers to action.

The archbishop sent his letter in the latter part of 1942, but persecutions against Jews had begun much earlier. Almost immediately after the German victory in June 1940, Jews were deprived of any opportunity to lead a normal existence, the result of a series of publicly proclaimed laws that had progressively deprived them of civil, economic, and legal rights. Roundups in the Occupied Northern Zone and Unoccupied Southern Zone (Vichy) continued throughout that year, and by September some forty thousand Jews were interned in the thirty-one camps in the southern zone alone: most of them refugees escaping from Germany and occupied countries but also including French Jews.1 Conditions at some camps were horrendous: death by starvation, exposure, and disease were common. Roundups became more frequent, and by the summer of 1942, say historians Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton, “the intensity of Jewish suffering was apparent to anyone who would look.” But few in French society were really looking, including the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy. In fact, with the exception of some individual Catholics, observe Marrus and Paxton, “no public utterance by any member of the Catholic hierarchy had troubled the apparently solid front between Church and State” for the first two years of the Vichy regime.2

July 1942, however, marked a turning point, when the roundups in Paris made the barbarity highly visible. The Germans had pushed to have 28,000 Jews arrested in the Paris region within two days; 22,000 of them were to be deported “to the east.” Concentrating on stateless and foreign Jews, the French municipal police began carrying out the arrests on July 16, assembling the prisoners first at the Vélodrome d'hiver—a large indoor sports arena—before (p.20) taking them to the designated camps. Some 13,000 people, including over 4,000 children, were packed into the “Vél'd'hiv',” confined there for five days with neither food nor water nor sanitary provisions, not even enough space to lie down. What had heretofore been invisible to the Parisian public became starkly obvious—the cries of children separated from parents, the stench, the overall despair and terror impressed a population largely indifferent until this point. French public opinion changed—it became clear to a large number that Jews were indeed suffering more than others. And for the first time, as well as the last, some religious figures in positions of power protested.3

In this context, Monsignor Jules-Gerard Saliège, the archbishop of Toulouse, sent a pastoral letter to all the parishes of his diocese asking them to read it to their congregants on Sunday, August 23, 1942. It was that letter which Sister Alice received. It read as follows:

My dear brothers:

There is a Christian morality and a humane morality that imposes some actions and recognizes some rights. Those actions, those rights, belong to the “nature of man.” They come from God. One may not violate them. No mortal has the power to abolish them.

When children, women, men, fathers and mothers are treated like a vile herd, when members of the same family have to be separated from one another and dispatched to an unknown destination, such a sad spectacle was reserved for our time in history.

Why don't the Churches offer refuge? Why doesn't this right exist any longer? Why are we defeated? Lord, have mercy on us. Our Lady, pray for us.

In our diocese, scenes of terror took place in the Noé and Recedebou camps. Jews are men, Jewesses are women. All is not permitted against them, against those men, those women, those fathers, those mothers. They all belong to the human race. They are our brothers just like any other. A Christian cannot forget this.

France, beloved country, France who brings to the mind and heart of all her children the tradition of respect for the human person! Generous France, I don't doubt it! You are not responsible! Receive, my brothers, the assurance of my affectionate devotion.

Until the moment she read the archbishop's letter, Sister Alice was unaware of what was happening—Jews simply had no relevance for her until that point. Having entered the convent when she was only nineteen, after attending a Catholic elementary school and lycée, she had had minimal contact with non-Catholics and none with Jews. She had not known any in her youth or even as an adult; none had lived in her neighborhood, and her parents had (p.21) never spoken about them. That the archbishop had noted the injustice perpetrated by the Nazi regime was a noteworthy act given the potential costs under a tyrannical regime. By mentioning “Jews” specifically, rather than alluding to them under the rubric of the generally suffering or maltreated as was more commonly the case, the archbishop had singled them out as particularly abused victims meriting Christian intervention as a top priority.4 The letter's impact on Sister Alice was dramatic: the sheltered and oblivious person she had been was replaced by a defiant, risk-taking subversive—a particular irony, since one of the major values she recalled learning from her parents was honesty.


Living in a different country and under quite different circumstances, Alexander, a Dutch Protestant male, is another example of a very religious rescuer, resembling Sister Alice in many ways. Unlike Sister Alice, however, Alexander was very familiar with Jews, but in a manner that was at best ambivalent and potentially hostile. As in Alice's case, religious leadership was a critical factor in his decision to rescue.

In 1942, Alexander, then thirty-eight years old, was living with his family in Leidsche Dam, a small city of approximately ten thousand people located in northern Friesland, Holland. The family, which included his wife and seven children, ages two to thirteen, had moved there from Rijssen so that Alexander could accept a job promotion. As the director of a gas factory, he earned a generous salary and owned a comfortable seven-room house. Like Sister Alice, Alexander began his rescue activities in 1942:

When we moved to Leidsche Dam, the Jews were not bothered yet. But within a year we received a letter from my brother-in law that the Jews in Rijssen were having trouble: a doctor and a teacher had been arrested, and others too. We thought immediately of the Levin family. A few days later at the dinner table, we were reading as our daily Bible reading the passage in Isaiah 58 that talks about fasting, sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the poor and persecuted to your house, clothing the naked and so on. The children were at the table, but my wife and I looked at each other and we knew what we had to do: this was our way. So I wrote to Heindrik Levin that we knew they were in trouble and that our house was open to him. He answered right away and said that he was very happy and thankful, but that he would not make use of our invitation, but maybe his son, Jacob, or his brother would.

Half a year later, early 1942, we got a letter from Jacob that things were getting hard for him. I went to Amsterdam immediately; I didn't dare write. (p.22) He was in the Jewish neighborhood. I rang the bell: there was one door for two or three apartments. A woman opened the door. I asked: “Does Jacob Levin live here?” “Levin? Levin?” she said. But then I heard somebody call out: “It's Alexander Donat, Alexander Donat!” Jacob had already hidden under a bed; they were so frightened. He said it wasn't urgent anymore since his wife had a doctor's declaration that she was too sick to travel. But one or two weeks later, I was sitting in my office at the gas factory when I spotted someone with red hair. Jacob! There had been so many raids by then that he had brought along a suitcase with clothes and wanted to make arrangements. I asked the boatsman who went to and from Amsterdam all the time to bring Jacob's family. The next day the lady who had opened the door for me came to fetch the suitcase back. “It wasn't necessary any more,” she said. They had gotten a permanent Ausweiss, so they felt quite safe.5

When I told my wife, she became furious. “Do you believe that,” she said. “They should come here now! I'll come with you to tell them to come right now!” When we got there, Jacob's wife said she was ill and couldn't come, but we tried to convince her. By this time, she had gotten to know us and felt more comfortable with us. After a week they came. We gave Jacob and his wife the larger room and moved our eldest sons into the room with their other brothers.

Jacob and his wife, along with their two children born during the war, stayed with the Donats until 1945. Two of Jacob's relatives also stayed for a few weeks.

Given Alexander's persistence and concern, it might appear that Heindrik Levin and his family were close friends. This was not the case. Although Jews lived in his neighborhood, suggesting the possibility of friendships, neither he nor his wife had Jewish friends before the war. He had met Levin the way he usually met Jews: as his mother before him, he called on them in an effort to convert them. What made Heindrik memorable to Alexander was the fact that of all the people he called on, only Heindrik had invited him into his home. Heindrik rejected Alexander's religious message—“He sent me home and told me to read Psalm 147”—but Alexander did not forget him.

As with Sister Alice, religion and church were the organizing motifs of Alexander's life. The same had been true of his parents. His father taught at a denominational school, and Alexander himself attended a sectarian elementary school and gymnasium. Daily Bible readings, church attendance, rituals, and activities with co-religionists shaped his routine life. Not a very social type, Alexander regarded his religious community as a major source of meaningful associations and beliefs. For Alexander, as for his parents, that community was the Reformed Church (Gereformeerde Kerken). Not to be confused with the dominant Dutch Reformed Church, the Reformed Church was an orthodox, conservative Calvinist minority denomination.

(p.23) Unlike the French Catholic hierarchy, the leaders of the Reformed Church in Holland had protested anti-Jewish measures early. As historian Lawrence Baron points out, the synod of the Reformed Church had taken strong anti-Nazi positions even before the war, and lodged official protests with the Reich commissioner as soon as exclusionary measures against Jews were taken in 1940. They condemned antisemitism and had pastors read from their pulpits an ecumenical denunciation of the deportations of Jews when they began in 1942. But religious officials were not united about the appropriate strategy to deal with their tyrannical occupiers: some advocated rapprochement, urging negotiation rather than repudiation and defiance. Notably, although they constituted only 9 percent of the Dutch population, members of the Reformed Church accounted for an estimated 25 percent of rescued Jews in Holland.6

Based on an analysis of their transcripts in the Altruistic Personality Project data base, Baron concluded that this religious community's immersion in the Hebrew and Christian Testaments evoked a strong feeling of religious kinship with Jews. While they harbored many conventional social, economic, and religiously based prejudices toward Jews, they also regarded them as “God's special people”; having made a covenant with them, God would keep his word. “These beliefs,” says Baron, “predominated over contradictory economic resentments and theological prejudices against Jews.”7 Once the war started, strong anti-German sentiments, coupled with an ethical obligation to help the needy, reinforced their readiness to act. Their religious, social, and political insularity facilitated covert rescue activities; like Alice, they could depend on a strong network of co-religionists who were unlikely to betray them even if they did not actively help.

Alexander represents many of the characteristics Baron notes. He had heard and read about Jewish persecution in Germany before the invasion of his country but not without anti-Jewish prejudices, or perhaps more inclined to credit fellow-Protestants, he tended to trust Germans and dismissed the accounts as “exaggerated.” His view was not changed even when Jewish refugees with whom he had business dealings told him about their personal experiences. But once the Germans invaded Holland, he regarded them as enemies not only of his country but also of his religion: “children of Satan,” he called them.

Alexander does not say he heard the ecumenical letter that the pastors read; most likely he did. More immediate was the influence and help of his minister. He knew his minister was hiding Jews and consulted with him often on the matter. Asked why he helped, Alexander answered: “Through my upbringing I was sure I could trust God. And just when we had heard about their problems, we read that passage in the Bible.” Strongly grounded in the Jewish and (p.24) Christian Bible, which his family read daily to seek guidance, and already disposed toward some type of action, he and his wife interpreted the reading from Isaiah about helping the needy as applying to them.

The fact that Alice and Alexander became rescuers only when aroused by their religious leaders gives apparent credence to the hypothesis that if the church had taken a clear stand, the Holocaust might never have happened. Does this then mean that religious leadership was the determining agent, that is, that the very religious became rescuers only when supported by their leadership? If that were the case, why then did others belonging to the same community, subject to similar messages and ostensibly sharing a similar degree of religious passion, do nothing? Religious leadership had a strong influence, but other factors also mattered.

The Very Religious and the Less Religious

In this section, I describe some of the characteristics of very religious culture generally, highlighting those attributes that significantly distinguish them from the less religious. In the following section, I compare very religious rescuers with equally religious nonrescuers. The five summary factors (Mastery Orientation, External/Internal; Sharing; Primary Relationships; Secondary Relationships; and Outgroup Relationships), and particularly their associated measures, serve as the organizing framework for these comparisons, although not necessarily in the above order.

How do very religious Christians, rescuers and nonrescuers, compare with those who were less religious? Our data suggest that they share several cultural characteristics that distinguish them from the less religious, some of which suggest a tendency toward altruism and are sometimes alleged to be particularly “Christian.”

Christian culture allegedly minimizes materialistic concerns while encouraging adherents to place their own needs second to the needs of others. Alice and Alexander manifested such attributes, and there appears to be a measure of truth to this assertion in a more general way. Part of the evidence emerges from comparisons among religiosity groups with respect to External and Internal Mastery measures, particularly as they related to their associated measures of economic competence and willingness to stand up for their beliefs.

Economic competence, parental focus on matters relating to work and money, ranked significantly lower among the very religious generally as compared with the somewhat religious generally, a distinction that also marked very religious rescuers as compared with somewhat religious rescuers. While achievement and industriousness mattered, the very religious, as compared (p.25) with the somewhat religious, often regarded asserting their convictions as more important. Asked if they had ever done anything before the war to stand up for their beliefs, the very religious were significantly more likely than the somewhat religious to say they had. It was a quality they shared with the irreligious (see Appendix B, Table 2bV).

As in the case of Alice and Alexander, internal convictions, rather than economic considerations, often motivated the very religious to act before the war, even when such behaviors meant taking up unpopular causes. When they were asked what kinds of beliefs they defended, their answers included political and personal issues, but religious themes constituted more than a third (35 percent) of their claimed assertive postures before the war.

Religious themes included doctrine: “I fought for my faith, against infant baptism and for abstinence from alcohol,” said a Dutch Reformed Protestant woman rescuer, while a German male nonrescuer joined the Bekennenden Kirche because they held religious views “opposed to the mainstream.” In fact, their religious beliefs sometimes cost them valued relationships. Unwilling to convert, for example, a French Catholic woman nonrescuer rejected marriage to both a Jew and a Protestant. A Dutch couple became estranged from close relatives: “I lost family members because my wife and I had different religious ideas from them. We were not dogmatic, but we were critical of them.” Merely identifying themselves publicly as members of a particular religious community sometimes had negative consequences. “In 1936,” said a French respondent, “I was a member of Juniors for Christ. The math teacher at the school was a member of the Communist Party. Because I was wearing my group pin, I was unjustly punished but I spoke out for my rights.” A Lutheran man experienced something similar in the dominantly Calvinist school he had attended: “The Calvinist teacher was putting Lutherans down. So I raised my hand and said, ‘I'm a Lutheran.’ As a consequence my grades went down.”

The fact that a relatively high percentage of the very religious were willing to assert their beliefs publicly, even when such positions might mean social rejection or worse, suggests something about the quality of this group. Unwilling to be as accommodating or as flexible as their more moderate co-religionists, they were often regarded as eccentric, even somewhat “deviant” by comparison.8 Nourished and sustained by their co-religionists in a way that is often lacking in the larger society, and persuaded of the virtue of their behaviors, the very religious can be a formidable acting force.

Asserting one's beliefs can be construed as a means for expressing distinctiveness and difference from others, a matter of choosing one's own goals rather than those of others. But it may have consequences that transcend individual purpose: bringing the needs and interests of the religious group to (p.26) the attention of the larger society can enhance the welfare of the group. More intentionally and clearly related to altruism is the quality we call “Sharing.” Rather than seeking differentiation or distinction, a Sharing culture is more inclined toward joining with others and committing resources for others' welfare. Christian religious culture has a strong Sharing predisposition, a proposition that our data also tend to support.

The very religious scored significantly higher than either the somewhat religious or irreligious on the summary Sharing factor. They evidenced their strong Sharing propensities in several of the associated Sharing measures. More than the somewhat religious, they valued involvement with rather than detachment from others, a difference that also distinguished very religious rescuers from somewhat religious rescuers. Conjoined with this was their sense of social responsibility, which was significantly stronger than that of the somewhat religious and the irreligious. This, coupled with the fact that significantly more of them, as compared with the irreligious, perceived themselves as persons of integrity who possessed a strong sense of empathy for those in distress (a prosocial action orientation), enhanced their Sharing propensities. Even very religious nonrescuers, as compared with other nonrescuers, evidenced a somewhat similar pattern, scoring significantly higher than somewhat religious nonrescuers on empathy measures, and significantly higher than irreligious nonrescuers on prosocial inclinations and personal integrity (see Table 2bIV).9

Sharing attitudes and values have been significantly and repeatedly associated with altruism.10 But herein lies an apparent paradox. Given their strong Sharing impulses, consistency suggests that the very religious in particular might support what Barnea and Schwartz call “economic egalitarianism.” Economic egalitarianism supports income redistribution based on equity, equality, and need.11 But as with their current North American counterparts, the party affiliations of the very religious tended to reflect a rejection or limited acceptance of government-administered economic egalitarianism in favor of pro-capitalistic views (see Table 2aI).

Very few of the very religious or their parents belonged to leftist parties (12 percent and 13 percent, respectively); none were Communists but a few were Socialists.12 A somewhat larger group, 19 percent, belonged to the economic right: parties advocating general noninterference by government in economic matters relating to private enterprise and free trade, and rejection of social welfare measures. The majority belonged to political parties that took a middle position, endorsing capitalist enterprise but also supporting social welfare policies to varying degrees (67 percent and 58 percent, respectively). In short, the economic politics of respondents, their parents, and their spouses as reflected (p.27) in their political affiliations was basically centrist with an inclination toward the right.13

Yet in economic matters, as in many other matters, religious institutions played a dominant role. The political groups to which many of the very religious respondents or their parents belonged were associated with or directly linked to their churches. The economic policies the very religious endorsed by virtue of their political affiliations thus appeared often to converge with the interests of their religious denominational institutions.14

A striking aspect of very religious culture is the degree to which participants felt integrated into the social institutions of their society—religious, political, national, and family—that largely shared overlapping values, many of them reflecting their religious orientations. On the one hand, this strengthened their assertive capacities; on the other it tended to insulate them from outsiders, that is, from neighbors who were unlike them. To illustrate these points, we begin first with family relationships and values (Primary Relationships), go on to values learned from and relationships with religious institutions as well as involvements with and sentiments toward politics and country (Secondary Relationships), and conclude with attitudes toward outsiders (Outgroup Relationships).

Family is where many value orientations are forged, and very religious families are no exception. The very religious were significantly more likely than the mildly religious and/or irreligious to describe their family relationships as close and to speak about their parents and families generally in warm terms (see Table 2bIII).15 Solid positive family relationships are often linked to altruism by virtue of their propensity to encourage trust in others and model the value of care.

Very religious respondents were significantly more likely than others to have very religious parents, and they reported hearing about religion often in their homes. Parents, far more than church or religious leaders, appeared to influence their attitudes toward religion, doing so explicitly as well as implicitly.16

While parents were more successful in imparting the value of religion to their children, neither parents nor religious leaders appeared often to link religion explicitly with caring for others. Asked what they learned from their parents, more than a fourth of respondents (28 percent) identified some aspect of religion. Some said parents taught them to pray or encouraged them to study the Bible, to respect the church, or simply to be a good Christian. Parents sometimes emphasized having a special relationship to God: “to love the Lord,” “to trust and serve Him,” and “to have faith.” Faith, their children learned, was a source of comfort; knowing they had chosen the “right” path provided them with a reliable guide for living and a comforting contract. If (p.28) they did what God wanted, He would reward them. All the same, they needed to be careful: the rest of the world might judge matters by external appearances. But as one respondent learned from her father: “People see things on the outside but the Lord sees the inside. That is the same way you have to live. People must see that you are not only clean on the outside but also the inside.”

Religion instructors taught much the same things. Approximately a third of respondents (31 percent) said they focused on items similar to those of parents: religious ritual, Bible studies, and/or appropriate attitudes to the Church and God (e.g., “I learned Catholic rules and to obey these rules,” “Church dogma and prayers,” “to believe in Christ”). As with their parents, love and trust in God was sometimes expressed as a comforting contract—God would not abandon you if you obeyed Him. Failure to believe, in contrast, could mean damnation. “You had to love God the Lord and believe that Christ died for us, was buried and survived for us,” said a Protestant woman, “and pleads for us sinners with our Lord. That way we'll be saved.” Some 20 percent of respondents simply said that they heard the same things from their religion teachers as they did from their parents.

While family and church values largely converged, the influence of church teachers during children's developing years appeared to be relatively weaker. It was simply indistinct for approximately a third: around 10 percent said they learned nothing from these teachers, another 20 percent couldn't recall anything concrete. A few recalled negative experiences. One man objected to the shallow quality of what he was taught: “They demanded too much conformity to outward forms … prayer, reading, ritual; I found it false and wearisome.” Another objected to the fear his religious teachers imposed: “Teachers sometimes tried to teach religion through fear rather than joy. I had very strict religious teachers but they were not very good psychologists; they mainly spread fear while teaching the Catholic faith.” A Protestant man had a similar recollection: “They always said you are not sure if you will be saved. You have to pray every day and night. They make you feel guilty.” Sometimes teachers could be cruel. An experience with nuns in Mexico, where his parents had sent him for a short period as a young boy, had a devastating effect on one Dane: “They put you in a dark room with a frosted white glass with a light behind it. Nuns would create shadows. There was a red velvet altar and a crucifix. You were supposed to kneel down and pray for your sins.” He overcame this trauma, however, when he returned to Denmark and to more kindly instructors. Some learned to distinguish between Church and what they regarded as authentic Christian values: “I learned to respect Christ but had bad luck with priests,” said one respondent. Unwilling to make such a distinction, a German rescuer decided she had had enough and left the Church entirely when her minister appeared one day wearing a swastika.

(p.29) For many more, however, religious instruction was simply neutral. And sometimes it was deeply favorable. Only a few said they learned to be caring and compassionate and to serve others, some even claiming that such obligations extended not only to the faith community but to all of humankind. Yet regardless of the quality of their experiences with religious leaders—whether indistinct, negative, or profoundly positive—the very religious remained strongly attached to their faith communities, identifying with them strongly (see Table 2aII). They suppressed what they might not have liked, preferring on the whole to concentrate on the positive, and when necessary, they made a sharp distinction between religion and religious leadership.

Parents, generally regarded as more effective than religion teachers, also rarely linked religion explicitly with caring for others. Asked how parents taught them religious values, respondents often replied that parents modeled religious behavior rather than giving explicit instructions. “My mother was a saint,” said a French woman. “On the first of January she didn't want to wish us a happy New Year before she went to church. She climbed a big mountain by foot, a basilica, to say happy New Year to God. Then she came down and wished us the same.” Some parents linked Christianity with joy: “My mother influenced us with her cheerful Christianity,” said one respondent, while another said of his very religious mother, “She showed me how to enjoy life. She loved her own little garden and geese, she loved nature.” Cheerfulness and playfulness helped, but laxity with respect to religious observance was not necessarily required. “My father was very strict and we had to obey him,” said one respondent, “but he played with us too; he really helped instill my religious beliefs.” And sometimes, admiration came later, as people matured. As one person put it, “My father was a very devotedly religious person. As I child I didn't get along with him because he was very strict. But my father influenced us greatly without us knowing it with his very genuine religion. He was not hypocritical. He was enormously strict for himself and enormously liberal towards other people.” It took many years for another respondent to understand the nature of her father's belief: “I learned to have profound admiration for something I could not name or completely understand,” she said. “It was not until much later that I realized that my father was a rather mystical person and I had such admiration for him because of that.”

Many very religious respondents learned from their parents not only to respect religion, but also that politics often was a means for implementing family and church values. They were far more likely than the somewhat religious to affiliate politically (see Table 2aII), and the political groups to which many of the very religious belonged were directly or indirectly linked to their churches. Politics, after all, was often simply an extension of family and church, made up largely of overlapping interests, attitudes, and values.

(p.30) What is perhaps surprising is the strong patriotism of the very religious, significantly stronger than the mildly religious and the irreligious even in their youth (see Table 2aII). Many people became more patriotic during the war, either because they suffered the tyranny of the German occupation or because the condition of war demanded taking sides: to choose anything less than total allegiance to one's country risked being branded a traitor. On a deeper level, when the fate of each individual matters little, people are more likely to affirm their kinship ties if only as a way of experiencing some sense of meaning in the brutalities and deaths that are war's constant companions.17 In times of terror, observes social psychologist Janusz Reykowski, individuation decreases and identification increases.18 But in times of peace, allegiance to country suggests a competing and potentially rival authority to religion; yet the very religious by and large saw no dissonance between religious and political loyalties. God, church and country were part of a seamless web of overlapping interests and intermeshing loyalties, requiring no conflicting choices but rather harmonious compatibility.

Of course, the churches they represented were most often favored national churches, well protected by government; affirming one meant also affirming the other. Minority religious groups—such as Catholics in Germany or in Holland, or Protestants in France or Poland—often exaggerated their patriotic fervor in order to protect their more vulnerable status. On another level, patriotism and religion serve similar functions, thus perhaps appealing to similar groups. Like religion, patriotism can allay anxiety and provide emotional and social support, impart a sense of truth and righteousness, and reassure people they live in an ordered and meaningful universe under legitimated power arrangements. By becoming part of a greater collectivity, one that has greater endurance and importance than any single person, individuals can feel enhanced, almost immortal. Losing oneself in the group can thus be experienced as gaining oneself; a phenomenon that tyrants have exploited to great advantage. And just as religion can justify all kinds of atrocities by invoking God, so can patriotism by invoking love of country. But like religion, it can also elicit high levels of selfless behavior on behalf of the group.

Yet implied in the notions of religiosity and patriotism is the idea that selfless behavior may be confined to the ingroup alone while those outside are viewed as distant at best or even objects of hostility. The very existence of outgroups can be construed as a challenge to the group, observes Reykowski, requiring its members to overpower them.19 But as he and others have suggested, patriotism does not necessarily mean nationalism. Patriotism of the kind Ervin Staub calls “constructive” concentrates on love for country that includes critical consciousness and loyalty; nationalism, which he calls “blind (p.31) patriotism,” seeks national domination over others and is strongly associated with bigotry.20 Their attitudes toward outgroups suggests that the very religious, as compared with the moderately religious, inclined somewhat more to the love of country type of patriotism rather than the blind nationalistic variety. Evidence of this is the nature of their political party affiliations and those of their parents and/or spouse. Although the very religious were not inclined toward promoting equality toward outsiders, the political parties with which they affiliated generally favored forbearance and tolerance (see Table 2aI). Yet while largely centrist in their views, endorsing democracy and reasonably accepting of outsiders, they did not regard Jews as central to their concerns: at best, they were simply peripheral.

Strongly integrated into their own groups, the very religious tended to be somewhat more insulated than the less religious and less likely to interact with or be interested in Jews. As compared with all other groups, they were least likely to meet them at school, a matter not entirely surprising since they tended to attend sectarian schools. And along with the somewhat religious, they reported having learned about Nazi intentions toward the Jews later than did the irreligious. Such distance even appeared to characterize very religious rescuers as compared with other rescuers. Very religious rescuers were also significantly least likely to attend school with Jews as compared with all other rescuers, learned about Nazi intentions toward Jews later than did irreligious rescuers, and were less likely to have Jewish friends or even acquaintances as compared with mildly religious rescuers (see Table 2aI). As a consequence, they may well have been more likely than other groups to regard Jews as an abstraction—attitudes toward them learned more from their parents and churches than from personal contacts.

What they learned was likely to cover a broad spectrum: at one end churches often taught a virulent antisemitism and at the other end and, more rarely, a particular philo-Semitism. Religious groups who taught the latter, observes Christian ethicist David Gushee, felt a sense of kinship with Jews based on their veneration for the Hebrew Bible.21

Interest in and respect for the Hebrew Bible clearly influenced Alexander's church; it also influenced the father of a French rescuer. “My father was very liberal,” she said, “and this was unusual in Poitiers, which was mostly anti-semitic. I think my father was interested in Jewish people because he was interested in the Bible and the Psalms.” But interest in and respect for the Bible did not necessarily spare even philo-Semites from conversion efforts, as Alexander demonstrated.22 Nor did it necessarily mean particular interest in their present fate—which helps explain why the very religious tended to learn about Nazi intentions later than others. Finally, it did not inure them to conventional (p.32) prejudices, for even as the Bible might provide them with a positive lens through which to view Jews, it could also provoke strong anti-Jewish sentiments.23

How prejudiced were the very religious? To be sure, many did express particularistic and exclusivist attitudes: their own religion, they believed, was uniquely true and superior to others. “God's word” meant for them not only exclusion of non-Christian beliefs, but exclusive loyalty to a particular denomination and its official beliefs. As some respondents put it, what they learned from their church leaders was “loyalty to the Church,” “that Catholicism was the only right way,” “to serve the true God,” “to learn Catholic rules and to obey them,” “Christian morality” and “to be concerned that people follow the Christian moral laws.” Particularism of this sort tends to be accompanied by antipathy toward outsiders, a finding reported by sociologists Charles Glock and Rodney Stark more than forty years ago.24 In fact, most studies done before 1960 in the United States echoed a similar theme: a positive linear relationship existed between religiosity and prejudice. The greater the level of religiosity, the greater the level of bigotry, concluded many researchers.25 This link was strongly associated with specific forms of prejudice, especially against Jews and African Americans.26

Faced with all this evidence, as well as mounting indications of Christian culpability in the Holocaust, some Christian theologians and historians began to explore the degree to which Christian beliefs contribute to antisemitism. They found strong anti-Jewish sentiment in the Gospels, in Christian theology, and in a long and checkered history of Christian leadership that had at different times and places endorsed and promoted it.27 One of the earliest Christian investigators of this genre was Malcolm Hay, who concluded that Christian “pride, arrogance and hate” among some of the most learned and pious over centuries prepared the world for the Holocaust, a charge subsequently supported by others as well.28

Less interested in theological bases for prejudice, social scientists approached the matter of religiosity and prejudice differently. As methodology became more sophisticated, social scientists began to question earlier studies, concentrating particularly on the measures they used to assess religiosity. Church membership was a frequently used measure, a standard that some social scientists found not entirely satisfactory since it can imply conformity rather than authentic commitment. When they added church attendance to membership, a curious finding emerged. Church members continued to evidence more prejudice than did nonmembers, but those who attended church most frequently and were most active were less prejudiced than other church members. Rather than a linear relationship, this implied a curvilinear relationship (p.33) between religion and prejudice; that is, the very religious and least religious were less prejudiced as compared with those in the middle, the most prejudiced group. The irreligious continued to remain the least prejudiced.29

A curvilinear relationship between religiosity and prejudice characterizes the present study as well, but only among nonrescuers. Very religious rescuers were like all other rescuers in that they did not differ significantly on stereotypic thinking. But among nonrescuers, very religious and irreligious nonrescuers, as compared with somewhat religious nonrescuers, were significantly less oriented toward stereotypic thinking and negative stereotypes in particular. Consistent with the curvilinear finding noted above, somewhat religious nonrescuers scored significantly higher than all other groups on these attitudes (see Table 2aI and Chapter 4 for more on this point).

But with respect to economic and general policy concerns, the welfare of the church and that of ingroup members generally came first. At best, outsiders were marginal. Thus it is not entirely surprising that religious officials all too often supported the principle of discrimination against Jews, even as they may have simultaneously urged “charity.” A clearly articulated example of priorities of care was a letter J. M. Étienne Dupy wrote to all the heads of the religious houses in his order in Toulouse in 1941 following a series of publicly distributed anti-Jewish edicts:

While accepting the legitimacy of the measures taken, we have the charitable duty to help out with the individual suffering that results. The common good of the nation comes before that of the Jews alone, and a baptized Jew, son of the Church, before him who is not, and spiritual goods before temporal goods…. The Jews, according to an often well-deserved reputation, require us to exercise extreme prudence.30

Those who read this message may well have interpreted it as historian Yaffa Eliach believed the parishioners in Eishyshok, Lithuania, did when following the massacre of some five thousand Jews over the two preceding days, they heard what their priest said on September 28, 1941:

While the freshly covered graves were still moving and spouting blood, the parishioners listened to their priest explain to them that the Jews had at last been called to account for the killing of Christ. The priest himself had not advocated killing them; nor did he approve of the looting of Jewish homes. In fact, at least one account says that he asked anyone in the congregation wearing stolen Jewish clothes to leave (though no one did). But he seemed to feel that the murder was understandable. Even if it was wrong, a kind of justice had been done.31

Rescuers obviously regarded the matter differently.

(p.34) Very Religious Rescuers and Very Religious Nonrescuers

The above discussion presents cultural pulls among the very religious as a whole. But how did very religious rescuers differ from very religious nonrescuers? As with Alice and Alexander, one of the important differences between them may have been the posture of their religious leaders.32 But was there more, something that a predisposed some to hear the benevolent message if religious leaders delivered it while others hearing the same message remained unmoved? Our data confirm the importance of religious leadership, but they also point to the weight of other contributing factors that in some circumstances allowed rescuers to respond to positive leadership, and even to act despite the silence or even hostility of their religious leaders. There were no significant differences between very religious rescuers and nonrescuers on Mastery measures: Internal or External (see Table 2bV). With one exception, very religious rescuers and nonrescuers similarly endorsed several Sharing values, but rescuers more often emphasized “care” (see Table 2bIV). Rescuers reported learning the value of care from their parents, who expressed it both abstractly and practically—a way of talking and behaving.

Rescuers used caring language frequently to describe the most important things they learned from their parents. Words like “love,” “generosity,” “hospitality,” “humaneness,” and “helping others” appear significantly more often among very religious rescuers as compared with equally religious nonrescuers. Many times, parents conveyed caring sentiments with great intensity and expansiveness (e.g., “always be helpful,” “help others with pleasure,” “love everything that lives”) and without attention to reciprocity (e.g., “make sacrifices for others and don't expect anything in return”). Helping the poor and the disadvantaged was a particular focus for some, expressed by the father of one rescuer as “paying a lot of attention for all that is oppressed in life.” For others it was a keen sense of empathy and egalitarianism: “Be aware of what it feels like to be a worker in a factory and never look down on anybody,” cautioned the affluent father of one rescuer. Not content with language that might suggest limited boundaries, the parents of several rescuers made caring sentiments pointedly inclusive: “to have strong feelings for the family and for humankind”; “all people are equal—all are children of God.” A similar sentiment was expressed by an Italian rescuer who reported learning it from his church: “I learned to devote myself to my fellow men and to moral ideals. This led to my attitude toward the Jewish question; devotion to ideals included Jews.” Most persuasive was caring action: being hospitable, sharing food, taking care of the sick. For one French rescuer's father, “liberality” and “open-mindedness” meant extending unsolicited help to outsiders.

(p.35) There were Italian bricklayers at the building sites, many of them poor refugees. My father knew how to speak Italian and he would stop and talk with them. He would ask them if they needed something and say: “Here is my address and my phone number if you need anything.” We had lots of these people coming to my home asking for something, and my father helped. After he became an official translator, he helped people who wanted to become naturalized French citizens by filling out their applications free.

Behaviors of this sort and words of such generosity, conviction, and inclusiveness occurred significantly less frequently among very religious nonrescuers as they recalled what they had learned from their parents. Significantly more often, nonrescuers associated Christianity with equity values learned from their religious teachers (see Table 2bIV). Being fair, honest, truthful, and respectful toward elders was far more often the focus of what they remembered. Among very religious nonrescuers, Christian behavior was more frequently confined to what one woman expressed as “the essence of spirituality”: prayer, faith, love of God, study of Bible, sexual abstinence, avoidance of alcohol, and observance of religious ritual. Political inaction, social minimalism outside the arena of family and religious community, and restricted boundaries of moral obligation were quite compatible with this view of a religious life.33

In this bounded Christian community context, outsiders who were not disliked were often largely irrelevant. Very religious nonrescuers, as compared with their rescuer counterparts, felt far less similar to either Jews or Gypsies, and their parents, they said, spoke about them less often (see Table 2aI). And some very religious nonrescuers who claimed their parents had not spoken to them about Jews could not suppress strongly negative feelings or complete indifference that often surfaced in other contexts. The daughter of a devout French Royalist and staunchly feminist mother, for example, who said she heard nothing at home about Jews, claimed in another context to have learned “not to care for Jews” and not to associate with them. “Matters of antisemitism were of no concern to me,” said a Polish respondent, “I had no feeling about the segregation of Jewish students at the university but I did get upset when fights erupted because of it.” One of the harshest judgments was rendered by a French woman who took considerable pride in “helping sick and poor people” at St. Vincent de Paul (a volunteer Catholic organization servicing the needy) but who said of her former Jewish co-workers: “I thought they were aggressive, that they were nervy, and they were dirty too.” All these very religious respondents had claimed parental silence on the matter of Jews, perhaps suggesting suppressed memories, or that silence can communicate as much as words, and that silence alone was not sufficient to counter the temper of the times.

(p.36) By way of contrast, Jews were very relevant to rescuers' parents, who spoke about them more often than any other group. Apparently, their comments were of such a nature that very religious rescuers, as compared with very religious nonrescuers, grew up feeling significantly more similar to both Gypsies and Jews (see Table 2aI).

When economic interests were served by excluding Jews, anti-Jewish sentiments posed less conflict with nonrescuers' sense of religiosity; very religious nonrescuers more often accommodated the authoritarian right. Accommodation not only converged with anti-left positions, but also protected economic privilege. Jacques, a young French male bystander, is a good example.


In 1942, Jacques, twenty-four years old and newly married, was living in Paris with his in-laws. Born to a wealthy Catholic family, his parents-in-law were equally financially comfortable. Except for a brief period in the military service, he appeared untouched by the war: he lived well, had a good job, and enjoyed his family. Insulated before the war, Jacques was equally so during the war. It was an insulation he shared with many others of similar class and religious style. Here's how he describes the war years:

I was in the military between 1939 to 1940. Then I was a student at engineering school at the Ponts et Chaussées from 1940 to 1942. Then I became an engineer, working at public highways and bridges, building roads at Nevers. I was also involved in building the channel there. Afterwards, I worked in the Department of the Seine, in the division of motor fuel and public transportation. My wife was home, busy raising the children.

Religion, family and patriotism—characteristic motifs among the very religious generally—dominated Jacques' life, and their influence began early. He attended a Catholic elementary school, and while going to a nonsectarian lyceum he lived at a Catholic college. After graduating from the university with a degree in engineering in 1939, he married a Catholic student, and together they lived with her affluent Catholic parents until 1942, when he moved to his new job. Although not politically affiliated himself (significantly fewer very religious nonrescuers were), he was nonetheless influenced by a religious and political culture primarily concerned with its own privilege. His father-in-law, he said, “very much favored” the rightist French Action group—a royalist, economically conservative, politically autocratic party, exclusionary with respect to minorities and Jews. A somewhat introverted young man—his major interests were mountain climbing and classical music—he had a few close friends, all of them Catholics from the same social class.

(p.37) From his mother, with whom he felt especially close, Jacques learned “religion and the importance of family life.” From his more distant father, he learned “love of country and work well done, honor and integrity.” He described himself as a fervent patriot. Of all wartime figures, he admired Marshal Henri Pétain most because of his “patriotism” and “nationalism.” But this sentiment did not require any particular action during the war. He joined no resistance group, and neither did any member of his family. In fact, he did nothing that caused him or his family any mistreatment by the Germans. Like Pétain himself, all that was required was cooperation with the German occupiers.

Yet Jacques' religious leaders had impressed him with what he calls the “leading characteristics of Catholicism,” namely “respect for life and love of neighbor.” He took this injunction very seriously, but the perimeters were very narrow. Appropriate sexual behavior was critical: he tried to dissuade his friends from frequenting what he tactfully described as “certain kinds of facilities having to do with entertainment and women.” More important was his work on behalf of St. Vincent de Paul, where he “visited the poor and gave them sustenance.”

“Neighbor,” however, did not include Jews or any other outsiders. Both parents, he acknowledged, reflected “the prevailing sentiments of those times”; they “mistrusted Jews and Free Masons.” Separated from much of life outside his particular interests and social reference group, he had no awareness of antisemitism in his country. Some Jews had lived in his neighborhood and attended the same schools; he even had two “distant” Jewish cousins. “But I did not really know them,” he said, “because I lived in different surroundings.” It might well be described as “a different world,” as real a cultural ghetto—a ghetto of perception and mind—as one surrounded by impenetrable physical walls.

Inhabitants of the cultural ghetto in which Jacques lived saw little of what was happening around them; if they saw it, they did not perceive it as relevant to them. Jacques was in Paris in 1942, the place and year of the notorious roundups that galvanized Monsignor Saliège and Sister Alice into action. Yet he knew nothing about these events: he had never witnessed or heard about mistreatment of Jews or anybody else, he said, nor had anyone asked him for help, for that matter. Yet at some level, Jacques was aware and even empathic. Asked about the time he learned about Nazi intentions toward Jews, he said “1942 or early 1943.” And he had seen Jews wearing the yellow star, a requirement he considered a “hostile” act, “unjust, and very much against human dignity.” So accustomed had he become to this sight that he could not retrieve this memory of mistreatment until specifically asked whether he had seen Jews wearing the star.

(p.38) Would Jacques then have behaved differently had his church leaders encouraged it? Perhaps. That religious influence might have modified his views about Jews, however, is suggested by his changed attitudes after the war. In 1985, the year we interviewed him, he was serving as a representative to the Dominicanled French Biblical Archaeological School in Jerusalem, and he visited Jerusalem twice yearly in order to study there. Encouraged by the work of Notre Dame de Lyon, with whom he was associated in Paris, he had become very much interested in the relations between Christians and Jews and participated in the creation of the Christian Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He had made Jewish friends in Jerusalem, visiting them regularly, and interacted more with Jews at his workplace. All of this, he says, had “eliminated the unfavorable feelings of my former education.” While “favorable feelings” might not have been enough to promote rescue, they might have removed the comfort of indifference.


Jacques does not mention the attitude of his church; whatever it may have been, it apparently did not challenge his views. The church played a more obvious and critical role in the decision of a German nonrescuer, whom we call Jürgen. In fact, Jürgen was a minister in this church, known as the Beken-nenden Kirche in German and the Confessing Church in English, and although a very benevolent man and not at all indifferent to the fate of the Jews, he did nothing on their behalf. He did take considerable risks on behalf of converted Jews (“non-Aryan Christians”) however. Jürgen's story begins in the early thirties, shortly before Hitler's accession to power:

I was a parish minister in Weisswasser/Oberlausitz in 1932, and led the brotherhood of the Bekennenden Kirche in my area. I was already in the Minister's Relief Association and after that, along with my wife, I was part of a special church group that opposed the regular mainstream church. There I had friends who were non-Aryan Christians.

One of the risks I took before the war was to use forbidden words in the pulpit: words for which others were arrested. The special police came to search my house 30 times, but I was never arrested. In 1934, after appropriate instruction, I baptized Mrs. S.; surprisingly, I suffered no ill consequences as a result. In early 1936 I came in contact with the non-Aryan minister D. D., who had then been removed from office by the church leadership in Breslau on the basis of the Nuremberg laws. He was then living with his wife who was born in Denmark and because of this fact his residence was not destroyed but he was taken into custody at the concentration camp at Oranienburg. After a (p.39) few weeks he was released and he and his wife were frequent guests at our parsonage. Before he emigrated—we helped him to emigrate—he appeared in my pulpit.

Between 1940 and 1943 I was involved in organizing hiding places for non-Aryan Christians. Several parsonages were involved and people stayed for only a few weeks, concealed as visitors. Mrs. B., for example, stayed at our house for a few weeks without food ration stamps, posing as a seamstress. In the middle of 1943, I was inducted into the military and my wife remained alone with our five children and her old parents in our parsonage.

All the people I helped were baptized Jews.

Asked the reason he helped, Jürgen replied with some surprise: “The reasons are obvious: turning to those who suffer, are in pain, tortured—direct reaching out to humans.” Why then did he limit his help to converted Jews only? Given that Jews who had not converted had suffered at least as much and more, why did he not “reach out” to them as well? It was not a lack of sympathy: he felt “very saddened,” he said, when he saw them wearing the yellow star, and felt “nothing but disgust” when the Nazis rose to power. Unlike many of the very religious, Jürgen knew what was happening and knew it very early. “As a student in 1929,” he said, “I was already aware of what the Nazis intended to do to Jews. We knew we did not belong to those who claimed not to know. A minister gave a lecture then trying to convince us that St. Paul was antisemitic. It all became clear to us.” He also had firsthand reports from members of his own family: “Our eldest son experienced mistreatment of Jews at the railroad several times—he was very disturbed. Our other son also saw transports of Jews.” Yet this astute and humane man not only remained passive in the face of their travails, but did not even consider helping them. How could this occur?

What Jürgen did or did not do was entirely congruent with the policies of the Confessing Church of which he was a leading member. Enveloped as he was within the culture of his group, he accepted its values as axiomatic and could not even envision an alternative response. And in some limited respects, the policies of his church were quite bold given the context of the times.

By 1934, the Nazi regime had already succeeded in subordinating and controlling the administration of most churches in Germany. Some twenty-eight provincial churches had complied readily with this effort, becoming part of the mainstream “German Christians” whose bishops wholeheartedly supported the Nazi state.34 A Protestant minority, however, dissented and some two thousand of this group met on April 22, 1934, to consider an alternative Church governance structure. The Confessing Church emerged from this event.

(p.40) What did the Church oppose? Administrative control was an essential matter. Rather than accepting the new state central administration, the Confessing Church appointed their own Reich Council of Brethren, most of whose members had already been involved in the Pastors' Emergency League.35 But much more than administration was at stake. Unlike the dominant group of Lutheran officials, the German Christians, who argued that Nazi ideology was as sacred as Scripture, the Confessional Church insisted on the absolute supremacy of Scripture and their right to control religious education and the Christian future. Only the Church, they insisted, had the right and the duty to preserve the integrity of the Gospel, and the state could not abrogate it. Holding the Church to its “Christian mission,” and repudiating what it called “false doctrine,” the Confessing Church leadership rejected the idea that the State could become the “single and totalitarian order of human life.”

The Prussian Confessional synod went even further. After the passage of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which defined Jews as a race, they boldly rejected the view that “race, blood or Volk” could determine church membership, thus reaffirming their traditional right to baptize Jews on the basis of belief. The “forbidden words” that Jürgen read from his pulpit probably refers to the “Word to the Parishes,” which the Prussian Confessing synod sent to its ministers in March 1935 and which essentially enunciated these principles. The synod asked that it be read from the ministers' pulpits, and some seven hundred Prussian pastors who complied were arrested (Jürgen was not one of them) but subsequently released because of parishioners' protests.36

The Confessing Church was not ready to yield total authority to the State, but their protest had little to do with political issues. The Church accepted the government's responsibility for political education, said nothing with respect to concentration camps, and raised no objections to discriminatory civil measures against Jews, arguing instead that they were needed to correct past “injustices.”37 Neither Church clergy nor laity professed objection to Hitler throughout the war, some of them believing until the end that a compromise between Church and State was possible. So totally divorced were they from any political stand, observes historian John Weiss, that even Pastor Niemöller—jailed by Hitler in the 1930s for opposing the Nazi takeover of the Church and famed after the war for his eloquent articulation of moral failure toward outsiders—voted for Hitler in 1933, welcomed uniformed SA members (storm troopers) in his church, and preached with swastikas decorating the altar while the congregation gave the Nazi salute.38

The Confessing Church did nothing official for Jews, but their stand on behalf of converts encouraged some ministers, including Jürgen, to intervene actively but clandestinely on their behalf. Yet such interventions had their (p.41) limitations. Although they did not contest the claims of those already converted by 1934, many officials voiced difficulty with Jews newly seeking Christian status. So as to assure others that they were acting out of Christian integrity and scrupulous adherence to doctrine, rather than mere concern with saving Jewish lives, ministers sometimes raised their standards for conversion to be sure of the “sincerity” of those seeking escape in this manner. Jürgen, for example, did convert a Jewish woman in the mid-1930s, “surprisingly without consequences” as he observes, but was careful to note that he did so only after “appropriate instruction.”

Jürgen was willing to court considerable risks on behalf of his religious principles. Asked how much risk he thought he was putting on members of his family for helping converts, he replied “extreme.” But he had limited boundaries. Not inclusive enough to include those outside the church, they were in fact the boundaries set by the Confessional Church itself. That sense of limited responsibility was compellingly captured when he explained why he refused a Jewish woman who asked him for help:

We did have to refuse help to Mrs. L. (a nonbaptized Jew) when she asked us to be taken in. We were simply not set up to help non-Aryan Christians. With every new person we accepted, the whole was threatened. Jews were not accepted: the risk was too great. The danger to my family, my wife and children, would have been disproportionately great. It took us hours to figure out what to say to her.

Troubled by the forthcoming rejection, the family agonized over a way to explain it to Mrs. L. It is indeed difficult to explain. Since he had acknowledged to us that the risk to his family in helping converted Jews was “extreme,” it was not obviously clear how the risk in helping Jews was any greater. But of course whereas he had the support of his church network (the “we” to which he refers above) concerning converted Jews, the family could not count on his group to support them in helping Jews. Totally submerged in his church, Jürgen apparently never thought to criticize or even to question this policy. A sincerely committed Christian, his stance demonstrates that it is possible to be a true adherent to Christian faith without necessarily concluding that it requires helping persecuted outgroup members. It all depends on the substantive doctrines one decides are critical and of the highest priority.


Sometimes, however, individuals were able to transcend the limits of their religious leadership. Erich was one of them. Eight years older than Jürgen, he (p.42) too was a pastor, married and helped several baptized Jews. Like Jürgen, he too was a member of the Confessing Church.

In 1941, I helped a half-Jewish schoolmate immigrate to Canada. I also supported his Jewish mother who stayed behind. Through various connections with retired officers, I helped her find shelter in several estates in the country. I did the same thing with other original Jews who by that time had been baptized and were members of the Confessing Church. I also procured falsified papers, sheltered them for up to three weeks at a time (it would have been too dangerous any longer especially during bombing attacks when everybody had to go down in the cellar and if they looked like Jews) and then found other places for them to stay, gave them falsified foodstamps, and lied to the Gestapo.

I was severely injured at the front and came to a hospital in Berlin in 1941.I had a good relationship with the chief physician (who had divorced his Jewish wife and sent her to the United States, and re-united with her after the war was over), who gave me lots of “recovery” vacation that allowed me to go home. He was promoted to Corporal with the help of a Communist general. I got an official job with the Army in Potsdam distributing already signed papers to people who got bombed out. I took the chance to declare many Jews as bombed out; they were then free of all hassles since the Army had issued their papers.

The categories invented by the Reich created a linguistic jungle from which many who lived in Germany during that time have not yet escaped. Erich sometimes used the word “half-Jews” to mean having one Jewish parent or to refer to assimilated Jews as they might have been in his schooldays, and sometimes to mean baptized Jews. It is clear, however, that he did not restrict his help to baptized Jews only, including among others his schoolmate's Jewish mother.

Erich's reference to his half-Jewish schoolmate suggests a strong personal relationship with an outsider. And the pointedly positive context in which he refers to a “Communist,” unusual among the very religious, suggests a broader political acceptance than was common among this group. Both these themes—close and broad friendships, as well as a broader political stance—occur repeatedly through his life, beginning with his parents.

Erich had attended a nonsectarian elementary school, gymnasium, and university, where he studied journalism and German and finally theology. A very social person, he had many close friends. Even in his youth, they included those of lower economic status (his own family was wealthy) as well as Jews. He had close Jewish friends before the war, even when such contacts became very dangerous, and he helped several of his Jewish schoolmates, including (p.43) four families with children, as well as some Jewish strangers. Asked why he became involved initially in these activities, he responded, “I wanted to follow up on the fate of my Jewish schoolmates.” This type of concern for school friends, especially Jewish friends, suggests a strong capacity for enduring emotional attachments.

Erich's capacity to form such personal relationships with Jews appears to be largely attributable to his mother. Religion was as important to Erich as to Jürgen, and he credits his mother, also a Confessing Church member, with teaching him about its importance. What Erich also learned from her was the special status Judaism had within her Christian view: “Christianity,” she told him, “is the sister religion of Judaism.” A “sister” implies not only an intimate connection, but also equal status. Equally important, he also learned from her that “social commitment” is part of a religious view of life. Social commitment implies action rather than withdrawal from the world.

His “not very religious” and very strict father, with whom he did not feel very close, extended this broader point of view into the political arena. Like most of the very religious, his father belonged to a middle-class moderate political party, the German People's Party (economically centrist, democratic, and tolerant of minorities and Jews). Yet he was very sympathetic to those less privileged, making Erich keenly aware of the life of the ordinary worker. Strongly anti-Hitler, his father refused to join the Nazi Party (Die National-sozialistische Partei Deutschland, often referred to by the acronym NSDAP) and was forced to retire early from his lucrative position.

Religious leaders who influenced Erich most promoted similar ideas. One of them, a Confessing Church parson with political tendencies similar to those of his father, led a youth group to which he belonged. He learned from him not only to value the Bible but also “to assess the political situation.” From other religious leaders, he acquired a theological view of the world and “ecumenical thinking.” Ecumenical thinking contributed to his admiration for the Bün-dische Jugend—in this case a socialist youth group that he describes as advocating “world citizenship.” Strongly rejecting the nationalistic sentiments that prevailed in Germany at the time of the war, he lacked even a sense of the conventional patriotism that marked many of the very religious; in fact, he described himself as “not at all” patriotic.

All this left Erich feeling very much like an “outsider”; different “politically, socially and in religious beliefs.” Already provocatively active before the war, making speeches and helping foreign workers, he provoked the wrath of his neighbors who reported him to the authorities. He wound up in a German court, forced to defend himself. Angered by colleagues from abroad, who painted rosy pictures of Hitler's Germany in 1937, he made them listen to his (p.44) reports of persecution and concentration camps. It also made him strongly judgmental about the role of the Confessing Church and churches generally during the war:

There were concentration camps, persecution of Christians and Jews, and for Christians, an unbearable opinion among Nazis with respect to race questions. The official church had been led astray by accepting the idea that Judaism is not a question of religion but of race only. They still supported baptized Jews, but that was it. It was apparent that this question of Judaism would be the crucial test for the church—neither the official nor the Confessing Church passed the test. The only question left for the individual was if he wanted to play the role of the benevolent Samaritan. That was the role I chose.

Very religious nonrescuers rarely mention religious leaders, but religious officials helping Jews appear often in the accounts of very religious rescuers, either as rescuers themselves or as indirect facilitators. In their different ways—through words and/or actions—these leaders made clear what the members of their congregations were obligated to do.

The advantage of a committed religious leadership was not only moral but also practical. Religious leaders could galvanize already existing natural helping networks into subversive trustworthy ones. Like Alice, the initiators of rescue activities in Catholic orders were often individuals in the order; like Alice, they were particularly responsive to children. A single person could mobilize the group, and even if all could not be counted on to help in equal measure, colleagues were unlikely to betray them. Male and female Catholic orders often played this role in countries throughout Europe (in Poland, for example, says historian Eva Kurek-Lesik, 189 Polish convents sheltered Jewish children and managed to save as many as 1,200).39 But natural religious networks also existed outside the cloistered walls of Catholic religious orders. The Reformed Church to which Alexander belonged was one of several such,40 but Le Chambon is probably the best-known example.41 Prompted by their leadership, local churches sometimes also engaged in collective rescue. A Protestant pastor, for example, living in a Catholic community in Rodez, says he received help from his entire parish of fifty families who, between 1942 and August 1944, helped forge or steal identification papers for Jewish victims and found hiding places for them.42

Sometimes religious officials initiated help as a consequence of a superior's request, as did Alice, and sometimes they acted independently. Sometimes they responded to requests from the victims themselves or from other Jews acting on their behalf, or from religious representatives of other denominations. The brothers in one teaching Catholic order, for example, responded to an entreaty (p.45) from a Jewish representative to take some children, while a Polish nun said she began hiding Jewish children as a result of a plea from an irreligious formerly Catholic couple. While approval from their superiors might be sought before or after the deed, subordinates would often be content if they simply refrained from disapproval. At the request of a fellow priest in a different town, a Polish priest kept a very gifted Jewish adolescent between November 1942 through the summer of 1943, presenting him publicly as his cousin. Although he had helped several other Jews for short periods without seeking permission from his religious superior, in this case he sought it. “You are old enough to make up your own mind,” the prior told him. He interpreted the response as tacit approval. Tacit approval was also conveyed in other cases where a known minister, priest, nun, or other religious official was rumored to be helping Jews, supplying baptismal certificates, or even hiding Jews. In such cases, respected religious officials modeled appropriate behavior even if they did not actively recruit help themselves.

While the encouragement of religious leadership was neither sufficient nor necessarily essential for rescue to occur, it often made the critical difference. A hostile religious leadership legitimized discrimination and persecution; an indifferent or unconcerned religious leadership had the same effect. A moral and courageous Church leader, on the other hand, could inspire others to follow. Those who had learned values conducive to outgroup altruism from families and Church figures could hear the message and respond; sometimes they could also lead.


(1) . Under the terms of the Armistice that the French signed after their defeat in June 1940, the Germans were to occupy northern France while southern France was to be governed by a French administration. Named after the town of Vichy in which it had its seat, the southern sector Vichy government under head of state Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain was ostensibly neutral. In fact, it actually cooperated with Germany, enacting anti-Jewish legislation on its own as well as rounding up and deporting Jews.

(2) . Marrus and Paxton (1981, pp. 166–167, 271). For more details on the nightmarish conditions, see Zucotti (1993).

(3) . Marrus and Paxton (1981) write that Church officials generally did not renew their protests when massive roundups resumed in February 1943 (p. 278).

(4) . Marrus and Paxton (1981) call it “the clearest voice yet heard in France on the persecution of Jews” (p. 271).

(5) . The Ausweiss were identification papers that all inhabitants were required to have and present on demand. Intended to discriminate among individuals and groups and to weed out all types of “undesirables,” they included complex and detailed personal information, including their religion, ethnicity, and nationality. Jacob's family apparently felt that the Ausweiss they had managed to get assured them permanent safety; Alexander's wife correctly understood that it did not.

(6) . Baron (1988).

(7) . Baron (1995b).

(8) . After completing a cross-cultural political analysis more than forty years ago, sociologist Seymour Lipset (1960) concluded that the personality characteristics of the two extremes, dogmatic fundamentalists and political radicals, were similar in many respects.

(9) . A study by James A. Christenson (1976) suggests a similar conclusion about the very religious. Restricted to North Carolina and dominantly Protestant subjects, Christenson's study concluded that “stronger adherence to religious values has a consistently positive relation with social compassion issues” (p. 37). Based on their synthesis of several studies, social psychologists Schroeder, Penner, Dovidio, and Piliavin (1995) conclude not only that most religious denominations teach prosocial values and norms, but also that religion is very influential in encouraging prosocial action.

(10) . Batson (1991, 1993); Davis (1994); Eisenberg and Fabes (1990); Hoffman (1990); Oliner and Oliner (1988). For a summary of the relationship between sharing measures and altruistic behavior, see Schroeder, Penner, Dovidio, and Piliavin (1995).

(11) . As Barnea and Schwartz (1998) define it more formally, “The egalitarian position bases a rejection of the hierarchical organization of society and the differential distribution of resources on the principles of equality and need. It emphasizes equality among individuals, the well-being of all, and cooperation and mutual responsibility” (p. 22).

(12) . None identified themselves as Communists, but four were Polish Socialists.

(13) . Parties were ranked on four variables: economic orientation, political structure, policies concerning minorities generally, and policies concerning Jews specifically.

(14) . Representative examples of this tendency include the Anti-Revolutionary Party and Christian Historical Union in the Netherlands, Zentrum (Center) Party in Germany, Catholic Action in France, Italian Popular Party in Italy, Christian Democratic Party in Poland, and Slovak Democratic Party in Czechoslovakia. Reluctance to depend on government for income redistribution does not necessarily exclude private giving, however. In the United States, for example, religious commitment tends to be accompanied by a philosophy of minimal government intervention in resource distribution: the Christian religious right traditionally supports lower taxes and less social welfare. But recent U.S. data collected by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby and analyzed by Michael Levine (Levine, 1998) support the notion that among religious Christians personal giving is inversely related to support of government expansiveness—that is, the less supportive they are of government welfare programs, the more generous they are personally. A good deal of such personal generosity in the United States is directed to religious organizations. Statistics from the 1992 United States Bureau of the Census (Independent Sector) led Schroeder, Penner, Dovidio, and Piliavin (1995) to conclude that “In the United States, the most likely recipient of charitable contributions is a religious organization” (p. 236). It seems plausible that like their current American counterparts, very religious respondents (p.230) were quite ready to share their resources, but like them, too, they preferred to depend on their religious denominations to distribute them appropriately.

(15) . Several studies suggest that family life is particularly important to the religious (Maton and Wells (1995); McAdoo and Crawford (1991); Stinnett (1979).

(16) . Similarly, a number of other studies suggest that the most powerful predictor of children's religiosity is their parents' religious involvement (D. Erickson (1964), Lenski (1953), Newcomb and Svehla (1937), Putney and Middleton (1961), Stark (1963), Weigert and Thomas (1972). Although parents strongly influence children's religious choice and religiosity, they do not necessarily determine it.

(17) . Greenberg and Pyszczynski (1990) believe that religiosity and patriotism stem from a similar psychological need to allay the anxiety that attends the human condition—what they call the “management of terror.” For more on this point see Mizruchi (1998).

(18) . Reykowski (1997).

(19) . Reykowski (1997, p. 125).

(20) . Staub (1997). Staub's conception is very similar to that advanced by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1950) who identified two types of patriotism: “genuine” and “pseudo.”

(21) . Gushee (1994, p. 186) proposes that “one place many people learned to hate Jews was in church.” But, he observes, “philo-Semitism” was also evident among several religious communities, including the Reformed Church of Holland (Alexander's community), French Protestants, Ukrainian and Lithuanian Baptists, Hungarian Methodists, and German Plymouth Brethren.

(22) . One Reformed Church member in our sample explained it this way: “You get Bible history. That starts with the Jews. They were for us God's chosen people. That is the way I was brought up. My father talked about that. At the same time, I knew that part of our mission was to convert Jews.”

(23) . Gushee (1994) notes that Christian rescuers frequently called upon such sources. Featured prominently among them are the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), the Sermon on the Mount, the duty to love of God and neighbor (Matt. 22:34–40), “The Great Judgment” (Matt. 25:31–46), the Golden Rule (Matt: 7:12), and the Cain and Abel story in Genesis (4:8–10), “My brother's Keeper” (Gen 4:8–10). The Isaiah passage that Alexander's family read the night they made their decision was another in the same motif.

(24) . Glock and Stark (1966).

(25) . Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1950); Allport and Kramer (1946); Pettigrew (1959).

(26) . See review by Gorsuch and Aleshire (1974).

(27) . Jewish scholars have written extensively on this topic over many centuries. Among the outstanding Christian leaders of current efforts to purge antisemitism from Christian theology and to forge new and deep bonds of brotherhood with Jews are Franklin Littell (emeritus professor of religion at Temple University and co-founder of the Annual Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches), Hubert G. Locke (co-founder of the Annual Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches), John K. Roth (Edward J. Sexton Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College), Carol Rittner (Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies at Richard Stockton University), Elizabeth (p.231) Maxwell, and Harry James Cargas (the first Catholic appointed to the international advisory board of Yad Vashem, formerly professor of literature and language at Webster University and editor of more than thirty books, most of them on the Holocaust, now deceased). All have published extensively on the Holocaust (see the Bibliography for some of their publications) and together with others too numerous to mention, have exerted extraordinary energy toward making the study of antisemitism a high priority among Christians.

(28) . Hay (1951), Flannery (1965), Foerster (1962).

(29) . Eisinga, Felling, and Peters (1990); Friedrichs (1959); Hoge and Carroll (1973); Other studies using different measures of religiosity have also tended to support this relationship, among them Struening (1963) and Wilson (1973). Twenty of the twenty-five studies Gorsuch and Aleshire reviewed in 1974 supported a curvilinear relationship. For a more recent review, see Wulff (1997).

(30) . Marrus and Paxton (1981, p. 199).

(31) . Eliach (1998, p. 594).

(32) . As Nechama Tec (1986) summarizes it, when its posture was less than uniform, a frequent condition, “conventional religion was flexible,” and could lead to either destruction or help.

(33) . It also appears to be consistent with Rokeach's study (1969) done more than forty years ago. Religious subjects, he suggested, often tended to be preoccupied with their own personal salvation and relatively indifferent to issues of social inequality and justice (p.11).

(34) . Conway (1968, pp. 81–82).

(35) . The Pastors' Emergency League was formed in 1933, when Niemöller, then pastor of Berlin's Dahlem Church, alarmed by the State's escalating distortion of Scripture, invited pastors to join him to protest new legislation.

(36) . Baranowski (1986); Conway (1968).

(37) . Baranowski (1986); Conway (1968); Weiss (1996).

(38) . Weiss (1996, p. 226). Baranowski (1986) writes that the Confessing Church was dominated by a conservative elitist group, whose sentiments were similar to that of the “great mass of Germans who agreed with quotas and other measures of exclusion even as they objected to anti-Semitic violence. Legal restrictions were seen, accordingly, not as persecution producing victims as were the action of party militants, but as remedies of injustice” (p. 85). Jürgen's father apparently reflected similar views: “Father was not exactly antisemitic,” he said, but he saw himself as a “civil servant in contrast to merchants. Jews are humans too but they play too prominent a part in the country's economy. My father was National Liberal, but in education he personified the Prussian civil servant.”

(39) . Kurek-Lesik (1997). For more on the role of Polish Catholic orders, see Bogner (1999) and Zielinski (1987).

(40) . After analyzing our sample, Baron (1995) reports that over 60 percent of rescuers in this group reported being originally approached for help by pastors and other church officials, or by close friends and relatives. Almost 80 percent said their family members were also involved in sheltering Jews.

(41) . Hallie (1979).

(42) . For a succinct historical summary of rescue in thirteen European countries, see Paldiel (1993).