Rescuers had strong role models, scholar tells parents

What drove some European Christians to save Jews from the Nazis, while the vast majority did nothing?

Did the rescuers share some common trait that enabled them to recognize and do the right thing?

The Rev. Doug Huneke, who has written extensively about Nazi-era altruism, thinks so. He shared his thoughts recently with parents at Mill Valley Middle School in a lecture-discussion titled "Doing the Right Thing."

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, also addressed the Jan. 25 meeting, which was geared toward helping parents to recognize and convey moral values to their children. The program was sponsored by the South Marin PTA Council.

"Ninety-eight percent of rescuers," said Huneke, "had articulately moral parental role models, who spoke of and acted on family values in the presence of the child who later became a rescuer, and expected the same of that child."

A community activist and civil rights advocate, Huneke is senior pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, as well as a lecturer and adjunct faculty member at San Francisco Theological Seminary. A scholar on the topic of altruism in the Nazi era, he is the author of two books: "The Stones Will Cry Out: Pastoral Reflections of the Shoah" and "The Moses of Rovno," which recounts the story of the late Fritz Graebe, a German who helped save more than 3,000 Jews from the death camps.

Pointing out that the "overwhelming majority of Eastern Europeans did not have a good ethic of doing the right thing," Huneke spoke to nearly 400 rescuers and rescuees, and believes he has discovered several things that those who risked their lives to save Jews share in common.

Emphasizing the importance of parental example, he cited the story of Graebe. When Graebe witnessed a mobile killing unit in the process of murdering the entire Jewish population of a village, he heard the voice of his deceased mother asking him, as she frequently had during his childhood, "Fritz, what will you do?" That voice reminded him that he had to do the right thing.

Another common attribute of the rescuers was that they tended to be adventuresome — "risk-takers who tended to push the margin," Huneke said. They also "generally perceived themselves as being slightly marginal — free-thinkers, doing what they thought was right regardless of what other might say or think."

Huneke found 13 common factors in the rescuers, which he said can be boiled down to the ability to judge each situation and each person's needs, as well as a deep sense of hospitality.

Addressing parent-teen issues, Wolf-Prusan, who is the director of family life education at Emanu-El, said parents need to "understand that they don't understand their teen, realize that's OK, and never give up trying."

A teen youth adviser for 25 years, Wolf-Prusan said, "Most kids know what doing the right thing is, even if they don't do it. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is a way of finding the right thing. But parents need to offer unconditional first aid — letting the child know 'if you burn yourself, you can still come home.'"

According to the Talmud, Wolf-Prusan added, "Silence means consent," and "we can't expect our children to take high moral stands if they don't see anyone around them do it."

Putting ethical dilemmas into contemporary terms, organizers of the event produced a handout for parents that included the following scenario: Your child has been walking to school every day with the boy next door. The two are not close friends. Your child comes home one day and tells you he doesn't want to walk to school with the child anymore because the neighbor is unpopular at school and your child is being teased for being seen walking with a "geek." How should a parent respond?

While the risks are not as high as those faced by the Nazi-era rescuers, parents discussed the long-term consequences to handling such moral dilemmas.

The decision to hold a yearlong series of parent education workshops and lectures came in response to last year's high school shootings in Littleton, Colo., according to Mary Steiner, vice president of the South Marin PTA Council. "We felt it was important to address some of the issues that came up — [including] knowing things and not telling."

The event was moderated by Sandy Schindler-Lamden and also organized by Joyce Kleiner, coordinator of parent education for the PTA Council, along with Judy Katsin, the council's president.

Discussing the enthusiastic response, Kleiner said parents are clearly serious about "creating a more peaceful community environment."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.