Panelists, survivors look at rescuers courage, values

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"Goodness can be manufactured," said Samuel Oliner, a professor of sociology at Humboldt State and a Holocaust survivor.

And those who were rescuers during World War II did so because they had strong moral examples at home.

During a panel discussion held Monday at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, Oliner, along with educator Jack Weinstein and the Rev. Louise Bastille, gave their opinions on why there were 300 million bystanders during the Holocaust and only a handful of rescuers.

The Yom HaShoah event, moderated by Anne Grenn Saldinger, director of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, attracted a crowd of about 100 people.

Titled, "Moral Courage and Altruism: Lessons Learned from Ordinary People," the discussion was part of a North Peninsula community Service of Remembrance that included teen workshops, a film and guest speaker Paul Schwarzbart, a hidden child of the Holocaust.

Saldinger asked the assembled crowd to consider "the value of moral education and to remember the points of light where people put themselves at risk to help humanity."

Oliner, author of several books on pro-social behavior, followed by citing his research results on what made rescuers different from bystanders.

"Rescuers were ordinary human beings," said Oliner, "not Mother Teresas or Gandhis. Also, both rescuers and bystanders were equally aware of the tragedy and both had opportunities to step forward."

The difference? "Moral role models" in their lives, who served as examples.

"Eighty-seven percent of rescuers cited humanitarian reasons why they rescued, with the biggest reason, larger than justice or fairness, being compassion," Oliner said.

This compassion, he added, was modeled at home.

"A major difference was found in how rescuers and bystanders were disciplined. "Bystanders were more likely to be spanked and verbally abused. Rescuers were disciplined with explanations and taught to reason."

The example of the rescuers offers an important lesson for the future. "We need to teach about the consequences of indifference, that by becoming bystanders, we become perpetrators," Oliner said.

Addressing those issues, Bastille, who is associate pastor at the Congregational Church of San Mateo, said, "I'd like to apologize for the Christians who didn't speak out."

She said that her father-in-law and uncle helped liberate the camps.

"They showed me photos of mass graves and I didn't want to look. But they said, 'You must look.' Truly, we mustn't forget," said Bastille.

Jack Weinstein, a local educator and regional director of a course titled Facing History and Ourselves, plays an active part in ensuring that the world doesn't forget. The course is taught nationwide to high school and middle school teachers, who in turn teach the lessons of the Holocaust to their students. The local office is in Fremont.

"In my role as educator," Weinstein said, "I get my students to re-member, to put things back together, which is different than remembering. This history demands something of all of us, that we help mend the world."

As part of this "re-membering," Weinstein asks his students to "hold up the stories of the rescuers as flashlights to illuminate their own paths."

The audience plied the panel members with questions.

Survivor Helen Farkas of Burlingame said: "We're in our late 70s and 80s. I'm concerned about the future. Who's going to carry on after we're gone?"

Weinstein was quick to answer.

"Two words," he said, "I am." Weinstein also was confident that the teachers he knew would help keep the survivors' memories alive.

Saldinger added that by taping the survivors, they are creating "the next best thing. They are creating a legacy."

David Aviel of San Mateo asked, "What role did religion play in the background of rescuers?"

"Yes, people were religious," replied Oliner, "but they were Christians with a capital 'C.' These people believed in universality, not in just showing up at church."

Some of the survivors present were able to "re-member" their own history and find their own points of light.

Marie Brandstetter of Burlingame, attending the discussion with her brother, Sam Zelver, was on the Exodus ship for one month, without being able to bathe or change her clothes. The ship tried to carry survivors from Europe to pre-state Israel.

It set sail from France in July 1947 with 4,500 refugees. Its goal was to make it past the British naval blockade. But in Haifa British soldiers sent the ship back to France and then to Germany. Britain's subsequent imprisonment of the refugees galvanized world opinion in favor of the Jews. Three months later the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.

"I would like to believe that I had this small part in helping Israel become a state," she said, her eyes misting.

Oliner, too, finds something positive in light of the tragedy. When asked by Alan Gilbert of Foster City, whether the Holocaust can ever happen here, he responded: "Because we have so many records of survivors, when we go, our children will be prepared. Also there is a sensitivity in this country to injustice."

After a pause, he added, "I don't feel as pessimistic as maybe I should."