What makes a hero? It takes all kinds

What do you think of when you hear the word “hero”? A comic book superhero might come to mind. Or a mythical figure like Ulysses or Robin Hood. Military leaders often are remembered as heroes, as are spies — so long as they’re on our side.

By most definitions, a hero is someone who saves others at great risk to him or herself.

There are quieter kinds of heroes, too, people who see a wrong that needs to be righted and take action. That was the kind of heroism explored last week at a daylong commemoration of Yom HaShoah and the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the JCC of San Francisco.

“What drives the actions of ordinary people?” asked William Meinecke, historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., which will open an exhibit on the topic April 30.

Speaking on a panel titled “It’s Not My Problem, Why Get Involved?” he noted, “As humans we are all susceptible to turning a blind eye to the suffering of others.”

Can the heroic impulse be predicted? Meinecke says no. “There’s no reliable indicator as to how people will react” in times of war or terror.

Phil Zimbardo disagreed. Psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, Zimbardo is president of the San Francisco–based Heroic Imagination Project, which, according to its website, aims to “prepare individuals to act heroically in everyday circumstances.”

Wow. That’s some goal.

According to Zimbardo’s research, certain folks are more predisposed to act heroically. “They are more likely to live in urban areas, and tend to be more educated” than the general population, he said. And here’s a surprising piece of data — Zimbardo says people who have put in more than 60 hours of volunteer work are more likely to act heroically. “You’re aware of those in need,” he postulated.

When Zimbardo founded the project a few years ago, he says there was “very little” research on heroism within the social sciences. One of the few people conducting such research was sociologist Sam Oliner from Cal State Humboldt, who also spoke on the JCC panel about his work examining why some people stand up in the face of evil while others do not.

A Holocaust survivor himself (he was 12 when he was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto), Oliner headed a research team that compared a group of Righteous Gentiles recognized by Yad Vashem with a group of bystanders and a group of rescued survivors, to collect data on what distinguished each from the other.

“Some people say altruism doesn’t exist,” Oliner said. “I maintain the opposite.” He differentiates between altruism, “voluntarily helping someone who needs it and not expecting a reward,” and heroism, “when you risk your life.” The latter, he said, is illustrated by those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

We watched a video clip about Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police officer assigned to a border crossing when Jewish refugees were pouring in from Nazi-occupied Austria. The government ordered him to stop letting them in, but he continued to do so, saving 2,000 to 4,000 by backdating their documents.

Because of that, Grüninger lost his job and never worked again. In a 1971 interview, he said he’d do it all over, even knowing the consequences. “My conscience told me I could not send them back,” he said.

That’s really what it’s about. One thing these wartime heroes shared was the strength to follow their own moral compass rather than obeying unjust authority.

That is the Holocaust’s lesson for today: How do we motivate people on the sidelines to step forward and take action against injustice? How do we rouse ourselves to righteous action?

“Where are we today, when it comes to Syria, to Africa?” challenged Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, who was moderating the panel. Why, he asked, aren’t there more Irena Sendlers, a Polish Catholic who smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto? Why aren’t there more Mr. and Mrs. Krauses, the Philadelphia couple who brought 50 Jewish children to safe haven in the United States?

There are more. Many more. We just don’t hear about them enough.

Today, on this 70th anniversary of the start of the final uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, let us remember the heroism of those who fought and those who died — as well as the righteous action of all the heroes, celebrated and unsung, who helped them.


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].