Why did some people become rescuers during the Holocaust? What makes some people, despite the risks, act to prevent moral wrongs? Is being a bystander morally wrong?

In this class we see the film The Courage to Care, involving profiles of individuals during the Third Reich who helped protect Jews in France, Holland and Poland. The film raises questions about what motivated rescuers to assist victims in Nazi-occupied Europe and the moral dilemmas non-Jews confronted when deciding to engage in rescue work.

Most of the people interviewed in the film note that the decision to help really wasn’t a well-considered decision, but a split-second choice to act. They “had to do it,” the rescuers say. We talked in this class about how many moral choices are made in a moment, and what you choose is really based on the kind of person you have been up until that point.

We discussed the people who didn’t help, the vast majority who were bystanders, and examined whether that behavior is wrong. When you see someone being bullied in the hallway, should you help? Do you balance the risk to you against what difference you might make? Many students commented that most of the rescuers seemed to be single people, without families and children whom they would have put at risk. It seemed to them to make a difference if you were just risking harm to yourself only, or if you taking a risk that could affect others as well.

We talked about courage and what it means. Did the rescuers have more courage than people who did not help? Several students made the point that the rescuers were people who were thrust into circumstances where they had the chance to help, whereas many others might not have been given so clear a choice. One of the men interviewed in the film describes moving all around Europe as a Jewish teenager, hiding from the Nazis, and all the people who helped him in small ways (giving him shelter for a night, pretending to know him when asked by police, etc.). Many such small acts likely remain unknown and unpublicized, yet lives were saved because of them.

Are most people bystanders? When students see bullying in the hallway, most do not do anything. Why? We discussed the complex reasons people are bystanders, and how some people become the kinds of people who are not. President Obama said recently, in the context of a Holocaust memorial, that “no one can make us bystanders without our consent.” If our moral choices to help are often made without time to think, it seems that we consent to become bystanders long before those choices are before us.

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