Where there are no men, be thou a man. — Rabbi Hillel
Toward the end of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Timothy Snyder notes a small but important and surprising fact: some of the heroic people who saved Jews during the Hitlerian Holocaust, were anti-Semites.
Snyder notes that the Jews saved by "righteous gentiles" speak very little of the motivation of their saviors, and that the righteous gentiles speak of their motives just as little or less. They usually dismiss what they did as just behaving "normally," just doing what people do, or what any human being should do. These good people, of course, were not behaving normally, not in the statistical sense of "normal"; and in terms of cold-blooded economic theory of rational actors pursuing self-interest; they were not even behaving rationally.
In the midst of horrors, these righteous few maintained what George Orwell called by the modest term "decency"; they maintained Menschlichkeit (Yiddish, Mentshlekhkeyt): where indecently few people were acting like humane human beings, they remained human.
But not necessarily because they liked Jews, and in these our sentimental days, when we want people to like us, when attitude really counts — this is important.
Some of these quiet heroes saved Jews on patriotic grounds: If the Germans wanted the Poles to deliver up their Jews, to give the Germans the Jews in Poland for killing, a loyal Pole resisted, even if he or she would just as soon have Jews out of Poland, and in the 1930s had voted for political parties endorsing doing just that.
Some thought that murder is murder and that it was their Christian duty to resist murder, even the murder of Jews. For traditional Christian haters of Jews, Jews were people cursed as Christ-killers; but Jews were still people, not subhuman as Nazis saw Slavs (and Blacks), or, most relevantly, nonhumans, as orthodox Nazis saw Jews.
A fair number took very seriously Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan, and saw it as their Christian duty to help strangers in trouble. And some helped people they knew or a good-looking Jewish girl they had a crush on or adopted babies or children because they had lost their own or could use child labor on the farm.
And most Jews were not killed by professional murderers at Auschwitz or the other death camps, but were shot by more or less ordinary people, some of them very ordinary police officers, and a fair number more or less indifferent to "the Jewish Question." Anti-Semitism obviously had a role in the destruction of the Jews of Europe — including anti-Semitism in England and the United States — but one could not predict from the virulence of anti-Semitism in any given country just what percentage of its Jews would survive the war, how many would be murdered.
As hinted at in the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments and other work in social psychology, character and attitudes count, but not always in straightforward ways or for a whole lot: context is important, and "character" can be complex. One "moral" of Snyder's study in Black Earth is that people who are indifferent to people like you, or who even like your kind of folk might turn you in for extermination; people who dislike "your kind" might know and like you personally and might save you. Or people who don't particularly like you or your kind at all might save you for all sorts of reasons, including a cold sense of duty or decency.
When the world moves into barbarism, your friendly neighbor might betray you for a little extra food and your apartment; Sister Attila the Nun, that cold-hearted horror, might give her life to keep you alive.
People are strange, and in times and places "Where there are no men" — where normal human behavior is inhuman(e) — it is very difficult "be a man" in the sense of acting humanely. And those who do the right thing will do so for a mixture of reasons and some odd ones.
Those reasons may not include much of their personal likes and dislikes, and they may even overpower a generic but deep-seated hatred.
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