Lessons in Moral Behavior: A Few Heroes

By Cohen, Stewart | Childhood Education, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Lessons in Moral Behavior: A Few Heroes


Cohen, Stewart, Childhood Education


The advent of Kristallnacht, in 1938, began an era in which Europe turned inward, not to emerge until the final destruction of Nazi Germany in 1945. With a savagery and disregard for its culture, its citizens and its honored traditions, Europe waged war upon itself and the world. One emblematic facet of this self-destruction was the Holocaust, a systematic form of "ethnic cleansing" that, while not new in the annals of human history, was pursued with such rigor as to become a benchmark for measuring human atrocity.

Most historical accounts of this madness focus, most properly, on the victims and the perpetrators. Recent studies (Tec, 1986; Oliner & Oliner, 1988) and essays (Block & Drucker, 1992), however, examine a third category of participants: the rescuers. A few ordinary citizens displayed extraordinary courage, will and force of conviction during this tragic era. Disregarding great personal risk, housewives, barbers, farmers, lawyers and diverse others refused to turn their backs on their friends and neighbors and became, as a consequence, heroes of conscience. The lives of a few such heroes serve as shining lessons in moral courage.

The Quest for Heroes

It is hard to spot real heroes. They usually do not have multimillion-dollar sneaker endorsements, wear the most stylish clothes or even espouse the varied and sundry popular causes. As a matter of fact, real heroes rarely have a lot to say. And they are often hard to find in a crowd. Therefore, we need to seek them out and listen to them closely. They have a unique wisdom, and some extraordinary stories, to share with us.

In contemporary society, we long for heroes; occasionally the desire becomes an obsession. Perhaps the hunger to admire and to emulate is the rub, because we transform these needs into adoration and worship. Furthermore, we all too often confuse the substance of heroism with other less enduring standards, such as those displayed by our ubiquitous "role models." We fail to seek out true heroes in favor of the fashionable people who adorn magazines, sports arenas and the electronic media.

The lesson for childhood is clear. Children need real heroes, people who have something to say, who possess principles and, most of all, who display values that will serve for a lifetime (Katz, 1977). Heroes are enduring and substantive; they are neither faddish nor fleeting. As Aire Van Mansum, a modest Dutch rescuer of Holocaust victims, states of his role as a rescuer,

I wouldn't say I had courage. If you'd have asked me before |the war~ if I could have done it, I'd have said, "Oh, no, not me!" But if the moment's there and there's somebody in need, you go help, that's all. (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 32)

The behavior of many Holocaust rescuers is characterized by substance rather than style, reality rather than illusion. This attribute affects their views of life, as well as their relationships with others. Bert Bochove explains his time of moral courage:

You know, I like having a lot of people around to take care of. The war was terrible, but in some ways it was the best time of my life. There were always so many people around, and I got such satisfaction from helping out, from keeping people safe and comfortable. (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 46)

When Bochove died on August 13, 1991, his family chose a plain pine casket over the more elaborate velvet-lined ones. They describe their efforts to purchase a modest casket:

The man there said, "But you don't want that. Those are Jewish ones." Then we saw the pine box and that's what we chose. At the cemetery, when the casket was lowered a little, we saw that there was a Jewish star on top. And we thought, "That's just the way it should be." (Block & Drucker, 1992, p. 47)

Some Antecedents of Heroism

It would be easier to recognize heroes if we understood the essential forerunners of heroic behavior, if moral courage were a constant, identifiable attribute of all rescuers. …

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