The Face of the Other

Reflections on the Motivations of Gentile Rescuers of Jews
  • Mordecai Paldiel


The deeds and behaviour of those we term Righteous Among the Nations, that is of non-Jewish Holocaust rescuers of Jews honoured by Yad Vashem, have undergone a certain scrutiny in recent years from both sociological and psychological perspectives. Three of the most important studies in this field are those of Nechama Tec, Samuel and Pearl Oliner, and Eva Fogelman. While each of these suggests different explanations for the uniqueness of the actions of the Righteous, they concur in locating the formative nexus of the behaviour of the Righteous in the childhood years. In this paper, I submit that the exceptional response of the rescuers to the plight of the Jews is perhaps predicated on the presence of a deeper and more primal predisposition, perhaps rooted in our genes, which causes some of us to respond instrinctively and instantaneously when placed before a situation that is so upsetting to our senses as to constitute a traumatic experience. This is especially the case when the potential rescuer is witness to a situation in which the principle of the right to life is called into question, as it was for Jews on the European continent during the Nazi reign of terror. Hence, altruistic responses under ordinary circumstances should not be compared with similar responses in times of chaotic upheavals brought about by massive onslaughts on the ethical values governing civilized life. Here, one is led to seek explanations of human responses that lie hidden in the subconscious strata of our minds, and which may provide answers to the two extremes of behaviour witnessed during the Holocaust -that of the perpetrators and that of the rescuers; in this paper, the rescuers.


Jewish Woman Rescue Operation Hiding Place Jewish Child Death Camp 
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  1. 1.
    Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984);Google Scholar
  2. Samuel Oliner and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality (New York: Free Press, 1988);Google Scholar
  3. Eva Fogelman, Conscience and Courage (New York: Doubleday, 1994).Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    For more by Levinas, see Emmanuel Levinas, Total and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969); also: Alterity and Transcendence (London: Athlone; New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) and Ze’ev Levy, ‘The Concept of “the Other” in Levinas’ Ethics’, Daat 30 (1993): 21–40 [Hebrew]; Elisabeth Goldwyn and Yoram Verta, ‘Toward the Other: Emmanuel Levinas’, Shadmot 10 (1999) [Hebrew]. In interpreting Levinas’ philosophy, Mensch advances the interesting observation that it is God that the Holocaust rescuer confronts in the face to face meeting. The God that cannot be represented, the God that transcends the natural world, appears in the form of the Jew who knocks on the door. God’s being, as totally other-worldly, can only appear as a lack of worldly content (such as poverty and persecution). Such worldly privation is God’s manifestation — in the guise of the abandoned, the unfortunate, and the wretched. It is the God who appears as an appeal, and a call to respond. This God was present during the Holocaust; ‘he appeared each time the Jew knocked on the door.’ However, only a precious few, the rescuers, recognized this. Mensch, ‘Rescue and the Face to Face, page 10. Compare with Pastor John Cazalis’ christological perception of his help to Jews in France — the Jew in the form of the Crucified. ‘In everyone of them, whoever he was, it was the Christ who came toward us, in the form of the rejected one, the condemned and crucified. In loving them, it is His love that we received. When they invaded our homes and lives…, it was His mercy and joy that came into play… On each occasion as well, we knew afterwards that He had blessed us’ — Georges Casalis.Google Scholar
  5. in Emile C. Fabre (ed.), Les Clandestins de Dieu (Paris: Fayard, 1968); pp.203–204.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Primo Levi, If this is a Man (London: Orion, 1959); pp.127–8.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

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  • Mordecai Paldiel

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