Nechama Tec is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, Stamford. She was born in Lublin, Poland and survived the holocaust as a Jew with the help of Polish rescuers.

In 1986 Oxford University Press published Tec’s study of Holocaust rescuers and survivors, When Light Pierced The Darkness.

Through personal interviews and study of an extensive literature, Tec set out to discover what might have inclined Polish rescuers to help Jews to live openly in Polish society disguised as Christian or to hide among the Polish people. Was it socio-economic class, political affiliation or belief, degree of antisemitism, friendship, extent of religious commitment, or prospects of monetary reward that inclined a tiny minority of Poles to risk their lives by helping protect Jews from the Nazis?

Because so many rescuers were not overtly religious, it seems unlikely that religious values can account for rescue. Firsthand impressions regarding motivation support this initial conclusion. Only 40 percent of the survivors believed that their helpers were prompted by religious consideration. By contrast, recall that the overwhelming majority (81 percent) felt that the Christians were helping them because they were moved by Jewish suffering. The reports offered by the Polish rescuers are even more conclusive: only 27 percent attributed their help to Jew to religious convictions. In sharp contrast, 95 percent of rescuers said they had acted out of compassion for Jewish suffering. Religious motivation thus appears to be less significant than the feelings of pity and compassion that were aroused by the Jewish persecution. (Tec, Nechama. When Light Pierced The Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland. NY: Oxford University Press, 1986, 145.)

This is a curious argument.

From the survivors’ viewpoint:

40% believed their helpers were motivated by “religious consideration”

8% believed their helpers were motivated by compassion for Jewish suffering

From the helpers’ viewpoint:

27% believed they were motivated by “religious consideration”

95% believed they were motivated by compassion for Jewish suffering

Therefore Tec concludes:

Religious motivation thus appears to be less significant than the feelings of pity and compassion that were aroused by the Jewish persecution.

It is a curious dichotomy, as if those who were “overtly religious” were not motivated by compassion. How is “compassion” not a “religious consideration” regardless of whether or not it is “overtly religious”?

This argument may serve to discount those who express religious conviction.But it is difficult to see how the human community is well-served by dividing people into categories, whatever those categories may be.

We need to see that the power of love is at work in a myriad of ways. Whether or not we choose to see the actions of love as a manifestation of a divine force at work in the world, does not substantially alter the beauty and power of anyone’s choice to live with compassion and courage in the face of the violence and terror that characterize so many human interactions.

Compassion and kindness are fundamental values shared in common by most belief systems and many people who subscribe to no obvious belief system. Rather than dividing people into those who appear to be motivated by a “religious consideration” and those who are profess to be motivated by “compassion,” we would be better served to affirm all acts of compassion wherever they may occur and to do all in our power to support kindness in whatever form it may appear.

 

 

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