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Moral elevation, Gariwo, and the importance of retelling stories of Righteousness

by Craig T. Palmer

Humans are storytellers. We not only tell stories about the past to influence the future behaviour of others, we often retell the stories we hear. Some of the stories told and retold for generations by humans everywhere are descriptions of sacrifice for the sake of others.1These stories of sacrifice for others have a special importance because they can have a very specific influence on those who hear them. For example, consider the following story set in a small village somewhere in Poland:

“. . . on a summer night in 1942 there was a gentle tap at the Rybaks’ hut.

There at the threshold, Jan saw a tired, disheveled man and a girl of eight or so. . . 

Jan learned that the father and daughter had run away during the Nazi liquidation of a ghetto.

Jan knew that there was a death sentence for harboring Jews,

. . . [and that] the same punishment applied to the family members of those who defied this law.

Yet he consented to the man’s request.

The two stayed with the Rybaks until the end of the war . . .”

I first encountered this story a few years ago when reading a book chapter written by Nechama Tec called “Helping Behavior and Rescue During the Holocaust”.2 I do not know how many times this story had been retold before it influenced me, but I do know that reading it gave me a certain physical sensation; a slight tightening of muscles in the chest and throat, accompanied by a moistening of the eyes. More significantly, I also had a desire that had not existed seconds before, a desire to do something for the benefit of others

Although this sensation was not given a specific name until Jonathan Haidt labeled it “moral elevation” in 2000,3 the ability of certain stories to evoke this specific response has been talked about for centuries. For example, Thomas Jefferson described it perfectly when, in a letter sent to a friend in 1771, he observed that “when any . . . act of charity . . . is presented either to our sight or imagination, we . . . feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable . . . acts also.”4 Research has also found that not only is one“ more likely to be a good Samaritan if one has just observed another individual performing a helpful act”,5 but that hearing a story about a good Samaritan can have the same effect.6 Moral elevation has also been found to occur in both children and adults, to be distinct from other emotions such as awe and admiration,7 to last in some cases for at least several months,8 and even to facilitate overcoming some forms of in-group-out-group prejudice and racism.9

The importance of moral elevation is powerfully demonstrated in interviews of the Righteous Among the Nations. Although this research has failed to find one trait or experience common to all of these individuals, many of them refer to the importance of someone who served as a model of sacrifice for others. In reference to her many interviews with Holocaust rescuers regarding what led them to their acts of altruism, Fogelman writes: “I began after a while to wait for the recital of . . . an altruistic parent or beloved caretaker who served as a role model for altruistic behaviour . . .”10, 11, 12, 13

The literature on the Righteous Among the Nations also demonstrates the importance of the tendency of humans to retell stories. This is because not only is it true that “Moral exemplars are influenced by other moral exemplars’ deeds”,14 new moral exemplars may come into existence by hearing stories about other moral exemplars’ deeds. Thus, the retelling of stories about morally elevating behaviour can greatly multiply the consequences of such stories by creating a chain reaction of moral elevation where each telling inspires both new inspiring acts and new inspiring stories. Although the exact words “moral elevation” may not be common in Holocaust literature, it is difficult to find discussions of the Righteous Among the Nations that do not describe the stories of their actions as “moving,” “inspiring,” “uplifting,” “touching,” or some similar term. Further, it is often emphasized that this internal sensation can, and should be, accompanied by an increased inclination to treat the Righteous individuals described in the stories as “a model,” “educational model,” “role model,” “exemplar,” or “shining example.” 

This is consistent with the view that the importance of stories about Holocaust rescue lies not in their ability to provide pleasant sensations, but their effect on the future behaviour of those who experience them: the tree plantings, sculptures, films, memoirs, and the gardens that honor rescuers’ deeds serve as a reminder. But if they force an onlooker only to think of the valor of yesterday, these reminders have failed to get their message across. Contemplating the actions of rescuers should also compel every person to examine what he or she is doing in his or her own life to help those in need or to fight for tolerance among people. 15

The literature on the Righteous Among the Nations also describes how the behavioral consequences of moral elevation have been transmitted over many past generations, and the potential for it to be transmitted to a potentially unlimited number of generations: “The stories and deeds of the Righteous in this book – a small selection of a vaster literature accumulated at Yad Vashem – will hopefully help in guiding future generations to a different kind of behavior, in line with the biblical command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”16

Modern technology enables chain reactions of moral elevation to rapidly spread to large numbers of people around the world. For example, not only as the film Schindler’s List influenced millions of people around the world, thanks to the Irena Sendler Project, “the story of Irena Sendler is spreading and spreading. Over 3,500 media outlets have presented articles about the Kansas kids and the Polish heroine.”17 Increasing the spread, strength, and longevity of these chains of moral elevation can be seen as a goal of museums, monuments, memorials, gardens, and organizations like Gariwo. Fogelman went so far as to confidently proclaim that such “Memorials ensure that the stories of rescuers will be told from one generation to the next”.18

It is important to recognize and appreciate the reality of the behavioral consequences of moral elevation because organizations dedicated to the retelling of stories of righteous behavior are sometimes criticized or met with cynicism. Many of the criticisms raise important points, but these must be weighed against the potentially desirable consequences of moral elevation. For example, it is crucial to avoid diminishing the horror of the Holocaust with pleasant stories. 

However, although experiencing moral elevation might be considered pleasant, morally elevating stories about Holocaust rescue do not have to diminish or even distract from the horror of the Holocaust. Indeed, the morally elevating effect of Holocaust rescue stories can be enhanced by a fuller appreciation of the horrific fate facing those in need of rescue. For example, I find the following passage written by Litchten in his foreword to a book on rescue in Poland,19 to be simultaneously one of the most horrifying and morally elevating stories I have ever read. This is because it forces one’s attention to focus on the consequences of the choices made by rescuers, like the choice faced by Jan Rybak at the start of this essay:

When the Germans occupied Warsaw, one of my closest Christian friends agreed to take care of my daughter. Indeed, he kept her for some time; but he ultimately sent her back to the ghetto, refusing to take any more of the risks of caring for a Jewish child. The consequence of his decision was inevitable – a concentration camp and a gas chamber.

Lichten then writes:

When the invitation to write this foreword came, I felt it my duty to accept it despite my personal experiences. I have seen a sufficient number of Jewish families whose children were saved by sympathetic Poles, and I have seen, though not experienced, the joy of united families. I felt, therefore, that I had an obligation to express my gratitude to these brave people because I understood their achievements deeply, perhaps more deeply than those whose families were rescued and reunited.

It is also important to avoid the temptation to unskeptically accept exaggerated claims by, or about, rescuers concerning the sacrifices they made or the number of souls they saved. Those pointing out such exaggerations should be thanked, especially since any inaccuracy may be used by Holocaust deniers. However, it is important to also avoid the inaccuracy of describing the actions of rescuers in a way that strips them of their morally elevating effects. 

For example, in the conclusion of his important book correcting exaggerations found in descriptions of Raoul Wallenberg, Levine writes: “We must hope that there will be, today and in the future, individuals like Raoul Wallenberg who are intent on making a difference in the lives of others.”20 This statement successfully avoids committing any exaggeration about the heroism of Raoul Wallenberg’s actions, but it could be misleading. Morally elevating acts do make a difference in someone’s life, but there are many ways of merely “making a difference” in someone’s life that do not involve any morally elevating acts of sacrifice for others. Thus, this summary of Wallenberg’s behavior fails to imply the reality of his many morally elevating actions. It thereby loses its ability to morally elevate those who read it. Further, Levine’s next sentence, “Mythical ‘angels of rescue’ are unlikely to turn up when we really need them”,could mislead readers to the conclusion that all claims of morally elevating acts must be mythical because all that any human is capable of doing is making a difference in someone’s life in a non-morally elevating way. If, however, some people are willing to make heroic sacrifices in order to “make a difference” in the lives of others, and moral elevation exists, retelling the morally elevating stories about those sacrifices may be the most effective way to make such people turn up when we really need them

On the other hand, claiming that all morally elevating stories are mythical may become a self-fulfilling prophecy that greatly reduces the chances of morally elevating exemplars turning up when we really need them. Please keep this in mind when evaluating the importance of organizations like Gariwo dedicated to retelling morally elevating stories of sacrifice for others in order to promote enduring chains of altruism.

Notes and References

1 Palmer, Craig T., Ryan O. Begley, Kathryn Coe, K., and Lyle B. Steadman. 2013a. “Moral elevation and traditions: Ancestral encouragement of altruism through ritual and myth.” Journal of Ritual Studies 27(2):83-96.
2 Tec, Nechama. 1991. “Helping behavior and rescue during the Holocaust.” In Lessons and Legacies:The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World, edited by Peter Hayes, 210-244. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, IL. (pp. 212, 215).
3 Haidt, Jonathan 2000. “The positive emotion of elevation.” Prevention and Treatment 3(1): 3c.
4 Jefferson, Thomas. 1975. “Letter to Robert Skipwith.” In The Portable Thomas Jefferson, edited by Merrill D. Peterson, 349–351. New York: Penguin.
5 Baron, Robert A. and Robert M. Liebert 1971. Human Social Behavior: A Contemporary View of Experimental Research. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press. (p. 506).
6 Haidt, Jonathan 2010. “Wired to be inspired.” In The Compassionate Instinct, edited by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh and Jeremy A. Smith, 86–93. New York: Norton.
7 Schnall, Simone, Jean Roper and Daniel M. T. Fessler. 2010. “Evolution leads to altruistic behavior, above and beyond general positive affect.” Psychological Science 21(3):315-320.
8 Cox, Keith S. 2010. “Elevation predicts domain-specific volunteerism 3 months later.” Journal of Positive Psychology 5: 333–341.
9 Freeman, Dan, Karl Aquino and Brent McFerran 2009. “Overcoming beneficiary race as an impediment to charitable donations: Social dominance orientation, the experience of moral elevation, and donation behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35: 72–84.
10 Fogelman, Eva. 1994. Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. New York: Anchor books. (p.254).
11 Land-Weber, Ellen. 2000. To Save a Life: Stories of Holocaust Rescue. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.
12 London, Perry. 1970. “The rescuers.” In Altruism and Helping Behavior, edited by Jacqueline Macaulay and Leonard Barkowitz, 241-250. New York: Academic Press.
13 Oliner, Samuel P, and Pearl Oliner. 1988. The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe.New York: Free Press.
14 Oliner, Samuel P. 2003. Do unto others: Extraordinary acts of ordinary people. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (p. xii)
15 Fogelman, Eva. 1994. Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. New York: Anchor books. (p.311-312)
16 Paldiel, Mordecai. 2007. The Righteous Among the Nations. Yad Vashem. Jerusalem. (p. xi)
18 Fogelman, Eva. 1994. Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. New York: Anchor books. (p.305)
19 Lichten, Joseph L. 1971. “Foreword.” In Iranek-Osmecki, Kazimierz. He Who Saves One Life. ix-xvi. New York: Crown Publishers, INC. (pp. ix-x)
20 Levine, Paul A. 2010. Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest: Myth, history and Holocaust. Londra: Vallentine Mitchell. (pp. 375)

By Craig T. Palmer,  anthropologist

Analysis by By Craig T. Palmer, anthropologist

25 May 2018

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