Fritz Graebe’s mother, his primary moral role model, provided him with consistent and unyielding views of right and wrong.
She both articulated and practiced her beliefs and values. She stressed qualities of constructive candor, honesty, empathy, insightfulness, and assertiveness; and she directed Fritz to make difficult decisions that would cause life to be better or easier for someone else.
She was also a very religious person, having grown up in a Lutheran tradition. Because of certain incidents within her parish, however, she preferred not to associate with that institutional church. Her beliefs revolved around key Christian teachings.
~The Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
~The parables of compassion, such as the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:29-37)
~Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
She weaved these teachings into everyday conversations, explaining that they were the basis on which she performed acts of kindness. Graebe also noted that she “accepted people for their own worth, not because someone else told her about or spoke against them. She was her own judge, which helped her avoid rumor, prejudice, and gossip.
Social marginality can include social class, political affiliation and viewpoint, economic status, religious beliefs and practices, education status, and so on. Fritz Graebe’s stuttering certainly marginalized him—he felt the sting of being rejected and mocked by his peers. His family was poor but respected. His mother’s German dialect was not common in their region. And the family’s association with Jews before the Nazi campaign put them out of step with the anti-Semitic culture.
Graebe also held a disdain for seeking the approval of others. “My mother always urged me to do what I—I, not others—thought was best and right. I do not regret that I have followed this teaching…it has served me well.” Observes author Douglas Huneke,
Peer approval and the slavish accommodation of social conventions do not cause a person to spend four years risking summary execution to save the lives of thousands of persons publicly branded as “parasites.”
Huneke received two grants that helped him further research the makeup of rescuers and, in the process, help us delve deeper into the richness and mystery of what makes people courageous. He found seven indispensable traits.
The first trait he discovered is an empathetic imagination. This means courageous people are able to place themselves in the shoes of another intensely and imaginatively.
The second trait is a person’s ability to present himself or herself as in control of a critical situation. Sometimes this requires acting, as we see in Graebe’s many acts of courage.
The third trait is previewing for a purposeful life. In order to be altruistic, a person must shun passivity and become proactive, prosocial. This approach is characterized by careful planning to act cooperatively and responsibly, anticipating opportunities for having a positive and beneficial impact in the lives or circumstances of others, and actively promoting the well-being of self and others. As if writing directly to parents, Huneke explains that these “skills to live a caring and helpful life are taught, learned, rehearsed, and practiced. One of the most consistently alarming and regrettable conclusions of studies in “Samaritan behavior” demonstrates one of this book’s major themes: People they tried to help have often been left at the mercy of their enemies because the rescuers failed to plan ahead. Their hearts were in the right place, but they lacked shrewd astuteness.
The fourth trait is a significant personal experience with suffering or death prior to the war. Graebe, as a young boy, watched wounded men return from World War I. And he witnessed people mistreating his brother due to his physical deformity.
Fritz’s sensitivity to and awareness of the suffering of others enhanced a caring attitude and encouraged his decision to be a rescuer. The suffering of another human being did not lead him to feel either revulsion or fear. It neither morbidly attracted him nor did it weaken his resolve to combat it.
The fifth trait of all rescuers is their ability to confront and manage their prejudices. They “developed a certain worldview that enabled them to interpret the persecution of Jews and others as morally repugnant. Graebe’s association with Jews before the Nazi persecution helped him feel their full humanity. “The most salient idea to emerge from [a related] study is the fact that familiarity does not breed contempt. To the contrary, familiarity breeds acceptance and respect.”
The sixth trait is the development of a community of compassion and support. The majority of rescues were isolated, secret acts of kindness. Rescuers suffered tremendous amounts of fear, sometimes disabling fear. Many took weeks and months to regain courage for the next rescue. The most acclaimed communal rescues were orchestrated by religious-based groups with a long-term and carefully organized ethic that united the people. If they had worked alone, they would not have been able to rescue so many. Graebe carefully selected the most “courageous, intelligent, and compassionate people to serve with him in his secret and subversive operations.”
The seventh and final trait is the ability to offer hospitality. Most rescuers had an active role in a church at some point and were aware of the biblical texts on hospitable acts and lifestyle. Their most frequently quoted passage was that of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus tells us to identify with those who are imprisoned, naked, sick, hungry, thirsty, and foreign.
Hospitality is a powerful training ground for altruism, which must be present if one is to acquire courage. Said Henri Nouwen:
In a world of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends, and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear….That is our vocation, to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless place where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully expressed.
Huneke ends his powerful work with the following summary that we must ponder as we aim to raise our children toward lives well-lived:
These common traits of the rescuers are skills that can be taught and learned. AS people learn and practice them, others who are in distress are more likely to be the recipients of direct, meaningful intervention. These skill-related traits do not develop out of nothing or come to a person accidentally. They must be rehearsed and affirmed in a way that ensures their continued refining and practice.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.