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Heart on Fire

August 5, 2010 By:
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Early on an August morning in 1942, the Nazis began the liquidation of the Bobowa ghetto, located in southern Poland. Sam Oliner was 12 years old at the time, and the only Jew to survive the aktion. Still dressed in his pajamas, he hid on the roof of his home, as his stepmother had instructed him to do, waiting for the Germans to finish their terrible work.

Once the ghetto had been cleared, the young boy managed to find some clothes in an abandoned dwelling. Then he carefully made his way to the home of a peasant woman, Balwina Pieuch, a friend of his father, who took him in without hesitation; with her help and guidance, he managed to survive the war.

The example of this simple woman's kindness would appear to have set the course for Samuel Oliner's adult life. He has been a longtime professor of sociology at Humboldt State University, and founder and director of the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute there. But perhaps even more telling is that, along with his wife Pearl M. Oliner, he wrote a groundbreaking study titled, understandably enough, The Altruistic Personality.

Who Helps, Who Does Not

Trying to understand why and how non-Jewish individuals saved Jews -- and whether we and our children can learn the ethical lessons of such behavior -- has been his (and his wife's) life work, and it also forms the basis of his new book, Who Shall Live: The Wilhelm Bachner Story. There are two major differences in this narrative from its important predecessor. The savior at the center of this true life tale is Jewish, and while he helped rescue many, many Jews, he also saved non-Jews as well. The other major variation is that Oliner's co-author this time around is Kathleen Lee, a lecturer in the department of political science at Humboldt State.

The publisher is the always enterprising Academy Chicago Publishers, based, as you might surmise, in the windy city.

There's another major variation between Oliner's earlier writing and this compelling tale: Where there were many examples offered about the details of rescue in The Altruistic Personality, the end result was much detailed analysis done in an attempt to analyze the nature of altruism -- that is, what makes some people say, "Yes, come in, I can help you," while others, faced with the same set of circumstances, say, "No, the risks are too great, I can't take the chance."

Herded Into the Ghetto

In Who Shall Live, there is little analysis; what we are presented with is all story, and it is a heart-pounding experience. Even though you know that Willi Bachner and his wife Cesia survived the war, as did many of the people Willi helped save -- the photographs at the center of the text make that clear -- the suspense in Oliner and Lee's riveting retelling is sometimes unbearable.

Here is the story in its barest details. Willi Bachner was a Polish Jew living in Warsaw with his wife and parents when the Nazis invaded. Like so many other Jews in the capital city who managed to survive the early desperate days and weeks after the Germans overran all of Poland, Bachner and his family were eventually herded into the Warsaw ghetto. He was truly horrified by the viciousness of his captors.

But this was not the way it always was for the young man. He had been raised in the town of Bielsko in southern Poland and grew up, by his own admission, with a deep admiration for German culture. Bielsko had, in fact, been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I, and Bachner had spoken German both at home and in school. In fact, his admiration for things German led him to eventually earn an engineering degree from a German university.

Bachner, posing as a Polish Christian, managed to find work as the head of a construction company run by the Nazis. So it was his schooling and his fluency with the German language that saved his life and the lives of many in his immediate family (though there were many tragic losses along the way, both familial and "professional"). The many "employees" he hired were at first his relatives and fellow Jews, but he widened his net as the war raged on by taking in many non-Jews of all nationalities.

Willi Bachner's story is marked by courage of the highest order, matched only by a guile and inventiveness that may leave you speechless at moments. He withstood many life-threatening confrontations through sheer force of will, even though he was wracked by understandable fears and insecurities. An often solitary individual -- despite being married and often having family members nearby -- he was forced to deal with issues and events that few of us are ever asked to witness or to bear, let alone to triumph over.

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