In advocating for a new way to understand the Holocaust, Arthur B. Shostak, a retired Drexel University sociology professor, wants to be very clear: He is in no way trying to minimize the atrocities that took the lives of 6 million Jews and millions of other religious, political and sexual minorities.
But in “Stealth Altruism: Forbidden Care as Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust,” his 34th book, Shostak calls for viewing the Shoah through a rarely used lens: Jewish concentration and death camp prisoners who, for no reason other than their love for their fellow human beings, went to extraordinary lengths to save inmates from Hitler’s death machine.
“There is no American [Holocaust] museum that pays fair attention to the men and women who risked everything” in the camps to shield children from selection for the crematoria, shared meager scraps of food with those in their barracks and propped up emaciated bunkmates for inspection by SS officers, said Shostak, who lives in Alameda.
Only five of 48 Holocaust education centers and museums that he has visited around the world, he says, offer more than a passing glance at the countless and courageous unsung heroes who risked death in order to save another Jewish life.
It was vital to add to Holocaust literature additional content that focuses on the good that people can do in the face of grave danger as a means of setting “wonderful, caring examples [that] children will profit from,” Shostak said in a phone interview.
“We need both stories — Horror and Help —in a revised Holocaust Narrative,” he writes in the book’s preface. “[T]ogether they can bolster our appreciation of the human potentiality for doing good. And they can help raise the self-esteem of world Jewry, especially that of the young.”
As part of his research for “Stealth Altruism,” Shostak did close readings of Holocaust memoirs by 178 survivors — 94 men and 84 women.
“Almost all have included eyewitness accounts of stealth altruism,” he writes.
He also interviewed many survivors, including the Bay Area’s Dr. Dora Apsan Sorell, 96, who said she formed a familial connection with a number of young women, ages 13 to 22, at the Birkenau death camp. As the eldest in the group, Sorell served as the matriarch and “tried to support the others as best we could,” she recounts in Shostak’s book.
The author believes there has been a lack of focus on heroism among Jewish death camp inmates because of the expectation in the Jewish community that it is unnecessary to do so. The attitude has been, “Why would we do that? Jews are expected to do tikkun olam,” or act with kindness toward others, he said.
Throughout a long academic career, Shostak, 80, has published books focusing primarily on the U.S. labor movement. However, he said, the seeds of his current book were planted more than 70 years ago, when he was struck by photographer Margaret Bourke-White’s images taken at Buchenwald and published in Life magazine soon after liberation. He said that what most captured his attention were not the gruesome pictures of corpses but those of “people who were 80 or 90 pounds giving tender, loving care to someone else.”
The arresting visual message of one person providing succor to another has resonated with him ever since. His essays on altruism during the Holocaust are on his website, stealthaltruism.com.
“I have always found the ‘help story’ in every story [I’ve written],” Shostak said. “It is a constant theme in my life.”