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Raisa Ostapenko


Raisa Ostapenko is pursuing a PhD student in Slavonic Studies at Sorbonne University in Paris. Sher focuses on Ukrainian rescuers of Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia and Reichskommissariat. Ostapenko was a fellow at Paris’s Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah from 2016-2018 and a visiting doctoral fellow at Columbia University from January-June 2019.



To Risk One’s Life for Another:
The Moral Psychology behind Rescuing

Jews during the Holocaust in Occupied Ukraine


This paper addresses the question of “why,” under an occupation where rescuing was punishable by death, some bystanders in the Holocaust were able to become rescuers, whilst others, amongst them even ethical, non-prejudiced people, were not. This paper puts forth several arguments regarding the moral psychology of rescuers, namely that: 1) most people who chose not to rescue Jews ultimately acted, either consciously or not, against their intuitive understanding that killing, enabling killing, or failing to prevent killing are harmful and, therefore, immoral, while rescuers, by contrast, acted in accordance with said understanding; 2) the decision to rescue was fundamentally emotional and not rational, but was always followed shortly thereafter by both moral rationalism and strategic thinking; 3) as suggested by existing sociological and psychological studies on rescuers, rescuers exhibited a very specific combination of personality traits and attitudes; 4) committed rescuers, regardless of their motive for rescuing, were morally absolutist with regard to the success of the rescue operation, yet morally relativist with regard to the methodology of rescue; and 5) the decision to rescue emerged from and was informed by the existence of a very particular “moral identity” that made acting any other way impossible.

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