The importance of being asked: The rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe

Federico Varese, Meir Yaish

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A common phenomenon in social life is that some individuals help others and a few even risk their lives to benefit others, as in the case of those who helped Jews escape persecution in Nazi Europe. A few scholars single out motivations as the prime explanation of these rescue activities, yet concede that material opportunities, information, and other situational factors might have played a role. Their work, however, stops short of offering an account of the nature and importance of these factors. In this article, we focus on the importance of opportunities and situational factors, with specific reference to the rescue of Jews from persecution during World War II. Following a secondary analysis of data on those who did and did not rescue Jews during the Nazi occupation of Europe, we show that a direct request for help substantially increased the likelihood of being rescued. We also explore the other side of the situation, namely whom were the Jews likely to ask for help? Jews were likely to ask people they knew and people they trusted to act as mediators. Finally, we show that few of those who were asked to help did not help. This finding suggests the existence of a selection mechanism: rescuers signalled their disposition to help and were subsequently asked. We conclude that opportunities and situational factors are crucial in accounting for the observed acts of helping.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)307-334
Number of pages28
JournalRationality and Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Altruism
  • Asking
  • Holocaust
  • Rescue of Jews
  • Situational factors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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