Claude Lanzmann, the director of the monumental documentary Shoah, was opposed to all attempts to explain, analyze, or even represent the evil of the Holocaust. He was quite weird and obnoxious and frankly nuts about this
Ron Rosenbaum's excellent book Explaining Hitler goes deep into Lanzmann's peculiar stance
, but the core of his objections are two somewhat reasonable propositions:
Any attempt to explain a behavior also effectively creates an excuse for that behavior
Some subject matter is simply beyond representation, in a sort of inverted sacredness, and so any effort to do so is a kind of blasphemy (Lanzmann uses the word "obscene" a lot to describe any depiction of the Holocaust that does not meet his standards, which is basically any but his own).
I'm not sure exactly what that has to with the current essay, which is an attempt to find some explanations for the opposite of this inexpressible evil – to explain instances of unusual and almost unimaginable moral heroism. People whose actions and character were as radically good as those of the Nazis were radically evil.
These are the righteous among nations, the gentiles under Nazi rule who went out of their way to protect Jews, often at great risk to their own lives, generally with no hope of any recompense. What could have motivated these people, what made them tick? Is it something we could try to cultivate somehow?
The world certainly could use more people like that, and it's hard to find fault with an effort to reverse-engineer heroism. And yet, something about it seems off to me. Is it attempting to measure something that shouldn't be measured? Or missing the point somehow? It's not even close to obscene, but maybe it's a bit crass? I can't really make a rational case for this, but that's the point, some things are simply beyond the grasp of rationality, and should be treated as such.
But let's put all that aside and look at the actual essay, which is a perfectly fine and well-researched survey of the available knowledge about the rescuers. No simple conclusion can be drawn from their backgrounds or other characteristics; they seemed to come from all walks of life and had little in common. As the author puts it, "If you are looking for a recipe to prevent genocides, this is not what you are interested in."
The nature of moral responsibility
Perhaps I detect a subtle evasion of moral responsibility – if these are "moral supermen" then the rest of us shouldn't feel too bad if we don't happen to have been granted their moral superpowers. But I think the whole point of these people is that they were fairly ordinary, not that special (the author seems to come to this conclusion himself, after the search for some external factor fails)
It comes down to basic questions about agency and free will. Materialist determinists (a category that includes Rationalists) don't really believe in the usual notions of moral agency. We are basically robots (for better or worse), subject to the causality of physics and our programming. Freedom is illusory; people respond to their environment according to their natures, and so are not ultimately responsible for their actions.
This stance, while not wrong, is in conflict with the everyday lived experience of personal morality, and tends to undermine it. Folk morality holds people responsible for their actions; to do so is vital to have any notion of morality at all. Get rid of it, and the result is nihilism. This problem of incommensurability between the causal language of science and the moral language of daily life is a common source of confusion and controversy, eg in the matter of how much we should hold criminals responsible for their crime versus assigning blame to their environment and upbringing.
Society at large has not resolved this intractable problem, and I don't expect a random Rationalist essay to resolve it. We are stuck going through our lives as both moral agents (with our actions judged by ourselves and by others) at the same time knowing we are as subject to causality as anything else in the universe, and our flaws and weaknesses are ultimately not our fault, and our strengths and heroic achievements are not really to our credit either.
Individual vs Collective rescue efforts
The author adopts a taxonomy of motives from Eva Fogelman; the important categories are moral rescuers, judeophiles, concerned professionals, and network rescuers. The author dismisses most of these categories as unimportant to his project, since their motives were personal or may have had other motives besides saving Jews, such as battling the Nazis.
The result is a focus on only individual rescuers, who seem to be random ordinary people who had a fortunate moment of empathy or moral clarity, or simply had a situational opportunity to do good that they happened to take.
Here's where I think the methodological individualism of Rationalism manifests in a bad way. My knowledge is light but a quick skim of Wikipedia's page on rescuers suggests that networks of rescuers were far more effective in saving Jews than heroic individuals. Which makes sense; networks have more resources. And morality as a phenomenon is really not best understood at an individual level or as 1-1 interactions, but in terms of social networks of obligation, trust, and judgement.
Of special note are cases where entire communities participated in rescue efforts, such as the French villiage of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, that managed to save somewhere between 3000 and 5000 Jews.
It seems to me that if your goal is to prevent future Holocausts, you should focus not so much on individual heroism (which is real enough, but difficult to cultivate) and instead look at how social networks of rescuers are built and operate. That might be just as hard, but considerably more effective.
But I shouldn't critique this essay for being about what the author considers important rather than what I am interested in.