One of the groups that I most admire are those people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Ever since I watched Schindler’s list, I’ve been interested in learning more about them. I had written a blog about them 4 years ago and have seen several books on the subject in the library. Some rescuers were deeply religious while others were atheists. Some had close friendships with Jews while others didn’t have any personal relationships with Jewish people but rescued individuals for reasons of human compassion. Researchers of these groups have found general qualities in many of these rescuers.
Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage During the Holocaust by Gay Block and Malka Drucker quoted from sociologists who studied the rescuers and found some common traits:
Nehama Tec, a professor of sociology who has researched compassion and altruism, explained at a recent conference held to examine the experience of children hidden during the war that rescuers come from ‘all walks of life, all religious and political affiliations, and all family configurations.’
Although she has found no pattern here, she sees ‘a set of interdependent characteristics and conditions’ that Holocaust rescuers share:
They don’t blend into their communities. This makes them less controlled by their environment and more inclined to act on their own principles.
They are independent people and they know it. They do what they feel they must do, what is right, and the right thing is to help others.
They have a long history of doing good deeds. (Tec has interviewed child survivors, whose rescuers were usually mature people. Our rescuers were much younger, most not over twenty-five during the war, so they had little chance earlier to demonstrate this characteristic.)
Because they have done the right thing for a long time, it doesn’t seem extraordinary to them. If you consider something your duty, you do it automatically.
They choose to help without rational consideration.
They have universalistic perceptions that transcend race and ethnicity. They can respond to the needy and helpless because they identify with victims of injustice.
Yad Vashem, a memorial for Jewish victims of the Holocaust established in Israel in 1953, has dedicated a special place for those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. In 1963, a Remembrance Authority was established to search the world to grant the title of Righteous Among the Nations to the few who to individuals who helped Jews during World War II. Yad Vashem set up a public Commission, headed by a Supreme Court Justice, which examines each case and is responsible for granting the title. Those recognized receive a medal and a certificate of honor and their names are commemorated on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. The Yad Vashem website has a list of names of those rescuers that were made available to the organization. In their website is a wonderful description of the Righteous Among the Nations:
In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.
…The price that rescuers had to pay for their action differed from one country to another. In Eastern Europe, the Germans executed not only the people who sheltered Jews, but their entire family as well. Notices warning the population against helping the Jews were posted everywhere. Generally speaking punishment was less severe in Western Europe, although there too the consequences could be formidable and some of the Righteous Among the Nations were incarcerated in camps and killed. Moreover, seeing the brutal treatment of the Jews and the determination on the part of the perpetrators to hunt down every single Jew, people must have feared that they would suffer greatly if they attempted to help the persecuted. In consequence, rescuers and rescued lived under constant fear of being caught; there was always the danger of denunciation by neighbors or collaborators. This increased the risk and made it more difficult for ordinary people to defy the conventions and rules. Those who decided to shelter Jews had to sacrifice their normal lives and to embark upon a clandestine existence – often against the accepted norms of the society in which they lived, in fear of their neighbors and friends – and to accept a life ruled by dread of denunciation and capture.
Most rescuers were ordinary people. Some acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions; others were not idealists, but merely human beings who cared about the people around them. In many cases they never planned to become rescuers and were totally unprepared for the moment in which they had to make such a far-reaching decision. They were ordinary human beings, and it is precisely their humanity that touches us and should serve as a model. So far Yad Vashem recognized Righteous from 44 countries and nationalities; there are Christians from all denominations and churches, Muslims and agnostics; men and women of all ages; they come from all walks of life; highly educated people as well as illiterate peasants; public figures as well as people from society’s margins; city dwellers and farmers from the remotest corners of Europe; university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.
The Jewish Foundation For The Righteous is a Jewish group that gives financial aid to the surviving rescuers. Their website states the history of the organization and the goals of the Foundation:
During the Holocaust there were thousands of non-Jews who refused to be passive in the face of the evil they witnessed, rescuing Jews, often at risk to their own lives and the lives of their families. In 1986, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis established The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) to fulfill the traditional Jewish commitment to hakarat hatov, the searching out and recognition of goodness. To this end, the JFR is committed to assisting those Righteous Gentiles who are in need. They are often reluctant to ask for help; they acted without expecting reward then or now. However, as Rabbi Schulweis realized, it is our duty to honor and support them.
The JFR started out funding eight rescuers, and that number quickly grew, reaching 1,750. Now, as the rescuers age and pass on, the number of rescuers receiving our support is declining; however, we continue to receive new applications on behalf of recently recognized rescuers. Currently, the JFR supports more than 750 aged and needy rescuers in 22 countries.
In addition to providing needed financial assistance to rescuers each month, the Foundation preserves the memory and legacy of the rescuers through its national Holocaust education program.
Here are some books you could read if you want to learn more about the rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust: Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by Eva Fogelman; Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage During the Holocaust by Gay Block and Malka Drucker; The Heart Has A Reason: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage by Mark Klempner and Christopher Browning; Holocaust Rescuers: Ten Stories of Courage by Darryl Lyman; The Righteous Among the Nations: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by Mordecai Paldeil; We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France During the Holocaust by Patrick Henry; Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews During the Holocaust by Emmy Werner.
An interview with Stanlee J. Stahl of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous
The JFR reunited Ruth Gamzer and Joanna Szczygiel Zalucka at its 2005 dinner. The two women had not seen each other since 1944, when Joanna saved Ruth’s life by hiding her from the Nazis
Exerpts of a film about the rescue of Jews from Denmark. The village of Snekkersten was one of the ports where the boats taking Danish Jews to safety in Sweden sailed from
A documentary of Sir Nicholas Winton, who helped 669 Jewish kids escape certain death from the Nazis
Don Arrigo Beccari was a teacher and the principal of a Catholic seminary for priests in Nonantola, Central Italy, who took an active part in rescuing one hundred Jewish children and youngsters
The testimony of Sempo Sugigara. Her husband was Sugihara Chiune, the Japanese consul in Lithuania, who gave thousands of Jewish refugees exit visas to escape the Holocaust
Testimony of Justice Moshe Beyski, who was rescued by Oskar Schindler
A presentation of Muslim Albanians who saved Jews during World War II
A photo exhibition by Norm Gershman of Muslim Albanians who saved Jews during the Holocaust opened at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem
Manli Ho share memories of her father, Chinese Righteous Among the Nations Feng-Shan Ho
A virtual tour of the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations