While the Holocaust will forever remain among the bleakest chapters in human history, the Nazis failed in their mission to eradicate Jews and other persecuted minorities from the continent, as millions survived the conflict. While this is, primarily, testament to their own perseverance in the most extreme circumstances, many survivors of Nazi persecution were aided by people who did not themselves face persecution, uncommonly brave individuals who risked all to save others. As Jan Karski, the Polish Underground hero who brought one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the Allies, said: “Jews were abandoned by all world governments but not by all individuals”.
Rescuers were, tragically, atypical individuals.
Rescuers were, tragically, atypical individuals. Antisemitism was rife throughout Europe, and many populations in Axis-occupied regions were indifferent to the plight of Jews and other persecuted peoples. Others were actively hostile, or stood to gain from their removal, for example by stealing abandoned property; many persecuted peoples were identified, assaulted, and executed by their neighbours. Multitudes of sympathetic people were cowed into inaction by the Nazi terror machine, which promised death to the rescuer, and, in Eastern Europe, to their families as well.
Yet, many thousands did risk all to save others. The historian Martin Gilbert writes that in Poland, home of the biggest Jewish community in Europe in the pre-war years, while rescuers were “the exception”, they could be found “in every town and village” throughout the country. Yad Vashem has recognised more than 27,300 people from 51 countries as “Righteous Among the Nations” (non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews), and thousands more will forever go unknown. Some of these stories are interspersed throughout this report.
Kindertransport monument at Liverpool Street Station. A project established by the Association of Jewish Refugees, it pays tribute to the Britons who aided the rescue of 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi persecution.
WHO WERE THE RESCUERS?
There was no typical rescuer. While some had a pre-war acquaintance with those they saved, others saved total strangers. Yad Vashem has recognised a roughly equal number of men and women as Righteous individuals, and rescuers were of all ages, educational levels, classes, and professions, from Berlin sex workers (Hedwig Porschütz) to British royalty (Princess Alice). Rescuers were Christians, Muslims and atheists, communists, Nazi Party members, nationalists and apolitical individuals. Irena Steinfeldt of Yad Vashem notes that
“For every attempt to draw up a profile of a righteous gentile, I can immediately find a murderer or a collaborator with the Nazis who perfectly fits that profile”.
Professor Nechama Tec, who survived the Holocaust with the help of Catholic Poles, studied hundreds of rescue cases, concluding that while the search for commonalities was fruitless in terms of traditional classifications, there were personality traits common among most rescuers.
These include an independent and altruistic spirit, and “universalistic perceptions” that stretch beyond race and ethnicity, enabling them to recognise Jews as people in need of help, rather than outside their sphere of responsibility. This chimes with the words of Zofia Lewin, who survived outside the Warsaw Ghetto on the “Aryan” side of the city, when describing the attitude of those who helped her survive:
“Not only did they not let me feel that my very presence was dangerous, they also treated me as one of themselves, a person in greater danger due only to external reasons, due to the false principles of the occupying power and not because of any essential difference on my part.”
According to Tec, rescuers were invariably modest about their acts, claiming that rescue was not a choice, but the sole course of action, and their actions never followed a prolonged period of deliberation. For example, Aart Post, who with his wife Johtje hid dozens of Jews in their home near Amsterdam, would later say:
“Holland was like a family and part of that family was in danger. In this case, the Jewish part. The Germans were threatening our family. We weren’t thinking, ‘What shall we do?’ We just did.”
A commemorative plaque on the village school in Le Chambon-surLignon which recalls the spirit of solidarity of the whole population towards Jews during their persecution, which saved thousands of lives.
Photo: Pensées de Pascal
THE ACT OF RESCUE
The decision to cross the threshold from bystander to rescuer was often spontaneous, made instantaneously when a deportation was in action, or when a neighbour came knocking. Magda Trocmé, who with her pastor husband André helped to save hundreds of Jews in the French village Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, explained:
“It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately.”
While the decision to act was often impromptu, as Gilbert states, the process of rescue often stretched on for many years, and in almost every case where a Jew was saved, more than one non-Jew was involved. Both of these factors dramatically increased the risk of discovery.
Whilst rescuers were a diverse group, their position and profession determined what form their rescue could take. For many peasants, all they could offer was to shelter Jews in their own property, an extremely dangerous endeavour, especially in Eastern Europe.
While some rescuers were able to disguise Jews as their relatives, others, such as the Safonov family in Belarus and Atonina Wyrzykowska in Poland, had to construct bunkers under barns or houses. These hideaways could be little more than lightless and extremely restrictive holes, their occupants only able to surface at nighttime, and dependent on the rescuers for care. Sometimes rescuers would sprinkle surrounding areas in petrol or other substances to throw off sniffer dogs.
Some officials, both in occupied and non-occupied countries, engaged in forms of fraud to help persecuted people.
Some officials, both in occupied and non-occupied countries, engaged in forms of fraud to help persecuted people. Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police captain, permitted 3,600 Jews into Switzerland and falsified documents that enabled them to receive passports classifying them as legal immigrants. Those in positions of political influence could use diplomatic obfuscation to delay or obstruct antisemitic laws, widening the window for escapes. Such individuals include Traian Popovici, mayor of a Romanian town, who also persuaded the brutally antisemitic Antonescu regime that almost 20,000 Jews should be exempt from deportation based on their professions.
Those with resources could bribe, or otherwise ensure safe travel. Employers could strive to protect their Jewish workforce, most famously the German industrialist and Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler, who prevented the deportation of the 1,200 Jewish workers in his enamelware and munitions factories.
Still others used highly creative means to smuggle Jews to safety. Irena Sendler used her job as a typhus inspector to organise the escape of hundreds of children from the Warsaw Ghetto, including giving children sleeping medication and passing them off as dead, or having a mechanic smuggle babies out in his toolbox. Smuggling especially was a complex endeavour, Sendler recalling that it took 12 individuals to save one child. Elizabeth Maxwell, citing the escape of Alexander Rotenberg from France to Switzerland, found that more than 50 people were “directly involved and needed in his rescue [...] and that takes no account of all those who were in the know or closed their eyes and did not talk”.
The memorial to the Ulma family at the museum named in their honour, commemorating Poles who saved Jews in World War II. Photo: Wojciech Pysz
THE COST OF RESCUE
Of course, the act of rescuing often transformed the life of the rescuer, who entered a world of relentless suspicion and fear of denunciation and discovery. Many hundreds of rescuers ultimately paid for their actions with their lives.
This includes Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, who were shot in front of their children for harbouring the Szall family in the Polish village of Markowa; Marianne Cohn, who was beaten to death with a shovel for refusing, under torture, to inform on her comrades, with whom she had smuggled children across the French-Swiss border; and Anton Schmid, an Austrian Wehrmacht soldier, was court-martialed and executed for high treason after engaging in numerous acts of rescue in Lithuania, including sheltering Jews in his office. There were many more such cases.
The story of the Holocaust is one of misery and death on an incomprehensible scale. However, there were moments of humanity among the tragedy that demand to be remembered. Abraham Foxman, a Jewish man from Vilna who survived WWII with the aid of his nanny, told the 1991 Hidden Child conference in Jerusalem:
“For the first fifty years after the Holocaust survivors bore witness to evil, brutality and bestiality. Now is the time for us, for our generation, to bear witness to goodness. For each one of us is living proof that even in hell, even in that hell called the Holocaust, there was goodness, there was kindness, and there was love and compassion.”