Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis
Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust
A Model for a Caring Community
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There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living.--Hannah Senesh
In my neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I cannot walk more than a few blocks without confronting a homeless beggar panim el panim, face to face. I am inconsistent in opening my purse for this or that disheveled young man with a cup in his hand asking for a quarter, or loose change, or money for a cup of coffee, particularly after working a fourteen-hour day. My numbness to the dire social conditions that have led to the degradation and humiliation of a homeless beggar is a defense against the helplessness I feel in making a real difference in society. A quarter here and a dollar there will not change the basic social conditions that allow such suffering now and in the future. Those of us who would like to think of ourselves as basically caring, good, charitable people are amazed at our numbness to the plight of very needy people. Some of us rationalize that poverty, homelessness, and crumbling families are the system's fault for not providing adequate housing and jobs for all its citizens; others blame the victims for their plight; everyone feels helpless about a more comprehensive solution to these social ills.
Looking at the faces of homeless men in particular, but also women and children, on the streets of New York, triggers thoughts of my father. After miraculously surviving the German Gestapo mass killing, on Purim of 1942, of the 1,000 Jews of Illya, a Byelorussian town a hundred miles east of Vilna, he was homeless and without resources, Among those who were stripped of their clothes, crowded into the square and shot were my father's aunt, uncle, and cousins, with whom he had been living after he survived an earlier massacre in his home town, Vilna.
For six months, my father lived in the woods of Byelorussia with another escapee and depended on the kindness of strangers for a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk every few days. No one dared give my father shelter, since those caught harboring a Jew earned a death sentence for themselves and their entire family. Nevertheless, Ivan Safanov, a local farmer who had been a customer at my father's comrade's flour mill, sent his children out to the ditch my father dug in the woods, brought him food, took his lice-infested clothes to wash, and brought him ointment to remove the vermin from his head and body. My father had to change his hiding place several times because he was warned that suspicious neighbors had reported him to Gestapo who roamed the forests anxious to kill prey. He lived like an animal until Safanov introduced him to the local partisans, who took my father because of his previous training as a soldier in the Polish army.
I have spent more than a decade trying to understand what made people like the Safanovs risk their lives to help Jews survive, while most of their neighbors refused to share a piece of bread with a starving Jew, and a few denounced the hideout to the Gestapo. After interviewing more than 300 non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Nazi occupation, those deemed Hasidei Umot Haolam, Righteous Among the Nations of the World by Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Authority), I have come to some conclusions about those individuals.
While they were flesh-and-blood human beings with strengths and faults, these rare men, women, and children saw people who were in trouble and responded, not to the things that made them different, but to the points of commonality. While most people saw Jews as pariahs, rescuers saw them as human beings. Their humanitarian response sprang from a core of firmly held inner values, which included an acceptance of people who were different. And central to these beliefs was the conviction that what an individual did, or failed to do, mattered. The rescuers recognized that for many Jews, the choice made by a bystander could mean life or death.
The factors that transformed bystanders into rescuers were grounded in a value system instilled and internalized in childhood that emphasized altruism and tolerance for those who are "different" and empathy to stimulate direct action consistent with these values in situations where, unless one acted, the helpless victims would die.
It took a certain kind of environment, however, for such lessons to take hold. Most Holocaust rescuers came from loving families that fostered a sense of self-worth and love; parents reasoned rather than punished when disciplining. As children, many rescuers suffered separation, loss, or illness combined with exposure to a nurturing guardian, which later encouraged identification with an altruistic caretaker and increased sensitivity to the suffering of others.
For example, Miep Gies, who helped Anne Frank's family and acquaintances in hiding, grew up sickly and undernourished in post-World War I Vienna. When she was eleven, her parents sent her to Amsterdam as part of an international program to help hungry Austrian children. With that one well-meaning parental decision, the young girl lost her home, her family, and everything that was dear and familiar. Gies never forgot the consideration shown to her by her adopted Dutch family of seven:
Despite the language problem, all children were kind to me. Kindness, in my depleted condition, was very important to me. It was medicine as much as the bread, the marmalade, the good Dutch milk and butter and cheese, the toasty temperature of the warm rooms.
An early education in values, particularly tolerance, along with exposure to altruistic role-models and involvement in helping others made virtue a habit. Evidence of the importance of such an education repeatedly emerged from interviews I conducted with teachers, nurses, doctors, aristocrats, laborers, peasants, farmers, housewives, nannies, diplomats, soldiers, and students. Thus, when confronted with Jewish refugees knocking at their doors, said Magda Trocme of the French village of Le Chambon, they "did not think twice-they said 'Come in, Come in'". It was not (as the myth about the village has it) a charismatic leader that mobilized the men, women, and children of the village to act altruistically and save more than 5,000 Jews, but their internal value system.
The courageous response of villagers in the Haute Loire region of southwestern France, with Le Chambon in its center, illustrates the strength of group effort in rescue. Sociologists generally acknowledge that ideology can be defeated only by group effort; individual attempts to counteract prevailing beliefs are generally limited. Oskar Schindler, of course, is one of the exceptions. (He had the internal resources to outwit the Nazi bureaucracy and work on his own to save more than 1,000 Jews destined for extermination.)
Jews and non-Jews for whom Nazism was anathema instinctively sought out others who saw the world as they did, felt the way they did about Nazism, and wanted to take action. They gathered in political halls, university fraternity and sorority houses, church basements, and public school classrooms; they met in social welfare offices and in hospital staff rooms; they rallied in churches that had reputations for humanitarian endeavors, such as Holland's AntiRevolutionary Church and Germany's Confessional Church. In France's Le Mazet, Fay, Tence, La Suchre, Montbuzat, and Le Chambon, and Italy's Assisi towns with traditions of harboring the religiously persecuted-they worked together to shelter strangers. They became what the sociologist George Simmel calls "secret societies."
Anti-Nazi rage was the tic that bound network rescuers together. Initially, network rescuers became involved because Nazism, the antithesis of the deeply held beliefs and humanitarian values, made them feel personally violated. Freud noted that a psychological group is formed when individuals have a common interest or a similar emotional bias in a particular situation. The higher this "mental homogeneity," the more readily people band together.
Even today, network rescuer Hetty Dutihl Voute, who found shelter, food, and false identification for Jewish children in Holland and was deported to Ravensbruck for her illegal humanitarian acts, can barely contain her anger as she recalls her feelings about the German takeover of Holland:
Right from the first day, I (was bursting with) rage towards the Nazis. They lied to us about not invading our country, they occupied our land, shot our soldiers, humiliated us, stole our provisions, arrested those who were our best men. Even now when I am writing this to you, I can feel my rage rise again!
Resistance to Hitler came first. Many rescuers had begun by ignoring the racial laws that prohibited nonJews from having any sexual, social, or business contacts with Jews. Then they moved to passing out anti-Nazi literature, organizing protest strikes, and eventually undertaking acts of sabotage. Later, at the urging of Jewish network friends as the plight of the Jews became more desperate, rescue of Jews became part of their general resistance efforts.
Anti-Nazi networks followed Hitler's conquests across Western Europe. In Holland, networks were organized to resist the German occupation and to protect endangered resisters and Dutch men and boys in their efforts to escape the German draft work force. These fugitives needed hideouts, false identification, and food ration cards; the networks raised money to support these underground activities. Thus, when Jews began to be deported, the systems were in place to help hide them or to arrange for their escape.
These loosely coupled networks did not arise ex nihilo. Charles Kadushin, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, explains that social circles such as these grow out of existing formal structures. In Holland, for instance, they emerged from individual Protestant or Catholic church groups, political groups, and liberal or anarchistic intellectual circles in universities.
Most Western European resistance networks eventually expanded to include rescue operations. Some rescuers (religious or otherwise) who started their rescuing in isolation began to join networks. Backed by a group, network rescuers felt what Freud describes as "an unlimited power," which in some cases gave them permission to step outside their normal morality and lie, steal, and do whatever had to be done to save lives.
In Belgium, the networks formed to rescue children developed a sophisticated system, with Jews and nonJews working cooperatively. Jews fetched children from their parents, and nonJews would escort the children to their hideouts without the parents' knowledge of the hiding place-in a private home, a boarding school, convent, or orphanage. Three sets of notebooks were kept on the children's whereabouts: One notebook listed a number and next to it the child's Jewish name and Christian name; the second had a number with the address; and the third recorded ongoing visitation to the child next to his or her identification number.
Mutual assistance enabled network members to survive dangerous situations. For example, Marion van Binsbergen Pritchard, who was hiding three children in the outskirts of Amsterdam, was interrogated by four Germans and a Dutch policeman. Although the intruders did not find her hiding place, the policeman returned when he heard a baby cry. Marion, who had a small revolver, felt "I had no choice except to kill him. There should have been another way but there wasn't." The local undertaker, a network member, put the body in a coffin with someone else. The family never knew that another body was buried with it.
Working with a group gave solitary rescuers the necessary resources to continue. Networks provided extra ration cards, money, counterintelligence, safe hideouts, medical help, false identifications, and information. Members of networks would warn each other if house searches were imminent. If a house was suspected as a hideout by denouncers, network members would find a new refuge for the charges. They also helped to mitigate the terror of a complex and dangerous life. Rescuers were outlaws in a Nazi no-man's-land. A careless word, a forgotten detail -one wrong move could lead to death. The knowledge that they belonged to a group strengthened individual rescuers' resolve and gave them immeasurable psychological support.
Finally, and most important, being part of a rescuing community provided the experience of cooperation in a worthy endeavor. Years later, rescuers recalled the experience as their greatest accomplishment either before or after the Holocaust. Because of the need for secrecy, network rescuers often knew only the person who solicited their help and others they may have recruited. Nevertheless, there was a strong sense of identification with a group.
After the war, network rescuers searched for other moral causes, such as pursuit of Nazi war criminals, activity in the peace or anti-nuclear movements, opposition to communism, and protest against the lack of religious freedom in the Eastern bloc countries. While the emotional wounds they carried, the terror they endured, and the losses they suffered continued to haunt them for years, most rescuers shared the assessment of Danish rescuer Svend Aage Holm Sorenson, who asserted that he would do it again because "without freedom, life is nothing."
An understanding of what motivated and sustained rescuers of the Jews may provide a model for mobilizing social action in our own communities. The problems of contemporary American society sometimes seem insurmountable and make us feel powerless to solve them or even reduce their scope. To begin to address them, We need to examine our value system to determine if it includes respect for those who are "different" from ourselves-not only in race, ethnicity, lifestyle, gender, and class, but also in social circumstance. We need to begin to see the homeless, the repeat offender, the orphaned ghetto child, the teenage mother, the person with AIDS, the illegal immigrant, and the drug addict as flesh-and-blood human beings and to realize that unless we extend them a helping hand, these people are doomed to a slow death, But, as in the case of Holocaust rescuers, individual efforts are practically and psychologically less effective than collective ones.
At the Passover seder, Jews say, "Let all who are hungry come and eat with us" But how many of us would actually invite a homeless person to eat at our table?
The late Rabbi Marshall Meyer understood this disjunction between our ideals and our actions and, through his personal example, demonstrated how it could be overcome. For Rabbi Meyer, the sanctification of God meant asking the question: Am I my brother's and sister's keeper? When he was a rabbi in Argentina under the brutal regime of the juntas (1976-1983), he went beyond the risky work of counseling individual prisoners such as Jacobo Timerman. He and the late Israeli Consul Ram Nirgad organized an "underground railroad" to smuggle Jewish and non-Jewish Argentines at risk for being "disappeared" (i.e., murdered in secret concentration camps) to safety out of the country.
After relocating to New York City and assuming the pulpit of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in 1985, Rabbi Meyer realized that giving a few cents or even a dollar to every homeless beggar one encountered daily on New York's streets was not going to solve the problem of the homeless. It required a communal effort, B'nai Jeshurun became the community through which Meyer could channel the moral responsibility he and his congregants felt for those whom society had written off as pariahs. He organized a community shelter for the homeless and conducted special Passover seders for people with AIDS.
We are not today in a holocaust. No one helping a homeless person is risking his or her life. We can, however, draw upon lessons from the past and not wait for an extreme circumstance to develop. We are in a situation in which resistance-the first stage of rescue-is needed to improve the lives of many in our society. Banding together in groups to protest, to make others aware of the dire conditions certain people are subjected to in our society, is a first step.
The mere provision of shelter for a night is not a solution. For those of us who are aware of the impending doom of certain segments of society, the time to speak up and change the fiber of society is now. Alternatives exist for the prevention of homelessness, hunger, drug abuse, disintegration of family life, and crime. The answers cannot just come from governmental institutions. If we each do what we can in our own communities and refrain from separating ourselves as "us" and "them," we can find solutions rather than Band-Aids.
Caring communities can also play a vital role in the education of the young, offering them role models to emulate and the possibility of participating in altruistic activities. Time and time again, Holocaust rescuers told me how important such childhood activities had been in molding their character.
The social environment of children growing up amidst violence, poverty, ethnic discrimination, and crumbling family structures needs to be changed. To make society more humane, we must develop alternative communities where children learn that treating others fairly, kindly, and responsibly is what matters-not whether they have completed one or another task, An example of the creation of such a caring community, the Leak and Watts Children's Home in the Bronx, New York, is the brainchild of social psychologist Michael Schulman, author of Bringing Up a Moral Child. Its success is measured by how humanely the adolescent residents treat one another.
The annihilation of European Jewry has no redemptive meaning. But it has important lessons about the evil--and the goodness--of which our species is capable. Those who ignored the mass murders--the millions of bystanders--were unable to transcend their narrow self-interest and see others as human beings like themselves. Those who are able to become what Robert J. Lifton calls "species selves"--people who can reach beyond their own ethnic groups or nationalities and embrace others, even at great risk-- are, indeed, in Hannah Senesh's words, "...particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for [humanity]."
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