Rescuers, Holocaust

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Rescuers, Holocaust

In wartime Europe, the appearance of gentiles who rescued Jews signaled an opposition to German policies of Jewish annihilation. Saving Jews violated German laws, endangering the rescuers' lives and the lives of their families. Because anti-Jewish measures were introduced in different places at different times, with varying degrees of ruthlessness, the presence of gentile rescuers also varied with time and place. Yet, each country under the German occupation had some people who risked their lives to protect Jews.

Importance of Rescuers to Jewish Survival

Practically all of the Jews who survived the war by living in the forbidden Christian world had benefited from some kind of aid. Exact figures of those who risked their lives to save Jews are elusive. Most researchers agree that those who protected Jews were but a small minority. They also agree that the number of these rescuers by far exceeds the 20,205 gentiles who were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations according to the January 1, 2004 compilation put together by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority.

Yad Vashem was established in Israel in 1953 as a memorial to European Jewry who perished during World War II, and as a tribute to those non-Jews who selflessly risked their lives for them. Most Holocaust publications about gentile rescuers concentrate on those whose aid was based on altruistic motives and those who received recognition from Yad Vashem. In Nechama Tec's 1986 study, When Light Pierced the Darkness, which considered the cases of more than three hundred Jews who survived on the Aryan side and almost two hundred altruistic gentile protectors, more than 80 percent of the Jewish survivors were found to have benefited from altruistic gentile aid.

According to Tec, most gentiles had to overcome a variety of barriers before they were able to rescue Jews. The outer and most serious obstacles to Jewish rescue were the German legal prohibitions against such aid, and a corresponding legal obligation to report all known efforts to save. In Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, helping Jews was a crime punishable by death. By contrast, in Western Europe, German punishments for the protection of Jews, was vague. However, if a rescue attempt was discovered, it often led to the incarceration of the rescuers in a concentration camp, or even to the rescuer's murder.

Additional barriers to the rescuing of Jews grew out of anti-Semitism. Most anti-Semites objected to providing aid to Jews. This hostility extended to gentile protectors, as well. Finally, in depth interviews with gentile rescuers has revealed that many of them had to overcome their own, often unconscious, internalized anti-Semitism.

The Story of Two Rescuers

Given these obstacles, who within the gentile population was most likely to stand up for the persecuted Jews, who traditionally were perceived as "Christ killers" and who, for many still unexplained reasons, were routinely blamed for every conceivable ill? What propelled these altruistic rescuers toward such life-threatening activities?

Attempts to apply conventional classifications to the individual gentiles who became altruistic rescuers yield heterogeneous results. Two examples illustrate this diversity. In wartime Warsaw, a young Polish factory laborer named Stanislawa Dawidziuk, who had not completed elementary school, shared a one-room apartment with her husband (a waiter) and her teenage brother. In 1942, at her husband's request, Stanislawa agreed to add to their cramped quarters Irena, a woman whose looks betrayed her Jewish background. A Polish policeman named Laminski brought Irena to the Dawidziuks' household. At the outset, Irena was only expected to stay overnight, but Laminski could find no other place for her to go. One day stretched into weeks, and Stanislawa's husband objected to Irena's continued presence in the apartment. He refused to endanger his life for a Jew, but Stanislawa could not turn away their uninvited guest. She knew that Irena's appearance in the street would lead to her arrest and murder. After a stormy quarrel, the husband left, never to return, not even when his wife gave birth to their son.

In contrast, Laminski continued his visits to Stanislawa and Irena, supplying them with food and protection. Despite many close calls, Stanislawa never even considered sending Irena away. They became devoted friends, comforting each other. After the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the Germans evacuated almost the entire locale population. The rumor was that mothers with small children would be spared. Because Stanislawa was worried about Irena's "Jewish looks," she insisted that Irena should claim the baby as her own, and thus avoid deportation. In the end, however, both she and Irena stayed in the apartment.

After the war, Irena left for Israel, where she died in 1975. Stanislawa remarried, gave birth to another son, and worked in the factory until her retirement. In 1981, Stanislawa was honored with a Yad Vashem distinction that named her a "Righteous Among the Nations." She died in 1991.

Another non-Jewish rescuer, Sempo Sugihara, was the Japanese consul at Kovno (present-day Kaunas, in Lithuania). When the city fell to German expansion and was made part of Poland, Sugihara became aware of the Jewish plight in the summer of 1940. For humanitarian reasons, Sugihara issued Japanese transit visas to Jewish refugees without checking the validity of their supporting documents. The holders of such visas could travel to Japan through the Soviet Union if they were able to pay the fare in U.S. dollars for the trip across Siberia. When the Japanese foreign ministry learned about Sugihatra's aid to Jews, they ordered him to stop, but Sugihara continued to issue visas. He worked non-stop for twelve consecutive days, enlisting the help of Jewish refugees, and he was still issuing visas while boarding his train for Berlin, on August 31. Sugihara estimated that he had distributed 3,500 transit visas.

In Tokyo, Sugihara was fired. He had a hard time finding work, and was forced to move from one job to another. Only in 1985, old and bedridden, when Sugihara was officially designated by Yad Vashem as a "Righteous Among the Nations," did the Japanese press give extensive coverage to his selfless wartime aid to Jews.

Altruistic Rescuers: Characteristics and Motivations

In When Light Pierced the Darkness, Tec compared a large group of gentile protectors in terms of their social class, amount of education, political involvement, degree of anti-Semitism, extent of religious commitment, and friendship with Jews. None of these characteristics served as predictors of rescue. These gentile rescuers came from all walks of life, and varied greatly in terms of their education, politics, religion, friendship with Jews, involvement with anti-Semitism, and most other conventional ways of classifying individuals. However, when these rescuers' life styles and pastimes were examined at a close range, the results yield a cluster of six shared characteristics and motivations. These characteristics and motivations can be viewed as a set of inter-related explanations or hypotheses.

One of these shared characteristics can be characterized as individuality or separateness. It shows that these gentile altruistic rescuers did not fit into their social environments. Those who are on the periphery of their community, regardless of whether they are or are not aware of their separateness, are less likely to adhere to the community's expectations and values than those who are well integrated into their environments.

With individuality comes a higher level of independence, which is another of the significant characteristics shared by altruistic rescuers. In turn, freedom from social constraints and a high level of independence creates opportunities to act in accordance with personal values and moral precepts, even when these are in opposition to societal expectations. This is the third characteristic that altruistic rescuers have in common.

In Tec's study, some gentile altruistic rescuers were unaware of their individuality. Nonetheless, they spoke readily about their self-reliance and the need to follow their personal inclinations. Thus, nearly all of the altruistic gentile rescuers (98%) saw themselves as independent. Additional support for this finding comes from Jewish survivors, most of whom described their protectors as independent and as being motivated by special personal values. Another quality often mentioned in the testimonies and memoirs of survivors, one that comes close to independence, was the rescuers' courage. An overwhelming majority (85%) described their helpers as courageous.

With the rescuers' view of themselves as independent came the idea that they were propelled by moral values that do not depend on the support and approval of others but rather on their own self-approval. Again and again, they would repeat that they had to be at peace with themselves and with their own ideas of what was right and wrong. Closely related to their moral convictions were their long-standing commitments to the protection of the needy. This commitment was expressed in a wide range of charitable acts that extended over long periods of time. Evidence about their selfless aid also came from survivors, who describe their rescues as good-natured, whose help to the needy was a long-established character trait.

There is some continuity between the rescuers' history of charitable actions and their protection of Jews. That is, risking their lives for Jews fit into a system of values and behaviors that included helping the weak and the dependent in general. This analogy, however, has its limitations. Most disinterested actions that benefit others may involve inconvenience, even extreme inconvenience. Only rarely would such acts demand from others the ultimate sacrifice of his or her own life. In fact, for these altruistic rescuers, in wartime there was a convergence between historical events demanding ultimate selflessness and their already established predisposition to help.

For example, Marie Baluszko an outspoken peasant who protected many Jews, said: "I do what I think is right, not what others think is right." At first she did not see that her aid to Jews was an extension of a tradition that involved helping the poor and the destitute. When questioned further about her reasons for aiding Jews, Baluszko was somewhat at a loss for answers. Instead, she asked: "What would you do in my place, if someone comes at night and asks for help?. . . One has to be an animal without a conscience not to help." After a pause, she continued: "In our area there were many large families with small farms; they were very poor. I used to help them; they called me mother. . . . When I was leaving the place people cried. I helped all the poor, all that needed help" (Tec, 1986, p. 165).

Baluszko's reactions suggest that we tend to take our repetitive actions for granted. What we take for granted we accept. What we accept, we rarely analyze or wonder about. In fact, the more firmly established patterns of behavior are, the less likely are these to be examined and analyzed. In a sense, the constant pressure of, or familiarity with, ideas and actions does not mean that we know or understand them. On the contrary, when habitual patterns are accepted and taken for granted, this may impede, rather than promote, understanding.

Closely related to this tendency is another one. Namely, what we are accustomed to repeat we don't see as extraordinary, no matter how exceptional it may seem to others. Thus, the rescuers' past history of helping the needy may explain, at least in part, their modest appraisal of their own life-threatening actions. This modesty was expressed in a variety of ways. In Tec's study, most of the rescuers (66%) perceived their protection of Jews as a natural reaction to human suffering, and almost a third (31%), insisted that saving lives was nothing exceptional. In contrast, only three percent described the saving of Jews as extraordinary. This kind of an attitude, shared by the majority of gentile rescuers, was often expressed as follows: "All of us looked at this help as a natural thing. None of us were heroes; at times we were afraid, but none of us could act differently" (Tec, 1986, p. 169).

The six characteristics and conditions shared by gentile altruistic rescuers can be summarized as follows:

  1. Individuality or separateness, an inability to blend into their social environments;
  2. Independence or self-reliance, a willingness to act in accordance with personal convictions, regardless of how these are viewed by others;
  3. An enduring commitment to stand up for the helpless and needy reflected in a long history of doing good deeds;
  4. A tendency to perceive aid to Jews in a matter-of-fact, unassuming way, as neither heroic nor extraordinary;
  5. An unplanned, unpremeditated beginning of Jewish rescue, a beginning that happened gradually or suddenly, even impulsively; and
  6. Universalistic perceptions of Jews that defined them, not as Jews, but as helpless beings and as totally dependent on the protection of others.

Additional Kinds of Gentile Rescuers

Historical evidence shows that most Jews who survived the Holocaust by living illegally on the Aryan side had benefited from the protection by altruistic gentile rescuers. History shows that, in addition to the altruistic rescuers, there were gentiles who rescued Jews for other reasons.

One of these groups can be called "paid helpers." These were gentiles for whom the protection of Jews was a commercial undertaking. Without payment, such rescues would not have happened. The other group consisted of gentiles who had previously been open, avid anti-Semites. This group of rescuers felt that their hostility to the Jews was partly responsible for German destruction of Jews. They felt that their anti-Semitism contributed to the systematic murder of the Jewish people. Most of these anti-Semitic rescuers were also devout Catholics who, by saving Jews, hoped to atone for their sins.

Jewish Holocaust Rescuers

This category is distinctive in that the rescuers were not gentile. There is scattered evidence of Jews who, although they were targeted for annihilation, had selflessly helped others. An emergent interest in Jews as rescuers has not yet yielded systematic research. Nonetheless, there are some questions that can be profitably asked. How do Jewish rescuers compare to their non-Jewish counterparts? Did the kind of help offered by Gentile and Jewish rescuers vary? If so, how?

During World War II, among the variously persecuted groups, the Germans specifically targeted the Jews for humiliation, followed by annihilation. The realization that all Jews were slated for murder probably affected people's perceptions about them. Deprived of all rights, reduced to the most dependent and degrading position, the Jews were easily perceived as helpless victims, even before they were sent to their deaths. For many people, the belief in the supremacy of the drive for self-preservation, leads us to assume that, when faced with a death sentence, people will concentrate on their own survival rather than on the survival of others.

Closely connected to this expectation is the fact that, during the Nazi era, the perception of Jewish helplessness and humiliation overshadowed all of the victims' other attributes. Certainly, gentile rescuers saw in their Jewish charges only haunted and persecuted human beings. It was, in fact, just this perception of Jewish suffering that prompted the rescuers to give aid.

However, overlooking Jews as rescuers reinforces the perception that those who face overpowering threats are incapable of helping themselves and, by extension, of offering protection to others. Common sense and some available facts seem, at first, to justify such conclusions. When exposed to extreme dangers, people are often paralyzed into inaction. Whether this occurs is, in part, contingent on the extent to which people define a situation as hopeless. Fighting for oneself and for others requires hope. Hope wanes with grave dangers. Danger and no hope often add up to no struggle. Some individuals who have been sentenced to death give up hope. Even heroic revolutionaries, when captured, have usually gone to their executions without opposition.

However, even the slimmest of hopes can inflame the desire to live, making it an all-engrossing preoccupation. Still, a strong personal desire to live need not be translated into a willingness to protect others from becoming victims. Yet, despite all these arguments, there is concrete historical evidence of persecuted Jews who took on additional perilous duties to save others.

In In the Lion's Den and Defiance, Nechama Tec examines the question of Jewish rescuers. Her work is guided by the hypothesis that the more threatening a situation is, the greater is the need for compassion, mutual help, and cooperation. Mutual help and cooperation appear under a variety of guises.

In extremis, distinct forms of mutual help and cooperation appear to be intricately connected to the quality of life and survival. These complex associations, however, await future explorations. Even partial answers to questions pursued through this future research promise fresh insights, insights reaching beyond specific times, places, and circumstances.

SEE ALSO Altruism, Ethical; Holocaust; Wallenberg, Raoul


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Nechama Tec