Amidst the atrocities of WW II emerged shining spirits who helped and sheltered Jews at great risk to their own lives.
Since my recent trip to Germany, I’ve been wondering how ordinary people managed to make it through World War II and especially how people reacted to the plight of the Jews who were being sent away in greater and greater numbers to the concentration camps.
There were hundreds of people in Germany, and more in Holland, Belgium, and France, who risked their lives and the lives of their families by hiding Jews in their homes, often in the attic behind fake walls. We all know the story of Anne Frank and her small group who lived most of the war that way, and were captured just weeks before the war ended. I am in awe of the courage of those “rescuers” who hid those being persecuted. While very much in the minority, these brave souls really existed….but how and where and why?
The book Conscience and Courage, Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by Eva Fogelman, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after WW2, helps to answer those questions. Her father escaped death and was able to survive the war because of the kindness of others: an employer who temporarily hid him, farmers who would bring him food in the forest under cover of darkness, or housewives who quickly shoved milk and bread out their windows to him and then slipped back inside unseen.
Eva’s book is a fascinating study of the psychology behind the “rescuers”, who risked their lives hiding Jews during the war. Eva spent years searching for people who had hidden Jews and learned their stories and she eventually became a founding director of the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers (now the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous) in New York City.
Partly as a result of her extensive research, over 22,000 rescuers from 44 countries (as of 2007) have been honoured in Israel by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Authority, whose mission is to recognize non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.
Years ago, I had heard of a little French town, Le Chambon, where a few town leaders had convinced the townspeople that it was their moral (and religious) duty to hide and rescue fleeing Jews. The amazing story of that town is detailed in the book Lest Innocent Blood be Shed by Philip Haillie and I had always wondered what made this town take on this dangerous mission. Now I’ve learned a number of towns in the Huguenot areas of southern France did the same thing, saving thousands of Jews.
It turns out that several factors usually came together for the rescuer self to emerge and become productive. Not only did you have to feel that this was the right and moral thing to do, but you had to have support from others; be in a situation where action was possible (for example, with a place for people to hide and a way to feed them); and your decision was often linked to the nature of the request and to a conviction that people are all of equal value. In other words, resources, support, stamina, and conviction were all important. In the case of the Huguenots, they had been persecuted themselves, so tolerance of other religions was a part of their mindset.
But still, for each rescuer, the risk was individual, the punishment brutal (usually death), and the danger constant. I am humbled and inspired by the rescuers (some were children), and amazed by their stories of how goodness endures in the midst of evil. Maybe by reading about the heroic acts of the rescuers, a bit of their courage might be absorbed into our cells and become more accessible to us at times when we are called upon to stand up for what we know is right.
The moments of courage in our lives will no doubt be small compared to the selflessness of the rescuers, but at least we are able to look to them for inspiration and remember that human beings are capable not only of unimaginable evil but also of unimaginable good.
“Germans Flush Out Jews in Hiding” Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team
“Memorial erected at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, to those who died there” © Star Weiss All Rights Reserved.
“Front of the Jewish Museum in Berlin” © Star Weiss All Rights Reserved.
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