Who Dared to Rescue Jews, and Why?
Who Dared to Rescue Jews, and Why?
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on people who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Drawing on examples from Poland, it looks at various kinds of rescuers of Jews. More specifically, it considers rescuers who are most often examined in the Holocaust literature, together with the characteristics shared by various types of rescuers such as individuality or separateness. It also analyses the grey areas where altruistic rescue goes hand-in-hand with pursuing financial interests or with anti-Semitism. Finally, the chapter discusses the issue of getting beyond the distinction between non-Jewish and Jewish rescuers.
During World War II, under the German occupation of Europe, the appearance of rescuers of Jews signaled opposition to the German policies of Jewish annihilation. Since the German occupiers targeted all Jews for murder, the rescuing of Jews was a humane response to German assaults. Protection of Jews automatically endangered the lives of rescuers and often their families as well. Nevertheless, with time, each European country had some people who ignored these threats and assumed the role of rescuers of Jews.
Concentrating on various kinds of rescuers of Jews, this paper explores several interrelated issues: What kinds of rescuers of Jews are most frequently examined in the Holocaust literature? What characteristics do the various types of rescuers share? Considering how small the number of rescuers of Jews was, why does interest in them continue to grow?
Most of the Holocaust publications on rescuing Jews refer to Gentiles who selflessly and altruistically risked their lives to save Jews. A substantial part of this research is more specifically based on those Gentile rescuers who were officially recognized by Yad Vashem as “the Righteous Among the Nations of the World.”1 To qualify for such a Yad Vashem (p.102) award the actions performed by these Gentiles had to involve “extending help in saving a life; endangering one's life; absence of reward, monetary and otherwise; and similar considerations which make the rescuers' deeds stand out above and beyond what can be termed ordinary help.” These criteria, to some extent ambiguous, leave little doubt that those who saved Jews solely because of payment do not fit into the definition of “Righteous Gentiles.”2
It is generally agreed that many more of the altruistic Gentile rescuers deserve a Yad Vashem award than have obtained it. A wide range of factors, some known and some unknown, interfere in the issuing of this award. My research on altruistic Gentile rescuers of Jews does not distinguish between those who did and did not receive the Yad Vashem title of “Righteous.” What characteristics did the altruistic Gentile rescuers of Jews share? What prompted these rescuers to risk their lives for Jews who were frequently defined as “Christ killers”?3
When altruistic Polish rescuers were systematically examined, in terms of social class, level of education, type of political involvement, degree of anti-Semitism, extent of religious commitment and friendship with Jews, they proved to be a socially heterogeneous group. None of the comparisons in terms of those attributes had predicted altruistic rescue. Only (p.103) when these rescuers were reexamined at a closer range, in terms of their life styles and special characteristics, did the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, yielding a cluster of six interrelated characteristics and conditions, suggesting a set of interrelated hypotheses.
I identify one of these basic shared characteristics as individuality or separateness. That is, these rescuers did not quite fit into their social environments—a condition they were often unaware of. Their individuality appears under a variety of guises, in turn related to other shared conditions and motivations. Outsiders are, by definition, on the periphery of their communities. Whether they are or are not aware of it, they experience fewer social constraints. With fewer social controls comes greater independence. Freedom from social constraints and independence promote opportunities to act in accordance with personal values and moral precepts, even when these are in opposition to societal expectations.
The Gentile rescuers in my research spoke rarely about their individuality or separateness. But they had no trouble talking about their self-reliance and their need to follow personal inclinations and values. Nearly all of them saw themselves as independent (98 per cent). Jewish survivors also described their protectors as independent and as being motivated by special personal values. Besides, a quality often mentioned in the testimonies and memoirs of survivors, one that comes close to independence, was the rescuers' courage. The overwhelming majority (85 per cent) of Jewish survivors described their protectors as courageous.
With the rescuers' view of themselves as independent came the idea that they were propelled by moral values that did not depend on the support and approval by others. Rather they relied on their own self-approval. Again and again, they repeated that they had to be at peace with themselves and with their own ideas of what was right or wrong.
Closely related to the rescuers' moral convictions and values was their enduring commitment to protect the needy. This commitment was expressed in a wide range of charitable acts that extended over long periods of time. Much of the evidence about the rescuers' selfless acts came from survivors who described their protectors as good-natured and as people whose efforts on behalf of the needy were long-lasting. Risking their lives for Jews fitted into a system of values and behavior that involved helping the weak and the dependent.
This analogy, however, has built-in limitations. Most disinterested actions on behalf of others may involve inconvenience, even extreme (p.104) inconvenience, but only rarely do such acts require the ultimate sacrifice, of one's life. Yet, for these rescuers, during the war, there was a convergence between historical events demanding the ultimate self-sacrifice and their already established habits of helping others. We tend to take our repetitive actions for granted. What we take for granted we accept and rarely analyze or wonder about. In fact, the more firmly established patterns of behavior are, the less likely we are to think about them. In a real sense, constant pressure of and familiarity with ideas and actions does not mean that we know or understand them. On the contrary, when customary patterns are accepted and taken for granted, this often impedes rather than promotes understanding.
In addition, what we are accustomed to repeat we do not see as extraordinary, no matter how exceptional it may seem to others. And so, the rescuers' past history of helping the needy might have been in part responsible for their modest appraisal of their life threatening actions. This modest appraisal was expressed in a variety of ways. Two-thirds of the rescuers saw their protection of Jews as a natural reaction to human suffering and almost a third insisted that saving lives was nothing exceptional. In contrast barely 3 per cent felt that their saving of Jews was extraordinary.
Given these matter-of-fact perceptions of rescue, it is not surprising that help often began in a spontaneous, unpremeditated way, either gradually or suddenly. More than three-quarters of the Jewish survivors reported that their rescue happened without prior preparation. When asked why they had saved Jews, the rescuers overwhelmingly emphasized that they responded to the persecution and the suffering of victims and not to their Jewishness. What compelled them to act was the persecution, the unjust treatment, and not who the victims were.
This ability to disregard all attributes of the needy, except their helplessness and dependence, I refer to as universalistic perceptions. Evidence for the presence of these perceptions comes from a variety of sources. The majority of these rescuers (95 per cent) felt that they were prompted to help by Jewish neediness. This is in sharp contrast to the 26 per cent who claimed to rescue because it was a Christian duty, or the 52 per cent who described rescue as an act of political opposition.
The compelling moral force behind the rescuing of Jews, the universal insistence that what mattered was the victims' position of dependence and their unjust persecution, combined to make such actions universalistic. (p.105) In a sense it was a moral force that motivated the rescuers, independently of personal likes and dislikes. Some were aware that to help the needy Jews, one did not have to like them.
Embedded in the preceding discussion of altruistic rescue and rescuers are six interrelated, shared characteristics and conditions. Together they provide a theoretical explanation of altruistic rescue, suggesting also a profile of these rescuers. A look at rescuers from other countries shows that these theoretical explanations apply to them as well. Briefly these shared characteristics and motivations are: (1) individuality or separateness, which means that they did not quite fit into their respective social environments; (2) independence or self-reliance to act in accordance with personal convictions, regardless of how these were viewed by others; (3) broad commitments to stand up for the needy and an enduring history of performing charitable acts; (4) a tendency to perceive aid to Jews in a matter-of-fact, unassuming way, with consistent denials of heroic or extraordinary qualities of rescue; (5) unpremeditated, unplanned start of rescue, that is, rescue which was extended gradually or suddenly, even impulsively; and (6) universalistic perceptions about the Jews. Rather than seeing Jews in those they were about to protect, they saw them as people totally dependent on aid from others. Such perceptions come with an ability to disregard all attributes except those expressing extreme suffering and need.4
These altruistic Gentile rescuers of Jews do not exhaust all categories of rescuers. The qualitative Holocaust evidence suggests other kinds of rescuers. During one of my interviews with a survivor, I asked whether she was grateful to the man who had saved her. She answered with a question: “Why should I be grateful? …He loved money…He did it only for money, besides every week he kept raising the price…and threatened that if the war would drag on, he would not keep me.”5
This exchange alerted me to a different kind of rescuer. I realized that most Jewish survivors whose protection had depended on payment shared negative attitudes about their Gentile rescuers. Moreover, views about rescue for profit spilled over into other situations. Some who had altruistically protected Jews were insulted when others suspected that their (p.106) protection of Jews was motivated by a desire for profit. One rescuer, who was recognized as a “Righteous among the Nations,” complained: “For many years, I was accused of having saved Jews for money. These ideas were like a curse hanging over me. There was no way in which I could have made them (the accusers) change their minds…”
These consistently negative attitudes about rescuers whose basic motivation for saving Jews was profit explain why the Holocaust literature includes no direct evidence from these “profit” rescuers. Nor did such rescuers write any wartime memoirs about their aid to Jews. Perhaps they were embarrassed to admit that they made a business out of saving lives. Information about their wartime protection of Jews comes only indirectly, from Jews who were protected for profit.
How should this kind of Gentile rescuer be defined? All these profitseeking individuals risked their lives when saving Jews, just as the altruistic rescuers did. Nevertheless, in significant ways, they do not fit into the category of those who selflessly protected Jews. I refer to them as “paid helpers” rather than rescuers. Paid helpers are individuals whose aid to Jews was motivated mainly by financial gain. Excluded from this category are those who might have accepted payment but for whom payment was neither the only nor the main reason for rescuing Jews. What do we know about the paid helpers?
In a sample of over 300 Jews who benefited from the protection of Gentiles, only a minority of 16 per cent was protected by Gentiles whose main reason for helping was profit. Jews who describe their experiences with paid helpers report practices involving a range of mistreatment: demands for higher payment, deliberate starvation, threats to throw them out, even murder.6
Why did the paid helpers behave so differently from the altruistic rescuers? Answers are at once speculative and tempting. Unlike human life, money as a means to an end is rational and quantitative, leaving hardly room for passionate emotions.7 Free of feelings, monetary transactions are impersonal arrangements. Life, on the other hand, is an emotional, (p.107) most highly valued entity. Risking and sacrificing one's life calls for a readiness to give up what is deeply cherished. Because we tend to separate passion from rationality, we object when rational and emotional forces intrude upon each other. Given the rational nature of money, to use it as a basis for emotionally valuable parts of life is a travesty, denying the essential quality of life. In as much as life-threatening actions involve a high level of emotionality, to use money as a reason for life threatening actions undermines the very value and essence of life.
In some ways paid helpers were caught in a vicious circle. With the economic improvement that came with the Jewish presence, reasons for sheltering them disappeared. Yet it was difficult and dangerous for paid helpers to disengage themselves from this relationship. Such a disengagement was life-threatening. Had the Jew revealed that the paid helper offered him protection, then both the Jew and the helper were equally guilty of a crime. In the absence of moral commitments to rescue, there was hardly anything that could prevent these paid helpers from feeling anxious and trapped. Some reacted by asking the Jews to leave, some denounced them, some murdered them, and some continued to mistreat them. Ill-treatment might have served as an outlet, a way of venting their pent-up frustrations and disappointments.
The reactions of these paid helpers were not necessarily homogenous. Moreover, information about them is based only on the survivors' accounts, with built-in limitations. How many Jews were protected mainly for commercial reasons and how many were betrayed or murdered by those whom they paid remains a mystery. On the other hand, in the few cases where a warm relationship developed, it might have served as a buffer against negative reactions on the part of these paid helpers. Still, we know that the small proportion of Jews who were saved exclusively for money suffered because both they and those willing to risk their lives for payment were soon caught in their own cycle of dangers, frustrations, and helplessness. In this life-threatening and unstable situation, money could serve only as a transient, inadequate incentive—an incentive that soon denied its own significance.8
Yet another kind of rescuer was suggested to me by my research into Gentile Polish rescuers. It was unexpected and intriguing to find rescuing of Jews by avid Polish anti-Semites. This theme had occasionally surfaced (p.108) in the course of my research without directing me to a careful study on the subject.9 Who were these anti-Semitic rescuers of Jews and what does the rescuing of Jews by anti-Semites mean? I define anti-Semitic rescuers of Jews as individuals who through their actions and/or ideology had the reputation of anti-Semites, and who were aware of this image. They were overt anti-Semites. One of them, Jan Mosdorf, had caught the imagination of many who had touched on the subject; some survivors were interested in Jan Mosdorf ’s help to Jews.
Mosdorf came from a socially prominent family. He was a devout Catholic, a national leader of the extreme right (ONR), and a distinguished lawyer. Mosdorf’s reputation as an anti-Semite was well known. He was also politically active, both before and during the war. His patriotism and nationalism precluded cooperation with the Germans. Threatened by Mosdorf’s political influence and independence, the Germans sent him to Auschwitz. He participated in the camp's underground and became known for his help not only to Gentile Poles, but also to Jews. Unexpected as his aid to Jews was, it led to many exaggerated claims. In the end, a Polish inmate denounced Mosdorf as a Communist and a Jewish sympathizer. Mosdorf was promptly executed.
Among the anti-Semitic Poles who stood up for Jews, the name of Leon Nowodworski is also frequently mentioned. Before the war, as the dean of the Council of Lawyers, he supported the exclusion of Jews from the legal profession. Like Mosdorf, Nowodworski came from an upper-class family. He was also an influential and active member of the highly anti-Semitic National Democratic Party. Yet, during the war, despite his overt anti-Semitism, he openly disobeyed a Nazi order and refused to dismiss Jews from the bar, arguing that Poles would deal with the Jewish question later on in a free Poland. For his disobedience, he was sent to prison.
I have interviewed Jan Dobraszynski, a well-known writer, who made his anti-Jewish views known through his publications. A conservative and a devout Catholic, he looked with disfavor on the Jewish presence in Poland. Nevertheless, as a director of the Warsaw's Municipality's social welfare division, he had illegally placed 300 Jewish children in orphanages and convents by signing orders for their acceptance.10
Resemblances among these few anti-Semitic rescuers suggest some tentative conclusions. Most of them were devout Catholics; all were highly nationalistic, intellectual, and socially prominent. It is probably no coincidence that most of them were socially prominent and highly intellectual. Nor is it an accident that most were devout Catholics. The Catholic Church asks of its followers a reassessment of their values. This option, however, is more likely open to intellectual Catholics. Rather than follow the religious precepts in a narrow, concrete way, these anti-Semitic, intellectual rescuers had reflected on the meanings and implications of their anti-Semitism. As devout Catholics and intellectuals some of them saw the connection between their anti-Semitism and the devastating persecution of the Jewish people. Some felt responsible for the Jewish suffering, concluding that their personal anti-Semitism was partly responsible for the injustices that were committed against the Jewish people. As devout Catholics they had to repent for their sins. For a few, the redemption led to protection of Jews. In view of the many forces that had to be overcome in the process of saving Jews, it is not surprising that the Polish rescuers who were overt anti-Semites were a rare and small group. Anti-Semitic rescuers remain an intriguing, hardly noticed kind of rescuers.
In addition to the kinds of rescuers of Jews mentioned, the Holocaust literature contains scattered references to Jews who took on the role of selfless rescuers. I became aware of Jewish rescuers by chance, when I examined Oswald Rufeisen's testimony. In 1939, Oswald was a Jewish youth of seventeen. He survived by pretending to be half Polish and half German. Through an unusual set of circumstances, he became an interpreter and secretary to the head of a German gendarmerie, in Mir, a small town in Western Belorussia. With the acceptance of this position came a determination to help all prospective victims of the Nazis. Eventually, Oswald took advantage of opportunities offered by his official position and saved an entire Belorussian village, a large but unknown number of Russian POWs, partisans, and hundreds of Jews. He armed Jews in the Mir ghetto and arranged a ghetto breakout. As a result 305 ghetto inmates escaped into the surrounding forests; most of them survived the war.11 Rufeisen's war-time (p.110) history shows that he was at once a survivor and a rescuer. My subsequent study of Rufeisen alerted me to the existence of Jewish rescuers. This research led to my additional research on Jewish rescue of Jews.12 Examining partisan groups in forested areas like those of Western Belorussia I came upon a Jewish detachment, the Bielski partisans. The history of the Bielski group began in these inaccessible forests in 1942, with forty Jews who formally organized a partisan detachment. The charismatic Tuvia Bielski, a former Jewish peasant, became the group's commander. Tuvia introduced an open door policy that admitted all Jews regardless of who they were. Influenced in part by a war ideology of the forest, the Bielski unit focused on mutual cooperation, on rescue and survival. With time this group became obsessed with the idea of rescuing Jews, particularly those who had no way to find shelter. This unit participated in military ventures because it had to, as this was the accepted way, not because it wanted to. In 1944 when the Soviets recaptured the area, the Bielski detachment numbered more than 1,200 Jews. Most of them were women, older people, and children, precisely those whom no one in the forest wanted. Gradually, I realized that many more Jews whose lives I had studied previously had participated in different kinds of rescue. Earlier, I had had no idea of Jewish rescuers.
Why this oversight? Was my conceptual blindness caused by the idea that self-preservation is the most basic human drive—even though I knew that altruistic Gentile rescuers were risking their lives to save Jews and that through these actions they were defying the principle of selfpreservation? Only when I directly came upon Jewish rescuers did my awareness about them emerge. I saw clearly that some survivors I had already studied engaged in rescue. Voices pointing to research into Jewish rescuers had been heard,13 but as yet, they did not lead to systematic research into Jewish rescuers.
Why this inattention? Exploration of this subject must begin with an understanding of the reasons for the initial inattention to it. Under the (p.111) German occupation, among the different categories of persecuted groups, the Jews were targeted for total annihilation. Deprived of all rights, pushed into most dependent and humiliating positions, Jews were easily seen as victims even before their death. And because we believe in the supremacy of self-preservation, we assume that when faced with a cruel death, people concentrate on their own survival rather than on the survival of others. Closely connected to this expectation is the reality that under the occupation Jews' helplessness and humiliation overshadowed all of their other attributes. Some altruistic Gentile rescuers whom I studied argued that in the Jews they helped they saw only haunted and persecuted human beings, and it was their suffering that motivated them to engage in rescue. Often, Gentile rescuers would add that because the Jews were in the worst predicament they could not even help themselves.14 I must have tacitly accepted the implied assertion that those who face overpowering threats are incapable of helping themselves and, by extension, of offering aid to others.
Common sense and some available facts seem to justify such conclusions. Exposed to extreme dangers people may be paralyzed into inaction. Whether this occurs depends in part 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. And so, it is not uncommon for individuals who have been sentenced to death to give up hope. Most heroic revolutionaries when captured have been known to go to their execution without a struggle.15
Perhaps my initial insensitivity to Jewish rescuers was based on the idea that one could not be a victim and a rescuer at the same time. Was I agreeing with the Gentile rescuers I studied, who felt that, as victims, the Jews could not even help themselves?
In view of the Jews' plight, this assumption makes sense; they were made powerless, and were deprived of all options. The expectation that the Jews could not act on anyone's behalf makes sense. Still, theoretically, and under special circumstances, a victim may also be a rescuer. Extreme (p.112) situations lead to extreme reactions. At this point I can only suggest the need to further study Jews who assumed the roles of rescuers.
Finally, why, when faced with many unanswered questions about rescue and rescuers, does interest this area continue to grow?
It is comforting to know that there were some people, no matter how few, who were willing to sacrifice their lives and interfered with the murderous assaults against a people whose only sin was having been born Jewish. Thus, the mere presence of altruistic rescuers suggests that a criminal and murderous political system could not extinguish all expressions of mutual caring and basic goodness.
Jan Karski, a “Righteous among the Nations,” a World War II hero, an emissary for the Polish underground and the Polish Government in Exile, justified our continuous interest in rescue. Karski was convinced that even though in wartime Europe those who murdered Jews by far outnumbered those who saved them, it is counterproductive to concentrate only on the murderers of Jews and ignore the minority that saved them. Karski felt that at least for two reasons we cannot ignore the few who rescued Jews. First, it would be incorrect to forget the rescuers who were a morally significant part of history. This history shows that thousands of Gentiles tried to save Jews and were ready to die for them: some did. Second, to deny altruistic rescuing of Jews, we perpetuate the idea that “everybody hates the Jews.” Not everyone hates the Jews. Noble, Gentile rescuers felt that Jews were valuable enough to risk their lives for them. To ignore these bright glimmers of light would be historically incorrect and psychologically unhealthy.16 The very presence, and the study, of such rescuers undermines anti-Semitism.
(1) Examples of such titles are Gay Block and Malka Drucker, Rescuers, New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1992; Eva Fogelman, Conscience and Courage, New York, Doubleday, 1994; Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2003; Phillip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, New York, Harper and Row, 1979; Peter Hellman, Avenue of the Righteous, New York, Atheneum, 1980; Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality, New York, The Free Press, 1988; Kazimierz Iranek-Os-mecki, He Who Saves One Life, New York, Crown Publishers, 1971; Mordechai Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, Hoboken, NJ, KTAV,/JFCR/ADL, 1993; Michael Phayer and Eva Fleischner, Cries in the Night, Women who Challenged the Holocaust, Kansas City, Sheed & Ward, 1997; Alexander Ramati, The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews, New York, Stein & Day, 1978; Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi Occupied Poland, New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.
(2) Nechama Tec, op. cit., pp. 3–4.
(3) To be consistent, I nevertheless used only fictitious names in this book. The evidence for this discussion is based on 189 Gentile Poles who selflessly rescued Jews and 309 Jewish survivors who survived by passing through or hiding in the forbidden Christian world. Part of this comes from various archival collections. Another part of this information comes my personal in-depth interviews with Gentile rescuers and Jewish survivors.
(4) Nechama Tec, op. cit., pp. 150–83. These discussions rely on Chapter 10.
(6) Nechama Tec, When Light…, op. cit., pp. 87–98. A vivid example of abuse and murder by a paid helper is provided by Thomas (Toivi) Blatt, From the Ashes of Sobibor, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1997, pp. 181–7.
(7) S.P. Altmann, “Simmel's Philosophy of Money,” American Journal of Sociology 9, 1903, pp. 46–68; Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, Boston, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
(8) Nechama Tec, When Light…, op. cit., p. 97.
(11) Nechama Tec, Oswald Rufeisen: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen, New York, Oxford University Press, 1990.
(12) Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.
(13) Marion Pritchard, “Circles of Caring: An Insider's View,” Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1990; Marion Pritchard, “Rescue and Resistance in the Netherlands,” in John Michalczyk, Resisters, Rescuers and Refugees. Historical and Ethical Issues, Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littledfield Publ., pp. 193–8.
(14) Nechama Tec, When Light…, op. cit, One of the rescuers, Dr Estowski, insisted-that, “After all, a Pole could somehow help himself, but the Jew was in a more horrible situation and could in no way help himself.” p. 177.
(15) A vivid example of this is found in Hersh Smolar, The Minsk Ghetto, New York, Holocaust Library, 1989. Smolar describes a planned revolt by Russian prisoners of war and how its leaders were slaughtered by the Germans, pp. 61–3.
(16) Jan Karski, Personal Interview, by phone, December 1999. Nechama Tec, “A Glimmer of Light,” in C. Rittner, S. Smith and I. Steinfeldt (eds), The Holocaust and the Christian World, Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre and Yad Vashem, 2000, pp. 150–5.