Christian Rescuers

Talk by Stanlee I. Stahl
Executive Director, The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous
Mobile, Alabama
April 18, 2001

More than sixty years ago the world went dark and for European Jewry a nightmare began. Yet in every darkness there are particles of light. During the Holocaust, those lights were the Hasadi Ha'umot Olam -- "The Righteous Among the Nations" - non-Jews - men and women, who sixty years ago had the courage to care -- these were the lone lights in the darkness. A darkness many thought would never end.

Let me ask you, before Steven Speilberg's film "Schindler's List" did you know who Oskar Schindler was? Presumably everyone here has heard of Anne Frank? How many of you know the names of the people who hid Anne Frank and her family? Do you know the name of the rescuer of Tuve Bamberger?

Who were Christian rescuers, how did they help, what were the obstacles to rescue, and why did they risk their lives to save Jews?

While rescue occurred in every country that was occupied by the Germans, I will speak on rescue in Poland. For it was in Poland where most of the rescue took place. The Nazi's designated Poland as the center for Jewish destruction and annihilation. Poland provides the key to an understanding of the Holocaust in general and to the rescuing of Jews by righteous Christians in particular.

When one looks at the phenomena of Christian rescue and how it came about, it is necessary to look at the context in which the Jews found themselves. We need to understand the nature of the Jewish community of Poland and what was happening to them in order to understand how hard it was to save a Jew.

Let us first look at the Jews of pre-war Poland. In 1939, of all the European countries, Poland had the highest concentration of Jews. Jews made up 10 percent of the country's population. As the largest community of Jews in Europe, Polish Jews were also the least assimilated. They looked, dressed, and behaved differently from Poles. While some of these differences can be traced directly to religious requirements that called for special dress and rituals, there were other differences.

The majority of Jews lived in cities and were employed in manufacturing and commerce. Most Poles lived in the countryside and lived off the land. Jews and Poles lived in separate worlds. It has been estimated that more than 80 percent of the Polish Jews were easily recognizable.

Now let us look at the situation the Jews found themselves in. As a general rule, each country's mass murders were preceded by a carefully orchestrated sequence of violation of rights. Regardless of the country - Poland, Holland, Ukraine - there were four stages of destruction: 1) identification; 2) expropriation and removal from employment; 3) isolation; and 4) annihilation. After a certain point had been reached, it became too late to save Jews or for a Jew to save themselves.

The removal of Jews from their residences into ghettoes was the beginning of the end. Still, many Jews clung to the false hope dangled before them that as bad as things were, they would not get worse. What this meant was that few Jews gave serious thought to survival outside the ghettoes. As long as it was possible to go on hoping, most did. It is said the Jews of Europe had choiceless choices. Only when such hope was so obviously futile did the possibility of other options present themselves. For most, this occurred towards the end of the summer of 1941.

At that point two things began to happen. The Germans began to seal off the ghettoes. In October 1941, they announced their decree demanding the death penalty for all Jews who left the ghetto without permission. This decree further specified that "the same punishment applies to persons who knowingly provide hiding places for Jews" - to help a Jew meant death.

Escape to the Christian world for a Jew was a major undertaking - an undertaking that was not done lightly. Reaching the Christian world meant an illegal departure either from the ghetto, during a deportation, or from a concentration camp. Runaways from concentration camps were rare. Escaping to the non-Jewish world was never certain, either for those who had definite plans for leaving or for those who were caught totally unprepared. The Nazis were careful to keep secret all dates for pending actions. Suddenly and without warning, they would add extra guards, surround a ghetto, and then proceed to round up part or all of its inhabitants.

During the final months of the Warsaw ghetto, Alexander Roslan offered shelter to the aunt of three young Jewish boys he was already hiding. The aunt thanked him for the offer but asked if it could be postponed until after Passover so she could celebrate the holiday in ghetto with her friends. The final Nazi aktion against the Warsaw ghetto was launched on the first day of Passover. The aunt was taken to Auschwitz and was not heard from again.

The Germans adhered to the principle of collective responsibility. Family members and Jews in general were punished for each others' transgressions. If an illegal departure were discovered, others could pay with their lives. The Germans kept exact records.

Some of those who might have saved themselves did not because they could not part from their families. Strong attachments and love could and did prevent survival. At times, Poles would offer to take Jewish children, particularly if they did not look Jewish. While some parents welcomed such an offer, others simply could not face the separation. In these instances the consequences were tragic, usually resulting in death.

Those who planned to leave for the Christian side tried to obtain forged documents that would identify them as Poles. Jews who obtained false papers had to learn many new facts to support their new identities - names, dates, places regarding not only themselves but also their fictitious relatives. A slip could mean disaster. Becoming well acquainted with one's new identity was only a small part of what a passing Jews had to know. Familiarity with the Catholic religion was essential. Religious ignorance in Poland was rare.

Who then was likely to contemplate a move to the Aryan side? Physical attributes played a part in this decision since Poles had a definite image of what a Jew looked like - features such as a long nose, dark curly hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion. In contrast, to be blue-eyed and blond, the "typically Polish look," was a definite advantage, and those with such an appearance were more receptive to the idea of changing their identity.

In reality, not many passing Jews seem to have conformed to this image. The majority had neutral features. Regardless of appearance, Jewish men, for obvious reasons, were in special jeopardy. Therefore passing was more dangerous for men than for women.

Aside from physical attributes, the extent of assimilation also contributed to the willingness and ability to move into the Christian world and the willingness of Christians to help Jews. In Poland, Jewish assimilation was the exception rather than the rule. For centuries Jews and Poles lived apart and in different worlds. Whatever contacts there had been between them were commercial rather than social. Partly because of this, each felt like a stranger in the world of the other.

Yet of all Polish Jews fewer than 10 percent could be described as assimilated. It is no surprise that Jews who survived by passing tended to be more assimilated than the rest. Assimilation by Polish Jews could be expressed by their ability to use the Polish language. In the 1931 Polish census, only 12 percent of the Jews identified Polish as their native language. But more than familiarity with the language was required. Special phrases or expressions, even if correct, could be traced to the speaker's origin. For example, when someone bought a new garment a Jew was likely to comment by saying, "Tear it in good health," or "wear it in good health." These expressions are a direct translation from Yiddish. While most of the time Jews were unaware of their peculiar use of the language, the listening Poles were sensitive to all such nuances.

So who would make a move to the Aryan or Non-Jewish side? Someone young, without family ties, someone who spoke Polish without a trace of Jewishness, someone assimilated who felt at ease with Poles, someone whose physical appearance conformed to the Polish look. Most Jews who passed had help from Christians. This composite profile suggests that the majority of Polish Jews - the religious, the uneducated, those with limited incomes, the laborers and the tradesmen were unlikely to pass. Therefore, those who crossed over to the Aryan side had to go into hiding.

To save Jews, while their own lives were threatened, required Polish rescuers to cope with a formidable combination of physical, psychological, and social pressure and barriers. Let us look at them.

While individual rescue experiences varied, when looked at in combination, they point to two broad impediments: Polish antisemitism and German implementation of the Final Solution.

The cultural climate of Poland was antagonistic toward Jews. Polish anti-Semitism hindered the rescue of Jews. The environment in which Polish rescuers lived was hostile to the Jews and unfavorable to their protection. Poles were reminded at every turn that Jews were unworthy, low creatures and that helping them was not only dangerous but also reprehensible. Complicating the picture is the fact that most Christians helpers attributed to the Jews not only negative images but also many valued and positive traits -- superior intelligence, self-discipline, hard work, close family ties. It was not unusual for the same person to see the Jew in both negative and positive terms.

While Polish antisemitism facilitated and contributed to Jewish annihilation, it was not responsible for it. The ultimate responsibility for the creation and implementation of the Final Solution lies with the Germans. Their policies and actions functioned as the most powerful obstacles and barriers to Jewish protection. The Germans employed the concept of collective responsibility against the Poles who helped saved Jews. Collective responsibility remained an awesome reality. All Poles knew that to help Jews was to risk one's life as well as those of their family. Equally chilling was the practice of public executions -- the Germans wanted eyewitness accounts. If you were caught hiding a Jew in Poland you and your family were killed. If you denounced a Pole who was hiding a Jew you received a pound of sugar and a pair of boots. That was what a Jew's life was worth.

Did this principle of collective responsibility prevent Poles with families from participating in Jewish rescue? Most Polish rescuers were married - many had children. A majority of the rescuers had the support of their families in their efforts to save Jews. Yet some Poles preferred to conceal their help to Jews even from their family. Some were not sure they could trust their family, others wanted to shield them from possible death.

How did the rescuer-rescued relationship begin and what kinds of help was given? In most cases it was the Jews who asked for help. Of the Polish rescuers studied by Nechama Tec, less than a third initiated their help to Jews. Usually help began gradually, shelter for a night or two, which turned into months and then years.

If a Jew survived the Holocaust and was not in a ghetto, a concentration camp or with the partisans, that person received help from a Christian. Whether it was food, papers, shelter, transportation, or not being denounced. As insignificant as an act might seem, the absence of that act more often than not could be fatal.

Poles warned Jews about pending actions. However, once warned most Jews were not able to take advantage of the information. A move to the Christian side required arrangements. The presence of a Pole who would take the Jew out of the ghetto or from one home to another on the Christian side was very important. An overwhelming majority of rescuers did at one time or another escort Jews. Children who were escorted were repeatedly told -- look at your toes, don't look up.

The provision of shelter for Jews was essential and was the most common form of help offered. Poles who hid Jews were faced with more burdens than those who were officially registered and had ration cards.

Hiding a Jew was fraught with problems. First the rescuer had to create a hiding place, which could not be detected. Hiding places ran the gamut from barns, to false closets, to earthen bunkers. Most were primitive. Digging a hole was a problem, where would the Pole put the dirt? One rescuer, who had dug a hold beneath his living room floor, carried out the dirt in his jacket and pants pockets, night after night.

Rescuers had to be careful when they purchased food. A family of four would look suspicious if they started buying food for ten. Families would shop in different markets, in different villages, at different times of the day so as not to arouse suspicion.

When a Jew got sick, getting medical help was next to impossible. Alexander Roslan hid three young Jewish brothers, David, Sholom, and Jacob Gutgold. They had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto. Alexander's son contracted Scarlet Fever and so did Jacob and Shalom. Alex's son was admitted to the hospital and each day he saved half of his medicine for Jacob and Shalom. Jacob survived; however, Shalom died. When a Jew in hiding died the disposal of the body was dangerous. In a number of instances the body would be dismembered and disposed of during several nights.

What kind of people were rescuers? Rescuers came from all walks of life - they were peasants, laborers, middle class and intellectuals. They were rich and poor, educated and illiterate. Some were in the clergy - individual priests and nuns did help shelter Jews.

Why did they do what they did? When asked, most will tell you that they did nothing special. They don't consider themselves to be heroes. They did what any Christian would do or what any Pole, Dane or Frenchman would have done under similar circumstances.

Some of the rescuers had Jewish friends before the war, others did not. Some of the rescuers were known anti-Semites. These anti-Semites saved Jews for any number of reasons - they were against the Germans, they felt for the plight of the Jews. Most who helped did not set out to rescue Jews, it happened gradually. For some the stress was too much and they sent the Jews they were hiding out.

When reviewing studies of rescuers, a number of shared characteristics are described. They include: 1) individuality; 2) high level of independence; 3) strong commitment to help the needy; 4) matter-of-fact attitude toward rescue that sees it as a mere duty; and 5) an unplanned beginning to rescue efforts. Each act of rescue was different, each story is unique. The fact that it occurred, that there were those who cared is important.

I have met rescuers - Christian men and women - human beings from all walks of life and from many countries that the Germans occupied, who risked their lives, and the lives of their families, and lost their possessions to hide, protect, and feed Jews. I have examined the testimony of survivors who are alive today because of people who acted selflessly to hide Jews sought out by the Germans and their collaborators; who lied to authorities, falsified papers, and who lost their fortunes. Not saints, these rescuers, but human beings who transcended the environs of prejudice and contempt and shielded Jews out of care, concern, responsibility and love.

I want my son and all of our children to know the entire story -- the killers of the dream, the sadists and torturers of innocence. But equally I want him to know these significant others. I want all of our children to be exposed as I have been to precious persons such as Irena Sendler who smuggled more than 1,000 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. I want them to know that she was captured and tortured by the Gestapo, yet she did not reveal the names and the hiding places of the children. I want them to know about Alexander Roslan.

Should our children not know of the courage:

  • of the citizens of Le Chambon Sur Lignon, a small village in central France, who saved 5,000 Jews?

  • of Aristedes de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux who issued thousands of visas giving entry to Portugal?

  • of Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese consul stationed in Kovno, Lithuania, who saved 3,500 Polish Jews by issuing travel visas to Japan?

  • of Paul Gruinger, the Swiss police official, who let Jews enter Switzerland?

    Mendes, Sugihara, and Gruinger defied the Germans and their respective governments - they lost their positions, their fortunes, and were publicly humiliated for their acts of altruism. Their actions account for the rescue of 16,500 persecuted Jews.

    There is something tragically wrong that our children know the names of Hitler, Eichman and Himmler but not the names or exploits of the Christian families who hid Anne Frank and her family in the attic for more than two years. Look at the Encyclopedia Judaica, more than a page is devoted to Anne Frank's story. However, the only reference to the Christians who tried to save her reads: From July 9, 1942, until August 4, 1944, the Frank family remained in their hiding place, kept alive by friendly Gentiles."

    The philosopher Woodbridge once observed abstractly what the rescuers lived concretely. There are times when a person ought to be more afraid of living than of dying. There are times when one must be more afraid of gaining popular success than of admitting to private failure. There are times when one must be more afraid of obedience to authority than acts of insubordination.

    Rescuers have taught us -- they give us a legacy of hope for the next millennium. Stand up for the stranger in your midst. Stand up for the other side. Enter the battle to protect the threatened minority. We are all of us somewhere - sometimes all minorities. Each of us has the power to hold out a hand to someone different, to increase even by a tiny amount the quality of kindness in this world. Each of us can light a small candle in the cave and help illuminate it.

    There are no heroes without villains. There are no Alexander Roslans, Irena Sendlers, Sempho Sugiharas without the Mengels and Himmlers. People ask, how many rescuers were there? Estimates range from 50,000 to 250,000. Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial, has recognized 18,000 as "Righteous Among the Nations of the World" -- what a wonderful title. Whatever the number, there were too few. There are always too few moral heroes in history.

    Jewish tradition teaches that for the sake of thirty-six righteous persons the world is sustained; for the sake of ten righteous persons Sodom and Gomorrah would not have been destroyed; and that the saving of one person is tantamount to saving the entire world. Many worlds were saved by rescuers.

    Speaking of numbers, a Dutch Christian rescuer used the expression "the conspiracy of goodness." "Do you think," he said, "that I could have hidden that Jewish family without the knowledge and cooperation of the grocer, the milkman, the policeman? If evil has many faces, goodness has many forms. Goodness must not be whittled down by numbers.

    Goodness must not be trivialized. At a Holocaust conference, someone seriously asked "Was it so hard to help a Jew?" To hide a Jew was a matter of life and death. On January 29, 1943, the SS executed fifteen Poles in the village of Wierbicz, included in the fifteen was a two-year-old child. Their crime, they hid Jews. Ninety-six Polish men were murdered by the Germans in the village of Biala for hiding and feeding Jews.

    Goodness is a powerful mirror. Goodness challenges us in the way that evil does not. Compared to Eichman, I am a saint; but compared to Irena Sendler or Alexander Roslan, how do I measure up? Would I unlock the door? Would I take into my home this sick man, this pregnant woman, this frightened family? Would I keep them for days, weeks, months, years, knowing that discovery meant death. How do I buy food in my impoverished community? How do I call a doctor for someone who doesn't exist, or bury a body without detection?

    The Jewish people possess sacred testimony, a double memory of the worst and the best: the memory of indescribable evil, and the memory of the precious human capacity to do good.

    It is the goal of The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to honor and support these lights in the darkness. The Foundation, which was established by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, endeavors to fulfill the traditional Jewish commitment to hakarat hatov, the searching out and recognition of goodness.

    Just as Oscar Schindler had his list of 1,200 Jewish men, women and children whom he saved, The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous has its list. It provides monthly financial grants to more than 1,700 aged and needy rescuers in twenty-eight countries. These unassuming, dignified people are often reluctant to ask for help. They acted without expecting reward, then or now. We help them live out their remaining years in dignity.

    In addition to providing needed financial assistance to rescuers, the Foundation's education program teaches teachers the history of the Holocaust and within that contextual setting rescuer. We address the issues of moral courage, altruistic behavior and personal responsibility.

    Our education program does not diminish the horror of the Holocaust, if anything it is more powerful. When you teach that there were seven hundred million people in Nazi occupied Europe and Eastern Europe, and only a handful helped the Jews, there is usually a student who asks what did the rest of the people do. Then you discuss can indifference kill? Yes my friends, indifference can kill. We must teach our children and our children's children and ourselves that we must take a stand, that one person can make a difference. For at some point in our lives we may be called upon to make a decision. We have so many lessons to learn from Christian rescuers.

    Rescuers serve as role models for us and for future generations. Without their example, we have only the lessons of brutality, hatred and unspeakable suffering to teach to our children. The rescuers saved the honor of humanity for us all. It has been said that these were ordinary people who did extraordinary deeds. Rescuers fought for human decency at a time when the world went mad.

    I leave you with the following question. What would you have done more than fifty years ago if someone came to you and asked you to shelter them, to take their child. When discovery meant death. To hide someone who perhaps dressed differently than you, did not speak your language, worshipped a different religion, someone you did not even know. When you did not have enough food for your own family let alone a stranger. What would you have done?

    In closing, the name of the rescuer who saved Tuve Bamberger is Preben Munch Nielsen from Denmark, the rescuer my son has been writing to and whose boat is on display at the USHMM.