When Gay Block and I began our work about rescuers, non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust, we had no idea of the danger of our subject. It is tempting to make Jewish rescue more than it was. Many of us will grasp at anything that helps to soften the agony of confronting the Holocaust. When we study the rescuers, we must never forget the context of their deeds. In Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews were hunted and they were doomed, even when they fought back. Historically, the rescuers deserve at most a paragraph in a book about Holocaust, because in number, they were a raindrop in an ocean of indifference.
Yet, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically, the rescuers deeds are without measure. As the Yad Vashem medal given to rescuers says, “Whoever saves a single life is as one who has saved the entire world.” Besides saving lives, the rescuers preserved humanity’s honor. Perhaps most importantly, they inspire us today to the highest and the best we can do, Still, the Holocaust is a sacred memory, and when we talk about rescue, we must not forget the millions who perished without ever seeing a rescuer.
Our work on the rescuers began in 1986 when my rabbi, Harold Schulweis, told me about his efforts to create a foundation to acknowledge and help the hasidei umot ha-olam, the righteous among the nations-(non-Jews), who risked their lives to save Jews. For twenty-five years Rabbi Schulweis had been talking to the Jewish community about the rescuers but few listened. The Holocaust evoked only pain and anger. But Schulweis persisted, believing that if the Jewish people were to heal from the trauma, the path had to be through forgiveness, and forgiveness could only come by knowing of the tens of thousands who helped to save some of the 500,000 Jews who survived the war.
His other motivation was more personal. He wanted to tell his children about the Holocaust but didn’t know how until he heard about the rescuers. They gave him a way to begin. The Holocaust reinforces what most children already know: the world contains unjustified evil. The rescuers teach another lesson: the world also contains unjustified, amazing good.
When we teach Holocaust to Jewish children, especially, we must tell them that we weren’t entirely alone. We must tell them that while nations abandoned us, individuals sheltered us. If we tell children only of the horror, we destroy their innocence. We will leave them frightened and enraged, incendiary emotions that can lead to more prejudice. The lesson of the Holocaust must not be to fear and to hate Germans. The Shoah is a searing example of how intolerance leads to oppression-its legacy must not be hatred.
Because I write for young people, Rabbi Schulweis suggested that I write a book for them about the rescuers. All I knew about these people was that there was an avenue of the righteous at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. This was a path flanked by carob trees, each marked by a small plague inscribed with the name of a person who had rescued Jews. I assumed these people were dead and the trees were their memorial.
When I told Gay that I wanted to write the book, she said: “It sound as if these people are alive. I’d like to photograph them.” And that’s how the project began.
Except that Gay and I are Jews, we had no personal connection to the Holocaust. This may have been a disadvantage because we had no special motivation. On the other hand, because it wasn’t our particular grief, we were able to delve deeply, and through our imaginations, live in that time.
The subject compelled us but at first we couldn’t tell you why. Many people, Jews and non-Jews, read every book and see every film but we had never done that. We questioned the fascination. Maybe, the Holocaust’s grip is in its revelation of new frontiers in human behavior. We ask Semmy Riekerk, a Dutch rescuer, what she had learned from the war and she answered: “I saw the best and the worst in human beings.” The Holocaust redefined our understanding of human character.
After the first interview, Gay and I knew our reason for meeting the rescuers was intimate and immediate. These people who had risked their lives to save others seemed to have found the meaning of life. Many of us struggle to find our purpose, our true work in the world. We earn money, win prizes and gain positions, and yet we still do not feel fulfilled. In their old age, the rescuers were at peace, knowing that the sacrifice they had made in their youth had given them far more than they had lost. For many, the war was the defining moment. Andree Herscovici, a Belgian rescuer, told us: “Everything I am today I owe to that period of my life.”
The original idea expanded into a study which took five years and thousands of miles to complete. We interviewed 105 rescuers from eleven countries and the result is an adult book called Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, a children’s book called Jacob’s Rescue, a video and a traveling exhibit of photographs.
We began by interviewing Zofia Baniecka. She was a Polish atheist who worked in the resistance in Warsaw. She hid guns in one part of her apartment and Jews in another. And when she was warned of a raid, she moved the Jews to another person’s flat. After the war, she worked as a member of solidarity, longing for a free Poland, which had not happened when we met her in Staten Island at the home of one of the people she save.
When these photographs were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the wall text read: “These portraits remind us that it is the individual who makes history and ultimately determines our definition of ourselves.” Then, I received a letter from the photography curator which said: “I don’t know if the pictures have made me a better person but they convinced me that it’s more possible to try.”
The success of the project has surprised us. Even though the book is now in its fourth printing, the book received over twenty rejections. Although the exhibit was ultimately shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, many other smaller museums had already turned it down. Perhaps the reason behind the rejections is that goodness makes us squirm. It’s easier to believe the worst than the best about people, and it’s easier to believe all Germans, Poles and Ukrainians are bad.
The first people we interviewed came from lists that social scientists had created in their studies of the altruistic personality. Their studies were more than academic: They reflected the profound concern we all have today. How do we create a generation of altruistic people?
We also depended upon Yad Vashem’s lists of recipients of their medal of honor. Serendipity also played a part in our search. In the Netherlands our translator put up an announcement in the Amsterdam Jewish Weekly asking survivors to supply the names of their rescuers still living in the Netherlands. This single ad produced over thirty-five people, most of whom were unknown by Yad Vashem. We went to Czechoslovakia to visit a friend, and there we met Antonin Kalina, a Prague Communist who saved 1300 children in Buchenwald.
While the rescuers answered our questions generously, they also raised other, perhaps unanswerable questions. How and why they had the strength to act righteously in a time of savagery is a mystery, perhaps a miracle. Many came from loving families but not all. Some were illiterate, some were educated. They weren’t all religious, they weren’t all brave. What they did share, however, was compassion, empathy, an intolerance of injustice, and an ability to endure risk beyond what one wants to imagine.
Nehama Tec, author of When Light Pierced the Darkness, describes certain personality traits the rescuers possessed:
1. They didn’t blend into their communities and tended to act on their own principles. In short, they were non-conformists.
2. They were independent and they knew it.
3. They had a long history of doing good deeds and therefore these deeds didn’t seem extraordinary to them.
4. They identified with victims of injustice and they saw beyond race and ethnicity.
Unlike social scientists who look for patterns of commonality, we reveled in their diversity. They proved that there were many paths to goodness. They suggested that all of us can be rescuers. When we asked them: “Why did you do this?”, they bristled, resenting the question. They said: “How could we not?” We replied, “But so few acted. Were you kinder or braver?” They answered, “No, we’re ordinary–we just did what a human being is supposed to do.”
When I doubted aloud that I could have done what the rescuers had done, their reply was some version of “I never would have thought I could do this.” They saw themselves not as heroes but as ordinary people. As Johtje Vos, a Dutch rescuer, explained: “We are certainly not heroes, because we didn’t sit at he table when the misery started and say, ‘OK, now we are going to risk our lives and to save some people.”
The rescuers are being more than humble. They are telling me something about myself. If I view them as extraordinary, then I imply that compassion, empathy and responsibility for one another is exceptional and that indifference is normal. If I say the rescuer is extraordinary, like Mother Teresa, I let myself off the hook. Who can be a saint? By making the rescuer larger than life as a hero, and by making the Nazi a demon, I exempt myself. I would never be a Nazi but neither would I ever be a rescuer.
This work taught me that there were four parts to play in the war: perpetrator, victim, bystander and rescuer. There are still four parts to play in life, and this leads to a painful inquiry. Would I, could I, have done what they did? More to the point, what is it that I am doing now?
Rescue is, thank God, not always necessary but to be a caring person is how rescue starts. Today we must listen to cries of suffering around us and respond. We must also listen to cries of hatred that threaten to destroy our society and act. Semmy Riekerk said that we are like pianos: circumstances play the keys. All her life she has been grateful that, when the occupation began, she chose to play the high notes within herself.
Not all of us, however, have the gift of courage. Not all of us are capable of committing a radical act of altruism. We are all familiar with the disruption of house guests for a few days. Imagine keeping a stranger in your house for years! But the rescuer can still each us, because they represent the highest form of moral achievement. Just as we study the eating and exercise habits of Olympic athletes in the hope of improving our own performance, so we draw close to the rescuers to find a way to learn altruism.
The rescuers also possessed another characteristic, one that we can emulate: Compassion. They were holy busybodies. They noticed when a Jewish family moved suddenly from their home: they noticed when Jewish children disappeared from the school; they noticed when storekeepers posted special hours when Jews were allowed to buy groceries. More than notice, they acted on it and found a way to help.
As I worked on the book, something in me began to change. I began to see the homeless living near me, and I forced myself to look into the eyes of these lost people to remind us both of our common humanity. No matter what I suffer or fear, I can still listen, with compassion, to those close to me who have lost a job, are going through a divorce or facing serious illness. I also developed gratitude for how much I am given every day and how that gift enables and obligates me to pay better attention to those around me. After I give at talk about rescuers, someone sent me this quote from Albert Einstein:
“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know. That we are here for the sake of others….Above all, for those upon whose smile and well being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by the bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own inner and outer life is built upon the labors of my fellow human beings, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received an am still receiving.”
The success of our project is not isolated. We are living n a time of banal evil, but also in a time that yearns to believe that we can do good. Schindler’s List became a social phenomenon not so much for its excellence but for its message. In Anna Karina, near the end, Levin finally has all he wants: his beloved wife, a child, work he loves, and the respect of his peasants. Yet, he thinks of suicide. He asks one of his serfs, a wise old man, what a person is supposed to do to achieve happiness. The man answers, “Serve God.” What is serving God if not serving others?
If each of us committed only an hour a week to teaching literacy, or working at Head Start, or visiting the sick, we would not only create a more caring society but help ourselves to come closer to understanding the purpose of our lives. The rescuers taught us that it is the individuals, not the institutions who have souls. If the rescuers serve to remind us that each of us can make a difference, they will have saved more than lives; they will have saved our future.
Our heroes are not rugged, broad-shouldered types, nor do they emanate other worldly serenity and museum. They look like us, like ordinary people. Nothing external marks those who continue to give us reason to hope for the redemption of the world.
It’s taken a long time to learn about these people. Why now? Perhaps our time demands that we know not only the worst but the best a human being can do. The rescuers tell us that kindness, compassion, and courage exist in all of us, and we want our children to know this The world is fragile and its resources finite; human technology has made life easier but more dangerous. We have profoundly important decisions to make that will affect the world we leave to our children.
When Europe was a torture chamber and almost everyone cried: “But what an I do?” a few people answered. History gives no promises but the rescuers offer us hope, revealing that goodness is, indeed, part of the human spirit.