- What factors motivate some people to perform heroic acts to save lives while the majority of people choose to remain bystanders?
- Why is it important that the actions of Rescuers are both studied and publicly honoured?
This really happened
More than any other event of modern times, the Holocaust has fundamentally changed our view of human nature. The Nazi plan of purposeful extermination of about 1,000,000 Roma, 6,000,000 Jews, thousands of disabled children and adults and thousands Gays and political dissenters in the years 1933 to 1945, demonstrates the evil of which so called ‘civilized’ persons are capable. At the same time, it is important to consider that during this same period in history, an estimated 50,000 ordinary people from across many countries risked their own lives to save those who were being persecuted under Nazi rule.
Source: The Righteous: Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust. (Gilbert, Sir Martin, Holt Paperbacks: 2004)
Stories of Rescuers
To date about 24,000 people have been honoured as Holocaust Rescuers. In most cases the Rescuers began as bystanders and then for some reason felt compelled to help. The following stories describe three heroes of the Holocaust – Miep Gies, Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler. Each acted in a different way to save the persecuted Jews.
Generally, Rescuers’ actions fall into one of the following categories:
- Hiding victims so they could not be found and sent to concentrations camps
- Providing false identities so victims could flee to a safe country
- Smuggling victims out of the country
Survivor rescued by Raoul Wallenberg
Artifact One › Miep Gies
1909 – 2010
Credit: Yad Vashem
Although born in Austria, Miep was raised as a foster child by a large and generous family in Amsterdam, Holland. When the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, Miep was employed in a company owned by a Jew, Otto Frank. The Frank Family soon received deportation orders and knew they would be sent to concentration camps, so Otto Frank asked Miep if she would be willing to keep his family hidden from the Nazis in the attic of their company building. The family consisted of Otto Frank, his wife, and two daughters: Margot, 16 and Anne, 13. Miep agreed.
For two years she provided the Frank Family and another family who had joined them, with food clothing and books. She also provided news from the outside and emotional comfort.
After two years of hiding there, the building was raided by the Nazis and the members of the two families were sent to a concentration camp. With the exception of Otto Frank, the entire family perished in the concentration camp.
In the attic there remained the diary, which young Anne Frank kept for the two years of hiding. When the Franks were taken, Miep rescued the diary and when Otto Frank returned at the end of the war, she presented it to him. After the war, this diary was published as a book called, The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne’s diary has been translated into many languages and has since been read by millions of people.
Artifact Two › Raoul Wallenberg
1912 – 1947
Credit: Yad Vashem
Raoul Wallenberg was born into a wealthy Swedish banking family. Sweden remained a neutral country during the war but through his work in banking, Wallenberg became aware of the Nazi plan to exterminate millions of people. When the Nazis invaded in 1944, the Swedish legation in Hungary was given permission to issue a limited number of special security passes to Jews who had a special connection with Sweden. Of course the Swedish legation was overwhelmed with requests for special passes and Raoul Wallenberg was added to the Swedish legation.
Wallenberg was committed in his efforts to save those persecuted in the Holocaust. He created special protective passes, which would allow those about to be sent to the camps to leave Hungary for a safer place. He made sure that the passes looked really professional and appeared to be issued by government agencies. His goal was to ensure that those carrying the passes would not be stopped and questioned.
Wallenberg also acquired several houses in Hungary, which he declared to be Swedish government property. He used these houses to hide Holocaust victims while they waited for their passes. It is estimated that Wallenberg, himself, saved about 100,000 people.
Artifact Three › Oskar Schindler
Credit: Yad Vashem
When the war began in 1939, Oskar Schindler, the son of a wealthy German Family followed the Nazis into Poland hoping to make some easy money. There, as a member of the Nazi Party he managed to acquire a factory for little money. To make the largest possible profit Oskar hired Jews who were not allowed to work elsewhere as cheap labour.
As Jews began to be herded into ghettoes in Poland, Oskar managed to protect a number of them by having them designated as “essential labour” in working toward a Nazi victory in the War. The workers in his factory were fed, clothed and most important, safe from being sent to the concentration camp.
When the Nazis began to ship trainloads of Jews from the ghettos to the concentration camps, Shindler said, “Beyond this day, no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.“
Early on, Schindler had protected victims for his own interest but he was now determined to save their lives. He converted his factory to a bullet manufacturer and took over 1000 Jews to work there. In this way he saved their lives.
After the war, those whom Schindler had saved, supported him financially for the rest of his life and he is buried in Israel where his survivors or their children tend his grave.
The Righteous Among the Nations
The Holocaust Memorial in Israel considers it a moral obligation to locate and honour those who rescued Jews from death during the Nazi persecution. By 2010, about 24,000 heroes from forty-four different countries had been honoured there. Those honoured are called, The Righteous Among the Nations. Although almost 70 years have passed since the end of the Holocaust, the museum continues to honour about 800 additional Rescuers each year.
Research tells us that the vast majority of the populations of the Nazi occupied countries chose to remain bystanders to the persecutions and deaths of the Holocaust. In fact, historians have estimated that the number of Rescuers represent only 0.5% of 1% of the populations of Nazi occupied countries.
Why is it that some people made the transition from Bystander to Rescuer? Historians have begun to study this question hoping that understanding this question will prepare future generations to act morally even when it is dangerous and challenging for them to do so. Historians began by studying the profiles of many who had already been honoured as The Righteous Among the Nations. These profiles are archived at the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Studies reveal that in most cases the Rescuers began as Bystanders and only later became Rescuers. Often Rescuers themselves could not explain why they had made the decision to help when they clearly understood the risk to their own lives.
We know from the testimony of those who survived the Holocaust that the majority of Rescuers were not motivated by a desire for financial rewards. Why, then, did they choose to risk their own lives to save others? Accounts provided by Holocaust survivors form a vast ORAL HISTORY, which allows us to study this question in more depth.
Testing your assumptions
Beliefs about the motivation of Rescuers
A. In pairs, discuss which statements you assume to be true. Why have you made these assumptions?
|Young people are more likely to become Rescuers than older people.|
|Women are more compassionate and are more likely to become Rescuers.|
|Religious people are more likely to become Rescuers.|
|People with more education are more likely to become Rescuers than people with less education.|
|People who are rich or powerful are less likely to become Rescuers than people with less wealth and power.|
|People who are politically involved are more likely to become Rescuers than those who are not involved in politics.|
Testing your assumptions
B. Working in groups you will now have the opportunity to test your suppositions using the information in the profiles of the following Rescuers:
Each member of the group selects one of the names above.
Go to the WEBSITE: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/righteous.html
Under the heading Rescuers, find the profile of the person you have chosen to research. As you read the profile, refer to the assumptions you completed earlier and determine the veracity of your assumptions.
Share your findings with the group and explain why some people changed from bystanders to Rescuers. Post your sentences on chart paper and share your thoughts with the class.
C. Using the same website, read four or five more profiles of Rescuers. Refer to the statements that your group posted earlier. After reading the additional profiles, discuss and change or amend your group statement if necessary. Use a different colour to make the changes to your original statement.
From the archives of profiles and from the words of Rescuers, we know that Rescuers came from all classes, all levels of education, all social classes and all nationalities. Some historians argue that the Rescuers acted from a political desire to act against the Nazis. Others felt the Rescuers were by nature independent thinkers. Still others believe that Rescuers had strong family ties and the ability to empathize with other people. Rescuers, of all profiles, were people who recognized that the persecuted were fellow human beings and because of this perception felt obliged to act.
Besa: A Code of Honour
Muslim Albanians Who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust
“There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania, because Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians themselves are divided into three faiths.”
– Herman Bernstein, the United States Ambassador to Albania, 1934
Before the Second World War, there were approximately 200 Jews living in Albania, a country consisting mainly of Muslims and Christians. The rescue of Jews by Albanians is notable due to its scale and because they rescued not only Albanian Jews, but all those seeking refuge from about the late 1930’s up until the Allies defeated the Nazis. Thousands of Jews were smuggled into Albania by Albanians outside the borders, primarily by the Albanian majority living in Kosovo. Having survived centuries of invasion, occupation, expulsion, and even genocide themselves, religious and ethnic tolerance is part of Albania’s history. The moral code of Besa teaches tolerance and compassion, linking honour to respect and equality. Most of Europe handed over their Jews to the Nazis but Albania is probably the only Nazi-occupied country that had more Jews after the Holocaust than before. The Albanian example of empathy, tolerance and courage should be remembered by people around the world to commit to, “never again” and ending genocide.
Read the stories of the rescuers and the risk they took.
Merushe Kadiu wrote: “Those years were fearful, but friendship overcame all fear.” Think about whether or not you would risk your life for a friend. And would you risk your life for a stranger or would you be a bystander?
Watch the trailer of this film: http://besathepromise.com/index.html
Albert Goering – brother of Hermann Goering who rescued Jews: Albert Goering – the good brother
Irena Sendler – Polish nurse who saved Jews – Irena Sendler – Righteous Woman
Sempo Sugihara – Japanese diplomat who issued visas to save 6,000 Jews – Sempo_Sugihara.pdf
Imagine what impact it might have on you and your family, to open your home to a Jewish family in a Nazi-controlled area, with respect to the following:
- grappling with the decision to help
- limited space available for everyone
- limited resources to support everyone in the home
- stress of risking death for your actions
- stress of keeping the secret
- discord/disagreement within your own family over the decision to protect a Jewish family
What is our moral obligation to help those in need?
Use the THINK section above to help you as you select and complete one of the following:
A. Write a fictional story (300-500 words.) Imagine your parents have decided to save some Jewish children at the risk of the family. Describe from a personal perspective, the mixed feelings you had about suddenly having new siblings, the fear you all experienced and how rewarding the outcome was to have saved them.
B. Write 2 or 3 journal entries describing the experience of rescuing a family.
C. In groups of 3 or 4, choose the best story in a) or b) written by one person in the group. Then create a movie trailer for a movie based on the story.
D. Create a painting or drawing showing a rescuer saving a family at risk, whether by hiding them or helping them escape.
Honouring the Rescuers
Yad Vashem held an event posthumously honoring Ludwika & Zygmunt Szostak as Righteous Among the Nations from Poland. The memorial ceremony took place in the Hall of Remembrance Monday, May 13, 2013
Credit: Yad Vashem
Here are the facts
On Monday, May 13, 2013 Yad Vashem held an event posthumously honoring Ludwika & Zygmunt Szostak as Righteous Among the Nations from Poland. The memorial ceremony took place in the Hall of Remembrance, followed by the unveiling of the name of the Righteous in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, in the presence of His Excellency Polish Ambassador to Israel Jacek Hodorowicz. Elzbieta Stradowska, great-niece of the late Righteous Ludwika, and Zygmunt Szostak received the medal and certificate of honor on their behalf. Also in attendance were Holocaust survivor Karolina Eisen, Members of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations, Holocaust survivors, family members and friends.
About 24,000 people from 44 different countries have been honoured in this way and each year the Memorial continues to recognize about 800 additional Rescuers. It has been almost seven decades since the end of the Holocaust and many Rescuers and Survivors have passed on. Still the Memorial continues to accept documentation from survivors or from their children.
In addition to a ceremonial celebration, Rescuers receive a specially designed medal and a Certificate of Honour. Their names are inscribed on the Wall of Honour in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem.
The Medal of the Righteous of the Nations – Front and Back
Credit: Yad Vashem
There are also some exceptional ways in which Rescuers are honoured. The Israeli Government can decide to declare a Rescuer a citizen of Israel. Rescuers who have fallen on hard times are provided with monthly support from the Government of Israel and they receive funds to pay for their medications if they become ill. For many years Oskar Schindler was supported by those whose lives he had saved. He became a citizen of Israel and chose to be buried there.
The Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous
Credit: Yad Vashem
Historica Canada at https://www.historicacanada.ca/ hired Angus Reid Pollsters to survey whether Canadians think we do enough to honour Canadian heroes. The results were published on June 30, 2013. Of those polled, 86% felt that too little is being done to recognize Canadian heroes.
A King with Empathy
Non-Jewish Danish citizens rescued 7,000 Jews in Denmark. The king of Denmark, Christian X and the heads of the Danish churches all denounced the persecution of Danish Jews. When the German forces in Denmark began deportation of Jews, Danish resistance groups intercepted the information, and warned the Jews of Denmark. En masse, Danish civilians rescued the country’s Jewish population when fishermen smuggled them to Sweden on their boats. The Swedish government announced it would accept all refugees from Denmark.
In groups of four or five, your task is to design a meaningful way in which Canadians can honour those who take significant personal risks to save the lives of others.
The website below will provide you with an example of one way Canadians currently use ‘ORDERS’ to honour those among us who have made exceptional contributions to our country. http://www.gg.ca/document.aspx?id=72
Requirements of the Action:
- Create a name for the Rescuers’ Award.
- Decide how the Rescuers who receive this Rescuer Award will be honoured.
- Establish 4 or 5 Criteria for receiving the Rescuers’ Award.
- Create a Nomination Form that will allow Canadians to recommend Rescuers for the Award. Provide some examples of Canadians who you believe would be eligible for the Rescuers Award.
- Design a concrete object that Rescuers will receive to take home. This could be a certificate, a statue, a picture, a poem, or any other object you feel would be suitable recognition.
- Display your Rescuers’ Award in your school or in your school newsletter.
The Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, pays tribute to Rescuers, raises financial resources for Yad Vashem Jerusalem’s global initiatives and implements Yad Vashem’s vision of disseminating the facts and universal lessons of the Holocaust across Canada through significant educational and commemorative initiatives. http://www.yadvashem.ca/
A documentary about Rescuers is coming in May (see the trailer): http://rescuersdoc.com/Home
Blum, Jenna Those Who Save Us, 2005
Trudy, a history professor collects oral histories of WW II survivors, including that of her aged German mother. Throughout the book are interviews with German immigrants, many of whom reveal unabashed antisemitism.
Klempner, Mark The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust rescuers and their stories of courage, 2006
The ten Dutch people profiled in this book provide an in-depth look into the hearts and minds of Holocaust Rescuers who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Holland.
Korczak, Janusz Ghetto Diary, 2003
Korczak, a paediatrician and well-known author, gave up a brilliant medical career to devote himself to the orphans of Warsaw.
Lyson, Leon.The Boy on the Wooden Box. How the impossible became impossible,2013
As one of the youngest members of Schindler’s list, Leyson offers a perspective of the righteous hero in this memoir.
Rappaport, Doreen Beyond Courage: The untold story of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, 2012
The author presents 21 true stories of defiance and heroism in Nazi-occupied Europe. The book is divided into five chapters: The Realization, Saving the Future, In the Ghettos, In the Camps, Partisan Warfare.
Every effort has been made to gain permission from copyright holders to reproduce borrowed material. The publishers apologize for any errors and will be pleased to rectify them in subsequent reprints and website programming.