Unit 3: Prejudice and Discrimination
Chapter 1: Rescuers and Heroes
This really happened
The Nazi plan of purposeful extermination of about 1,000,000 Roma, 6,000,000 Jews, thousands of disabled children and adults and thousands of gay men 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 people from across many countries risked their own lives to save those who were being persecuted under Nazi rule.
Source: Sir Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust. (New York: 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 persecuted Jews.
Generally, rescuers’ actions fall into one of the following categories:
Artifact One › Miep Gies
Credit: Yad Vashem
Although born in Austria, Miep Gies was raised as a foster child by a large and generous family in Amsterdam, Holland. When the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, Gies was employed in a company owned by a Jewish man named Otto Frank. The Frank Family soon received deportation orders and knew they would be sent to a concentration camp, so Otto Frank asked her 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. Gies 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 world 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 Holocaust.
In the attic, there remained the diary, which young Anne Frank kept during the two years of hiding. When the Franks were taken, Gies 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 over 70 languages and has since been read by millions of people.
Read about Anne Frank
Artifact Two › Raoul Wallenberg
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 Hungary in 1944, the Swedish legation in Hungary was given permission to issue a limited number of security passes to Jews who had a special connection with Sweden. Raoul Wallenberg was in Hungary as a Swedish diplomat working with the US War Refugee Board.
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 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 safe houses to hide Jews while they waited for their passes. It is estimated that Wallenberg saved about 100,000 people.
Read about Raoul Wallenberg
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 money. There, as a member of the Nazi Party he managed to acquire a factory for little money. To make the largest possible profit, Schindler hired Jews who were not allowed to work elsewhere as cheap labour.
As Jews began to be herded into ghettoes in Poland, Schindler 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 safe from being sent to the death camps.
When the Nazis began to ship trainloads of Jews from the ghettos to the 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 1,000 Jews to work there. In this way, he saved their lives.
He is buried in Israel.
Read about Oskar Schindler
The Righteous Among the Nations
Almost 28,000 heroes from 51 different countries have been honoured at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum in Israel. Those honoured are called Righteous Among the Nations.
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 studied this question by examining the profiles of those who had already been honoured as Righteous Among the Nations. 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 and to their families.
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?
Testing your assumptions
Beliefs about the motivations of rescuers
A. In pairs, discuss which statements you assume to be true. Why have you made these assumptions?
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 these names.
Click on the link, and 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 made 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 they came from all classes, all levels of education, all social classes, all religions, 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 argue that rescuers had strong Christian faith and a moral impulse to rescue people from harm. Rescuers, of all profiles, were people who recognized that the persecuted were fellow human beings and because of this perception they felt obliged to act.
Besa: A Code of Honour