Reprinted with permission from Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust (Rossel Books & Behrman House).
It is generally assumed that an individual was powerless against the Nazis. It is true that there were genuine limitations to what could be done to thwart the Nazi aim of mass murder. Nevertheless, many ordinary men and women in every country of occupied Europe showed great courage and compassion in helping the Jewish victims of Nazi terror.
For the most part, these individuals did not plan to become heroes; the names of the rescuers are largely unrecorded and their good deeds remain anonymous and unrewarded, except in the emotions of those they saved. They helped by providing hiding places, false papers, food, clothing, money, contact with the outside world, underground escape routes, and sometimes even weapons.
Their decency exposed them to the dangers of discovery and denunciation. If caught, they faced torture, deportation to concentration camps, or execution. Their behavior was atypical even in their own communities, where the attitude of the majority was characterized by inertia, indifference, and open complicity in the persecution and mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
Why They Did It
It is impossible to analyze the multiple reasons for individual heroism and ethical behavior under Nazi occupation. Explanations for heroism and creativity rest in the individual psyche and character; however, it is clear that compassion and simple decency played as large a role as bravery.
Impartial and reliable information about the number of rescuers and the number of Jews aided or saved is not available. Very rough statistics indicate that about 2,000 non-Jews participated in the rescue of Jews and that they saved between 20,000 and 60,000 children and adults.
There is no postwar institution specializing in either World War II or the Holocaust that has collected systematic data about the righteous or about Christian-Jewish relations during the war years. Postwar historiography has given scant attention to this subject, except for biographies of heroes like Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. Individual episodes are recorded in numerous published memoirs or hidden within the histories of the Jewish communities under German occupation. Others are found in some survivor testimonies, oral histories, and depositions.