Righteous Gentiles and Holocaust Rescuers

Some righteous Gentiles stood up to the Nazis, and helped their Jewish neighbors, despite grave dangers.

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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.

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg

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.

Individuals & Groups

The rescuers can be broadly divided into two categories: 1) individuals acting autonomously in haphazard isolation, and 2) individuals acting as part of organized groups--for example, Christian clergy, Socialists, and Communists, among others. Both groups of rescuers faced certain common problems.

They were dependent on the general political and military situation. Helping Jews was thus more successful as liberation approached than in the early days of the war. Later in the war, the time required in hiding was shorter, support from local resistance movements was better organized, and the degree of popular hostility to rescue was muted by imminent military defeat.

The geographical patterns of local hostility to Jews influenced receptivity to their rescue. Thus, western Europe (France, Belgium, and the Netherlands), Scandinavia (Denmark and Finland), and southern Europe (Italy and Greece) adapted rapidly to the problems of hiding and rescuing Jews, whereas eastern and central Europe (Poland, the Ukraine, and Austria) remained a more hostile environment to rescue efforts.

As the war continued, the rescuers learned to adapt and work around the Nazi network of informers and collaborators. However, they were never able to develop effective strategies to combat the Nazis' rapid organization of mass deportations and population transfers. As the war progressed, rescuers were able to identify sympathetic local groups, individuals, and organizations in every country of occupied Europe; for example, low-level clergymen, Socialists, Communists, and nationalist anti-Nazis. At all times, however, the success of Jewish rescue depended upon fate and chance.

Individuals faced greater pressures than did groups. Many Christian professionals (writers, artists, doctors) saved their Jewish colleagues; Christian employees aided Jewish employers; Jewish employees were helped by Christian bosses; and Gentile wives helped save their Jewish husbands and children.

Despite the overwhelming odds, individual rescues sometimes succeeded, especially if the Jewish fugitives could pass as natives in language, manner, and appearance; if the hideout was skillfully camaflouged; if the local population was sympathetic; if geography and distance from neighboring homes aided concealment; and if organized groups or sympathetic friends provided additional safehouses and forged ration papers for essentials like food and clothing.

Notwithstanding the mortal risks, many individuals became "their brothers' keepers," were able to overcome their realistic fears, and forged an ethical and practical identification with the persecuted.

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Sybil Milton (1941-2000) was a leading scholar of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and a senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.