“In those times, there was darkness everywhere. In heaven and on earth, all the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed. The killer killed and the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude either of complicity or of indifference. Only a few had the courage to care. These few men and women were vulnerable, afraid, helpless – what made them different from their fellow citizens?… Why were there so few?… Let us remember: What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander…. Let us not forget, after all, there is always a moment when a moral choice is made…. And so, we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.”
During the Holocaust, tens of thousands of non-Jews risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Nazis’ clutches. Undeterred by German threats and their hostile surroundings, they took Jewish children into their homes, concealed and provided for entire families, and established underground passage for children to neutral countries. Many were executed for these noble deeds. Many Jews risked their lives to help save other Jews – family members and strangers. In doing so, they often forfeited their own chances for escape. Beside combating the starvation, disease and death in the ghettos, camps and in hiding, the Jews demonstrated the power of the human spirit and the human values of mutual assistance, concern others and assistance for the weak. They also tenaciously struggled to continue religious, cultural and intellectual pursuits.
For the nations fighting against the Nazis, the military situation was the main priority. The information they received about what was taking place in the ghettos and death camps was often greeted with disbelief even after it had been verified. The general position adopted was that a speedy victory in the war was the best method to putting a stop to the Nazi atrocities. International authorities possessing considerable influence, such as the Catholic Church, generally did not adopt an unequivocal position against Nazi Germany. However, there were cases in which diplomatic intervention by the nations of the world, first and foremost by the United States, led to the halt of the murder of many Jews, in places such as Romania and Hungary.
Rescue by Righteous
Attitudes towards the Jews during the Holocaust largely ranged from indifference to hostility. The mainstream watched as their former neighbours were rounded up and killed; some collaborated with the perpetrators; many benefited from the expropriation of the Jews’ property. But in this world of moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. They were the Righteous Among the Nations.
Often it was a gradual process, with the rescuers becoming increasingly involved in helping the persecuted Jews. Agreeing to hide someone during a raid or round-up – to provide shelter for a day or two until something else could be found – would evolve into a rescue that lasted months and years.
The price that rescuers had to pay for their action differed from one country to another. In Eastern Europe, the Germans executed not only the people who sheltered Jews, but their entire family as well. Notices warning the population against helping the Jews were posted everywhere. In general, punishment was less severe in Western Europe, although there too the consequences could be formidable and some of the Righteous Among the Nations were incarcerated in camps and murdered. Moreover, seeing the brutal treatment of the Jews and the determination on the part of the perpetrators to hunt down every single Jew, people must have feared that they would suffer greatly if they attempted to help the persecuted. In consequence, rescuers and rescued lived under constant fear of being caught; there was always the danger of denunciation by neighbours or collaborators.
To date (2013), Yad Vashem has recognized 24,811 Righteous from 47 countries and nationalities; there are Christians from all denominations and churches, Muslims and agnostics, men and women of all ages. They come from all walks of life: highly educated people as well as illiterate peasants; public figures as well as people from the margins of society; city dwellers and farmers from the remotest corners of Europe; university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.
The main forms of help extended by the Righteous Among the Nations:
Hiding Jews in the rescuers’ home or on their property
In the rural areas in Eastern Europe hideouts or bunkers, as they were called, were dug under houses, cowsheds and barns, where the Jews would be concealed from sight. In addition to the threat of death that hung over the Jews’ heads, physical conditions in such dark, cold, airless and crowded places over long periods of time were very hard to bear. The rescuers, whose life was terrorized too, would undertake to provide food – not an easy feat for poor families in wartime – and taking care of all their wards’ needs. Jews were also hidden in attics, hideouts in the forest, and in any place, that could provide shelter and concealment, such as cemeteries, sewers, animal cages in a zoo, etc. Sometimes the hiding Jews were presented as non-Jews, as relatives or adopted children. Jews were also hidden in apartments in cities, and children were placed in convents with the nuns concealing their true identity. In Western Europe Jews were mostly hidden in houses, farms or convents.
Providing false papers and false identities
In order for Jews to assume the identity of non-Jews they needed false papers and assistance in establishing an existence under an assumed identity. Rescuers in this case would be forgers or officials who produced false documents, clergy who faked baptism certificates, and some foreign diplomats who issued visas or passports contrary to their country’s instructions and policy. Diplomats in Budapest in late 1944 issued protective papers and hung their countries flags over whole buildings, so as to put Jews under their country’s diplomatic immunity. Some German rescuers, like Oskar Schindler, used pretexts to protect their workers from deportation, claiming the army required the Jews for the war effort.
Smuggling and assisting Jews to escape
Some rescuers helped Jews to leave especially dangerous areas in order to escape to a less dangerous location. They smuggled Jews out of ghettos and prisons and helped them cross borders into unoccupied countries or into areas where the persecution was less intense, such as neutral Switzerland, Italian-controlled regions where there were no deportations, and Hungary before the German occupation in March 1944.
Rescue by Jews
At first glance, rescues of Jews carried out by Jews should not receive a special emphasis, because they appear to be only natural, routine acts. However, the cases of rescue by Jews – of which there were many instances – were not self-evident. The Holocaust challenged established social norms, values and relationships. It led to a weakening of the bonds of solidarity within Jewish society. In a reality in which each individual Jew was subject to persecution and the threat of destruction, the instinctual drive for physical survival became dominant. However, even in such conditions, many Jews risked their lives to save other Jews – both family members and complete strangers. More than once they forfeited a chance to escape in order to help other Jews.
Jewish organizations attempted to rescue Jews by getting them out of the camps, by ransoming them for money, by placing them in children’s institutions or private homes, and by organizing their emigration from countries under the rule of the Nazis and their collaborators. Jews living under false identities managed to rescue other Jews by helping them go into hiding, by passing information to them, by smuggling them into areas outside the Nazi sphere of influence, and by obtaining falsified documents for them which stated that they were Christian workers or laborers essential for the German war economy.
Jews attempted to stall and prevent the deportation of Jews to the death camps by negotiating with senior Nazi officials or with regimes supportive of the Nazis. Jews in the ghettos and concentration camps established welfare societies that provided assistance to Jewish orphans and other needy individuals. Thus, many Jews were saved from death.
The World’s Reaction
In May 1942, the BBC in London broadcast information about the killing of Polish Jews. It did so again on June 26. The information that reached the Free World was accurate and readily available. In December 1942 US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill gave the Germans a public warning about the responsibility that would be laid at their feet for the murder of the Jews of Europe. However, the political concept that became dominant among the politicians and generals was that winning the war came first; this would, by proxy, also stop the murder of the European Jews.
Those who begged the Allies to bomb the extermination facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the tracks leading to the camp were answered with similar rationales. The Americans and the British rebuffed such requests by arguing that bombing the gas chambers would entail the diversion of massive resources (essential air cover for forces that were busy with crucial operations) and that an effective bombardment might have the opposite effect of that desired, i.e., Germany might treat the Jews even worse. In June 1944, American aircraft produced a set of aerial photographs over Auschwitz in which the death facilities were clearly visible. In an air raid that took place on August 20, the bombs landed on a factory not far from the gas chambers, yet the gas chambers remained intact.
Reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican by late 1941. In March 1942, the Pope Pius XII was asked to intervene in order to thwart the deportation of Slovakian Jews to Auschwitz. Apparently, his pressure upon the Slovakian clergy influenced the decision to temporarily delay the deportation of the Jews. The Allies, out of political and military considerations, begged the Pope to make a statement condemning Nazi Germany’s actions. The Vatican limited itself to a general, laconic statement that decried the “horrors of the war.”