Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Since I seem to be on the way to publishing a book and have a lot of work to do, I am not sure how much time I will have for blogging but I will try to put up something occasionally.

3/30 -- Particular Cases of Holocaust Rescue Efforts

3/9 -- Some of the complicating factors of rescue efforts


There is a lot to tell. I will relate only a couple here. Nechama Tec's "When Light Pierced the Darkness" (1986) is filled with examples. Given how many she tells, it's odd that one would stand out in my memory. We are all struck by different things.

On the first page of Chapter 9 of her book, Tec mentions an old Polish Catholic peasant who had been hiding a group of Jews for over a year. One Sunday, after mass, he tells them that the priest has been urging Catholics to do their duty and turn over Jews to the authorities. The Jews nervously ask him what he intends to do. He smiles and says, "The devil finds his way even into the Church."

Perhaps I remember this one because I want to know more about this old man and where he got his sense of independence and morality from. How did he learn to stand up to his priest like that? Did his parents teach him? Was there another priest, perhaps in his childhood, who taught him about true ethics? Maybe his wife was influential. Did he get it from studying the Gospels by himself? Did Jesus inspire him? It would be very interesting to know how and when he acquired his independent point of view.

In "The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965" (2000), Michael Phayer also recounts a number of rescue efforts (particularly in Chapter 7). In Poland and Hungary, the Sisters of the Family of Mary (Poland) and the Hungarian Social Service Sisterhood, headed by Matylda Getter and Margit Slachta, respectively, saved about 3,000 Jews (the number may be higher, but this is what has been verified).

"Mother Matylda Getter told her sisters that by saving Jewish children they would be saving their own souls" (118). Slachta told her sisters that "everything they stood for was on the line. If the sisters lived up to the highest precepts of Christianity and showed fraternal love by saving Jews, their organization would survive and flourish even if many of their members were killed in the line of duty. What good, Slachta asked, would their work and property have if in the end they had to hide their face 'shamefully before the eyes of God'?" (119). I believe that neither one made any efforts to convert Jewish children.

They knew they were taking great risks. I do not think that any of their sisters were killed (though Nazis feigned the execution of one of Getter's sisters), but other sisterhoods which engaged in rescue efforts did lose members. Eight sisters in the Sisters of Charity were executed and so was Ewa Noyszewska, Mother Superior of the Order of Immaculate Conception.

I think many people wish the Pope had been as active and outspoken as Getter and Slachta. Why did not the Pope lay it on the line as they did to their sisters? Some will say that, as the leader of such a large institution, he had a different set of responsibilities. It is something that requires a lot of thought and does not have an easy answer. But the evidence I am familiar with suggests that the larger and more widespread the resistance to the Nazis, the more they gave in.

I wish I had time to relate more about those rescuers who risked so much. But those two books are a good starting-point for those who want to know more.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Anything that happens during wartime, including the rescue of Jews during WWII, is immensely complicated. It's a pressure cooker situation. People are forced to make choices they wouldn't face in ordinary life. There are some successes, some failures, and a whole lot of ambiguous cases in between -- maybe more than we realize.

Some people think that we should not rehash the past. But the reason for doing it is that we do it all the time anyway. We oversimplify and pin labels of hero and villain on people. Those labels are a type of rehashing, as are statues, monuments, museums, and parades. We surround ourselves with a past carved in stone. But heroes are rarely pure and neither is stone. Our goal is not to overpraise or overcondemn, but to see clearly -- to see reality in all its complexity.

Judging is not easy and can be unfair. We too easily overestimate the successes and exaggerate the failures. Then again, sometimes judging is right on the money. We will never know what is right until we understand how confusing it all really was. If the ambiguous cases make us think twice about judging, they can also help us see more clearly whether there were any cases that were not ambiguous.

What is required of one in a war? What is moral? A Dutch couple, Joop Westerweel and his wife Will, did much to fight the Nazis. They dedicated their lives to this -- so much so that they placed their children in foster homes. They organized a network of hideouts and smuggled Jews to France and from there to Spain. Both were caught and tortured by the Nazis. Joop was executed and Will survived 15 months in a concentration camp.

I have no information about how their children fared or if they resented being abandoned by their parents. Is everybody required to give up their children like this? Are you less moral if you don't? I don't think so. The Westerweels had a passion and a talent for underground resistance. They followed their gift, their calling. Hopefully, their children came to understand that the war did this to them (their abandonment) and not their parents.

And what about the foster parents? Didn't they contribute to the war effort too? Somebody has to take care of the children, even in a war, perhaps especially in a war. So the foster parents did a good job too. There is no one standard to measure everybody, but we should remember Will and Joop for their efforts and for the terrible price they paid.

Nechama Tec talks about them in her book "When Light Pierced the Darkness" (1986). Just to show you how complicated things really get, she also discusses the rare cases of antisemitic people who helped Jews (Chap. 6). Why did they do it? For some, it was fierce nationalism. They hated what the Nazis were doing to their country. They also had strong moral convictions and believed murder was wrong. Their antisemitism was unchanged. They hated Jews and wanted to rid their country of them, but not through murder. Perhaps (and this is my suggestion, not Tec's) they felt that Nazis were giving antisemitism a bad name.

There were also antisemites who did give up their hateful views when they saw how far the Nazis had taken it. They feared their own antisemitism might have contributed to Nazi atrocities. Tec discusses these people too.

The sub-title of Tec's book is "Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland", but, ironically, she concludes that religion had little to do with it. She found that priests and nuns constituted only about 6-8% of rescuers (p. 140). As for laypeople, only 27% cited religious conviction as a motivation for helping Jews (p. 145) and only a third of survivors thought it was an important factor in their helpers (p. 144). Perhaps, from one point of view, these percentages are significant, but Tec concluded that it was "moral convictions rather than religion per se" that inspired rescuers (p. 149).

(As a child, she and her family survived the war because they were hidden by Polish Christians; money had been the original incentive for their hosts, but over time, deeper bonds grew between them.)

One of the most noteworthy and successful of rescue efforts occurred in Denmark. Denmark's record is incredible. Of its 8,000 Jews, the Danes helped almost all of them escape the Nazi roundup. Only 474 were taken by the Nazis and, of these, 422 survived the war and 52 died. Danish officials so hounded the Nazis that the 474 were sent to Theresienstadt, not Auschwitz. Danes sent them packages and Danish officials visited. That is why so few died.

Think about it: Out of 8,000 Jews, only 52 lost their lives. It seems like a sin to say "only" because all lives are important, but the Danes did something no other country did. One reason was that Danish Jews were very assimilated. For Danes -- from government officials to the Lutheran State Church to ordinary people -- it was their patriotic duty to help these fellow citizens. Guenter Lewy also mentions patriotism as a factor in helping Jews in countries like France, Belgium, and Holland ("The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany" [1964], p. 294). Germany was the exception where Germans who helped Jews would be regarded as being distinctly unpatriotic and un-German.

But patriotism does not necessarily mean that you fit in well with your culture and society. One of the conclusions that Tec reached is that many rescuers were oddballs, outsiders in their communities. They did not fit in. Another writer whom Tec cites, Perry London, called them socially marginal. Next time you run across a weird person or a social outcast, think about how helpers in dire emergencies are likely to come from this group. The real heroes are often not the socially acceptable and upright.

On the other hand, in a different weird way, socially acceptable might be an aid in time of trouble. Most writers never mention another reason that enabled Denmark to achieve what it did, but Tec points it out (p. 7). The Nazis considered the Danes part of the superior race and gave them favored treatment. Nazis did not take over their government as they did with other countries. Danes were left to govern themselves. Ironically, the Nazis encouraged a sense of independence in the Danes which they used to resist the Nazis when the time came, in 1943, that Nazis started to get rid of Jews from Danish life.

I don't admire the Danes any less for what they accomplished, but it does make one think that we cannot judge other countries by this standard when they did not have the favorable conditions which Denmark had. A lot of factors go into creating "heroes", not simply one, like heroic character, whatever that is.

Finally, to make things even more confusing, I present the cases of two Germans who resisted the Nazis in very different ways: Julius Schmahling and Kurt Huber whose stories are told in Philip Hallie's "Tales of Good and Evil, Help and Harm" (1997; Chaps. 5 and 6 respectively).

In civilian life, Major Julius Schmahling was a teacher of little children. One of the things he used to teach them was that "words like 'good' and 'kind' were superfluous. He had told them that such words are payments, and decency has no price, no market value" (pp. 68-69). He hated the Nazis and avoided joining the party for as long as he could until it became clear he would lose his job if he didn't. He made sure his participation was minimal. When Germany invaded Poland, he was recommissioned as an officer (he had served in WWI); since relations between the Germany army and the Nazis were cordial at best, he let his Nazi party membership lapse and no one bothered him.

In German occupied France, he was the Kommandant of German troops in the Haute-Loire region. There was a lot of Jewish rescue activity going on there, especially in the village of Le Chambon, some of it led by Pastor Andre Trocme. Schmahling looked the other way. Higher-ups put pressure on him to do something about Jews in hiding and escaping, but he refused. Several thousand Jews survived this way (mostly children, I believe). If anyone else had been Kommandant, many of these Jews and probably some of the rescuers would have been killed.

Schmahling was well-remembered by French people after the war. In 1966, the mayor of Le Puy (capital of Haute-Loire) and other city officials sent him a letter thanking him for his compassion and all he had done "within the limits of the freedom that you were granted" (p. 70).

In a sense, you could measure what his goodness accomplished. So many thousands of Jews lived because he did not interfere. Yet he was an officer in the German army and contributed to the Nazi war effort. People did die because of him. He killed and he helped maintain a war machine, but he saved too. Is he good or bad? Should he be counted among the rescuers? I think he should, but it is confusing.

Then there is Kurt Huber. He was a teacher too, a professor of philosophy at the University of Munich. He too hated the Nazis and would not join the party until his job security was at stake. He also had an illness that crippled his right foot and weakened his voice.

In October 1942, a former student of his, now a German soldier on leave from the Russian front, came for a visit. He told Huber about the horrors he had seen. Sterilization experiments on Polish Jews and non-Jews. Also, the murder of Jews in the Crimea. Huber screamed when he heard this. His wife rushed into the room to remind them to be quiet. A fervent Nazi family lived beneath them. Huber and the soldier talked for hours.

The next year, Huber joined a secret student group, the White Rose, which opposed the Nazis. He was the only professor in the group. He helped them write some of their pamphlets exhorting resistance to the Nazis and describing the mass killings of Jews and Poles. They were distributed in mailboxes all over Munich and in other cities. Eventually, the Gestapo arrested everyone in the White Rose.

The leading students were beheaded. This was Huber's fate as well. He was put on trial in Berlin in April 1943. He spoke about decency and non-violence and his desire to expose the Nazis as the rule of brute force over justice. He was executed on July 13, 1943.

For most of us, our heart goes out to him. What a courageous man. But a cynic might ask, What good did he actually do? What lives did he save? Cynical or not, the questions force you to think and you realize he may have done a lot of concrete good. The White Rose was another front (fifth columnists, they used to call them) whom the Nazis had to fight. Any resistance like this forced the Nazis to divert energies from other killing activities. And you never know whom Huber and the students and those pamphlets might have inspired. A German worker in a munitions factory might have slowed up his work. We will never know all the good Huber accomplished. His goodness cannot be measured, there is no number for it, whereas the no less good, but more ambiguous, Julius Schmahling did achieve a measurable result.

Well, it makes you think. Not all goodness can be measured and not all goodness comes to us in a pure form. There is more than one way to be good. It is against this very wide perspective that you have to think about the successes and failures of Christianity during WWII. If, for example, we decide that the Pope failed during the war, it is not because we hold him to the standard of what one entity, such as Denmark, did. It is because we fully grant these were not easy times and we ask whether the Pope did even the minimum he might have done.

As I made clear a couple of posts back (Feb. 12), my main reason for believing the Catholic Church failed during the Holocaust is because it failed long before these years came long. It had created an atmosphere of thinking about Jews that made any rescue efforts at all very difficult, to say the least.

Next post, I'll relate a few of the rescues that people admire and really do deserve this admiration.

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