Holocaust Rescuers

During the Holocaust, many ordinary European citizens were indifferent to the displacement and murder of their Jewish neighbors. Many collaborated with the Nazis by reporting the presence of Jews, claiming their properties or actually killing them. Yet in every European country, people from various religious backgrounds saved Jews from extermination. Risking their lives, they hid Jewish people in their homes or businesses or coordinated activities to help them escape from Europe.

Rescuing Jews during the Holocaust was difficult and dangerous. If they were caught, the rescuers faced the same fate as the Jews. Hostility toward Jews among non-Jewish populations was great, particularly in Eastern Europe, making it harder to hide a Jew on one's property. Therefore, less than 1 percent of Europeans participated in rescue efforts. Those who were able to see Jews as human beings like themselves, or whose religious convictions maintained belief in helping all people, were most likely to act as rescuers.

The most complex and thorough rescue process was made in Denmark, which the Germans occupied. Recognizing the Danish people's resistance, German occupation authorities placed martial law on Denmark in 1943. They planned to deport all the Danish Jews during the period of martial law. The Danish authorities clandestinely learned about the plan, and non-Jewish Danes responded by helping their Jewish neighbors and friends go into hiding. Subsequently, they arranged for Danish fisherman to ferry the Jews to Sweden secretly in small fishing boats. In the process, 7,200 of Denmark's 7,800 Jews were saved.

In Poland, some Poles saved their Jewish neighbors. Zegota, an underground organization, started operating in 1942 to provide for the social welfare of Jews. The nationalist Polish Home Army and the communist Polish People's Army had members who helped Jewish residents of the Warsaw Ghetto in their uprising against the Germans. After the Germans started deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp, Polish citizens helped up to 20,000 Jews hide within Warsaw. Their rescue was not ultimately successful as the Warsaw Ghetto was destroyed in 1944.

Religious groups came to the fore in several German-occupied countries. Underground networks run by Catholic clergy and congregants operated in France, Belgium and Italy. Those networks saved thousands of Jews, especially in Southern France and Northern Italy. The groups smuggled French Jews to Spain and Switzerland and helped Italian Jews go into hiding. In addition, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim individuals offered hiding places for Jews or offered assistance to those already in hiding.

Some authorities used their political power to rescue Jews. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Hungary, saved tens of thousands of Jews in 1944 by giving them certifications that exempted them from deportation to Germany. Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat, and Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian citizen who posed as a Spanish diplomat, worked with Wallenberg to provide these certifications.

Chiune Sugihara of Japan worked in the Japanese Foreign Ministry as a junior diplomat. He was moved to Kovno, Lithuania, to keep the Japanese military abreast of the German and Soviet armies' troop movements. In Lithuania, the Dutch ambassador approached Sugihara for help sending the Jews to safety in Curacao, a Caribbean island controlled by the Dutch, via Japan. Sugihara immediately began issuing transit visas and continued with other visas that allowed the Jews to enter Japan for up to 15 days. Sugihara directly disobeyed his supervisors by saving more than 3,000 Lithuanian Jews. When he returned to Japan after the war, he was asked to resign for insubordination.

A mass protest in Bulgaria protected the country's Jews from deportation. When more than 11,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka from Bulgarian-controlled Thrace, Macedonia and Pirot by the Bulgarian military and police, an open protest ensued. Important political, intellectual and religious authorities were shocked and ashamed by their actions. As a result, the government decided against complying with the German request to deport the Jews from Bulgaria proper.

Oskar Schindler saved more than 1,000 Jewish workers. He protected them from deportation to the Auschwitz concentration camp by claiming their status as important workers. Steven Spielberg later celebrated his heroism in a popular movie, "Schindler's List."

In the United States, religious and secular groups founded rescue efforts. The Unitarians and The Quakers' American Friends Service Committee engaged in relief activities for Jewish refugees in Spain, Portugal and France. Together, several organizations were able to secure entry visas to the United States for some 1,000 Jewish refugee children.

After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, Jewish aid organizations in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia arranged the Kindertransport, a program that sent Jewish children to England. There, they lived with foster families until the war's end. More than 9,000 children were transported, saving them from almost certain death.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust
Malka Drucker; Gay Block.
Holmes & Meier, 1992
When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland
Nechama Tec.
Oxford University Press, 1986
Roads to Extinction: Essays on the Holocaust
Philip Friedman; Ada June Friedman.
Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 17 "'Righteous Gentiles' in the Nazi Era"
The Holocaust
Jack R. Fischel.
Greenwood Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Righteous Gentiles" begins on p. 101
The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust
Donald Niewyk; Francis Nicosia.
Columbia University Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "The Question of Rescue" begins on p. 119
Contested Memories: Poles and Jews during the Holocaust and Its Aftermath
Joshua D. Zimmerman.
Rutgers University Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: "Polish Rescue Efforts" begins on p. 109
Courage to Remember: Interviews on the Holocaust
Kinue Tokudome.
Paragon House, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of Holocaust rescues in multiple chapters
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