Holocaust survivor and historian Nechama Nec says that individuals and a few countries, like Denmark, saved as many Jews as they could.
Nechama Tec, in her book When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of the Jews in Nazi Occupied Europe, advocates a more systematic study of righteous Christians, arguing that such studies would fill a significant gap in Holocaust knowledge.
Nechama Tec Advocates Systematic Studies of Righteous Christians
According to Tec, the bulk of the Holocaust literature about righteous Christians consists of scattered case histories and personal accounts. While offering occasional theoretic insights, such publications contain no overall systematic and comprehensive explanations. Such studies would have additional broader implications because persecution, discrimination, and prejudice are part of everyday human life.
Tec says that more often than not, the victims of such negative forces cannot effectively fight back. Knowing who would stand up for the persecuted and helpless, knowing what factors are involved in the protection of the poor, the dependent and the downtrodden, creates an opportunity for cultivating such positive forces.
Common Chracteristics of Rescuers
Tec divides her book into three parts. The first four chapters describe what it was like to pass as a Christian, what it was like to hide among them, and what it was like to rescue Jews. Chapters five and six describe two exceptional cases of help – that of the paid helper and that of the Anti-Semitic helper. The remaining chapters explore the righteous helpers by examining their characteristics, their motivations, and the conditions associated with such rescues.
In each section of her book, Tec relies on the literature of her own research and tries to find common denominators among the rescuers. She contends that lower class people showed no special propensity for Jewish rescue. Fewer peasants became rescuers than their numbers in the general population should have warranted. Even though proportionately peasants were less inclined toward Jewish rescue than other groups, a substantial number of them did participate in selfless protection of Jews.
Intellectuals, according to Tec, were more prone to Jewish rescue than any other segment of the population. She found that there were as many middle class persons among rescuers as in the population at large. Class affiliation, then, was only weakly related to Jewish protection. Tec also found that a majority of the rescuers were politically inactive, and that religious beliefs and values played an important part in rescuer motivation for saving Jews, although none of the rescuers were devout or blind followers of official doctrines.
Tec Contends that Denmark is a Special Case
According to Tec, Denmark was a special case. Conditions for the collective rescue of the Jews were favorable and the Danish took advantage of them. Danish Jews numbered about 8,000- about 2 percent of Denmark’s population – and were highly assimilated. Since the Nazis defined the Danes as a superior “Aryan” race, they were left in charge of their own political destiny for a time, retaining their prewar government. Denmark enjoyed the status of the Nazi’s model protectorate until 1943, when the Nazis decided to deport Denmark’s Jews. Instead of cooperating the Danes moved their Jewish population safely to Sweden.
The Story of Anne Frank Illustrates Courageous Christianity
Assessing the Dutch rescue efforts, Tec concludes that the Dutch did not save many Jews. Of the Jewish population in Holland, she estimated than more than three-quarters perished. She uses the story of Anne Frank and her family, who hid in Amsterdam for two years before being betrayed, to illustrate that some people were willing to risk their lives for others in the midst of ultimate human degradation. She says that this altruism denies the inevitable supremacy of evil, and that with this denial comes hope.
Tec Argues that Poland is a Case Study
Arguing that since it was the center of Jewish annihilation, Poland provides the key to the understanding of the Holocaust in general, Tec says that Poland illuminates the understanding of the Christian rescue of Jews in particular. She says:
As a country in which the Holocaust was played out in the most gruesome and ruthless ways, Poland can teach us about similar but less extreme cases.
For these reasons and for personal reasons, Tec focuses most of her study on Poland. She says that the obstacles and barriers to the rescue of Jews in Poland were especially difficult because Poland was extreme and special. Quite early, the Nazis had designated Poland as the center for Jewish extermination.
Tec says that the reasons they picked Poland are not entirely clear. Was it because of Poland’s concentration of Jews? Did they count on the absolute subjugation of the Poles? The Germans left no records of their explanation, but they did leave records of unprecedented human destruction. The massive extermination camps such as Auschwitz were located in Poland. The estimates for Jewish survivors in Poland range from 50,000-100,000, compared to the prewar population of 3.5 million.
Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, Righteous Rescuers
As well as symbolizing Anne Frank as an example of hope in the Holocaust, Tec names Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg as righteous Christian rescuers and examples of altruistic people. Tech demonstrates that rescue was possible, but the rescuers had to have the imagination and courage and humanity to want to rescue the victims of the worse sides of human nature.
- Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi Occupied Europe, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, Holt Paperbacks, 2004.
- Donald L. Niewyk, The Holocaust: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, Third Edition, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
- Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965, Bloomington: Indiana State University Press, 2000.
- John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, New York: Viking, 1999.
- Yehuda Bauer, Jews for Sale?: Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.