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Keeping the Rescuers in Historical Perspective

hero2by Alex Grobman, Ph.D.

“Stories about Christian rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust threaten to erase from our collective memory the epidemic outbreak of gross cruelty that accompanied the advance of the Nazi terror machine . . .” declared Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, a survivor of the Holocaust, in a letter to The New York Times. Although she had been saved by righteous Christians, she is distressed that “not only the guilty . . . prefer anointing the heroes to condemning the villains,” but “an entire generation of Jewish youth, secure in their own society, wants desperately to be assured that the killers, rather than the rescuers, were the aberration.”1

Ms. Heller is not alone in her concerns about the danger of inflating the historical importance of the rescuers. Other survivors and historians share her apprehensions and with some justification. At a conference titled “The Holocaust in Southern Europe,” sponsored by the National Italian Foundation and held at the New York University Law School, the organizers did not focus on the role that Italian fascism might have played in creating fertile ground for the rise of Nazi ideology in Germany or the attempts to annihilate the Jews in Southern Europe. Instead, the organizers stressed the decent behavior of Italian citizens, diplomats, and soldiers who sheltered and protected Jews in Italy and elsewhere until 1943, when the Nazis occupied northern and central Italy.

The New York Times reported that a woman at the conference asked why had it taken 50 years before the “true story” about Italy’s behavior during the war had come to light. Somehow, these vignettes about Italians, who acted according to their conscience and religious beliefs, negated the role Italy played during the rest of the war. Another member of the audience, apparently oblivious to the silence of the Vatican on the destruction of the Jews of Europe, stated that whenever the Vatican attempted to help the Jews, conditions became worse for the Church. And yet, this individual wanted to know when the “true story” about the heroic efforts of the Christian convents, clergy, and schools to protect Jews would be told.

Two additional examples will provide further illustration of the moral confusion and distortion of history that this issue has caused. Susan Zuccotti, a professor of history at Barnard College and author of The Holocaust, the French and the Jews, concludes that given the virulent antisemitism raging in France during the war, the French should be commended for the “generosity, tolerance, and fundamental humanity” that enabled 76 percent, or 250,000 French Jews, to survive.

At the trial in France of Paul Touvier, an official in the Vichy secret police charged with crimes against humanity, the defense attempted to resort to the “Schindler defense.” Touvier asserted that the Gestapo had demanded that he execute 100 Jews, but he agreed to killing just 30. Since he had only seven Jews executed near Lyon, Touvier claimed that he had actually saved 23 Jews. The court rejected his claim and convicted him.

Under the circumstances, we can understand why Raul Hilberg, a Holocaust historian, sees the emphasis on rescue as misleading. For him, “there is nothing to be taken from the Holocaust that imbues anyone with hope or any thought of redemption, but the need for heroes is so strong that we’ll manufacture them.” 2

The danger of distorting the history of the Holocaust — of not focusing on the major themes of abandonment, passivity, and complicity is very real but some distortion is inevitable no matter what we do. As long as we understand that the efforts of the rescuers are a small part of the picture, we have an obligation to tell what these people did. For Jews, our tradition requires hakarat hatov, the recognition of good deeds.

There is another issue as well. “Racial and religious hatred is a luxury in which no nation or group can indulge without the danger of setting its own house on fire. It is like playing with dynamite or even worse! — with hydrogen bombs,” warned Father John O’Brien of the University of Notre Dame. “The insensate fury which such hatred releases comes back to purge and bestialize the hater it degrades, demoralizes, and dehumanizes him as no external enemy can possibly do.”

The rescuers show us that one individual can make a difference, and “that we are all traveling in the same boat. The occupant who drives a hole under the part where his neighbor is seated, finds that the water engulfs him as well and carries him to destruction.” 3 Our challenge is to keep these stories in perspective without losing sight of the entire history of the Holocaust. We owe that to the rescuers and to those who perished.

1 “Holocaust Rescuers Were Rare Exceptions,” The New York Times, July 9, 1994. p. 18.

2 “Good Germans, Honoring the Heroes And Hiding the Holocaust,” The New York Times, June 12, 1994, pp. 1 and 6.

3 Philip Friedman. Their Brothers’ Keepers. New York Crown Publishers, 1957 ,pp. 10-11.