Responses during the Holocaust

by Dr. Joanna Sliwa

Helping and rescuing Jews was the exception, and not the norm in areas controlled by the Nazis and their allies. Indifference to the Jews’ plight prevailed. Onlookers, also called bystanders, observed the Jews’ deteriorating situation, yet chose not to act. Other people participated in the persecution in various forms, including through mocking, harassing, exploiting, blackmailing, denouncing, and murdering Jews. They took part in oppressing Jews through plundering Jewish homes and businesses, failing to return items that Jews had left with them for safekeeping, and charging Jews inflated prices for necessities. Jews not only felt marginalized by their non-Jewish neighbors but were, in fact, ostracized by them.

A picture containing text, building, outdoor, ground

Description automatically generated
Uniformed Gestapo officials load Jews onto trucks for deportation in full view of many onlookers, including children. Kerpen, Germany, 1942 Photo: Stadtarchiv Kerpen /USHMM

A relatively small number of non-Jews decided to take a stance to assist Jews. Assistance occurred on an ad hoc basis, was temporary, or long-term. It consisted of providing food, clothes, and medicine; procuring false documents and money; smuggling in necessities to ghettos and slipping them into labor camps; helping Jews to escape from places of confinement and to reach places outside German control; offering shelter and care to Jewish adults, children, and families. The helpers, also known as rescuers, because their efforts contributed to sustaining or saving Jews’ lives, were sometimes acquaintances, friends, relatives, and neighbors. They were teachers, peers, coworkers, business partners, employees, clients. Sometimes they were strangers. Many were ordinary people. Some were clergy, members of the nobility, intellectuals, government staff, artists. They lived in urban and rural areas. If some were religious, others were secular. Their political leanings differed. Some individuals were known antisemites. They were young and old. They represented a spectrum.

The decision to engage in rescue most often emerged when a non-Jew was confronted with a Jewish person in need. Others offered their help when they understood the gravity of Nazi anti-Jewish policy. Some acted individually, others did so in the context of organizations and groups. The decision to act often had to be made instantly. An initial hesitant consent to occasional or short-term help sometimes evolved into a more lasting endeavor. Non-Jews who became rescuers did so for various reasons: as part of their religious teachings, out of altruism, drawing upon ideological beliefs and moral principles, to resist the Nazis, or owing to a personal connection. Many rescuers explained that they helped their fellow human being because it was the right thing to do. Rescuers exercised their choice and used their agency, which shows that behavior other than indifference, complicity, and perpetration was possible.        

Handbill in German and Polish issued by the SS and Police leader in the Warsaw district announcing the death penalty for those who assist Jews who have left the ghetto without authorization.
Image: Handbill in German and Polish issued by the SS and Police leader in the Warsaw district announcing the death penalty for those who assist Jews who have left the ghetto without authorization. Source: USHMM

Rescuers saved Jews at great risk to their own lives, and often to the lives of their loved ones. Nothing prepared them to assume responsibility for the life of a person in grave danger. And yet, these courageous individuals acted differently than the majority. Their decisions and actions breached the wartime social mores. Rescuers operated in a treacherous environment. On the one hand, the German authorities had imposed punishments for transgressing the laws against providing any assistance to Jews. These included even the death penalty for people discovered to be helping Jews, for the Jews in hiding, and sometimes, too, for the neighbors even if they were unaware of the situation. On the other hand, rescuers had to use caution in their surroundings – neighbors, and even of relatives could betray them to the authorities. Rescuers feared local policemen and professional blackmailers. The risks that rescuers faced were tremendous. They also navigated difficulties in obtaining enough funds or items to barter to buy food for additional people under their care. Then too, being spotted by a neighbor while shopping for larger than usual quantities of food exposed rescuers to interrogation, suspicion, and betrayal. Rescuers needed to lie, spin reliable explanations, employ cunning, and be creative. Their decisions and actions demonstrate that individuals have the power to affect change, to make a difference in another person’s life, and even to save a life.