In Poland an old gray haired woman carried home guns with her daily groceries for the Jews hidden in her house (Block 163). In Germany a woman defied all the odds and dared a Nazi soldier to shoot bullets into her couch knowing her husband was hidden in there (156). In Czechoslovakia a leader in a concentration camp changed mens' names to those of men who had already died in order to give one more chance at life (206).
These are just a few of the countless stories of the many people who chose to defy Hitler and the Nazis and raise their voices against the violence of the Holocaust; these people worked undercover to save lives. In addition, there were many outspoken critics who risked, and many times lost, their lives to speak out against the Nazis so that more people could be awakened to the horrible truth. These two groups of people, like the White Rose of Munich, went to the extreme to help the Jews. On the other end of the spectrum there were vast numbers of bystanders who watched millions of innocent non-Aryans to be brutally murdered. Each person had to choose for him or herself whether or not to fight the Nazis. The motivation behind each of these groups was very strong, ranging from patriotism to guilt to fear and even to necessity.
Kurt Gernstein joined the Nazi party in 1933. Upon the outbreak of war he wanted to become a soldier but was referred to the SS Gerstein discovered the annihilation of the Jews first hand when he was ordered to travel to Poland with a shipment of Zykoln B to investigate the possibility of submitting this gas for the fuel engines that were presently being used. On the way back, Gerstein met Baron Goran von Otter a Swedish counsel. The two men discussed what Gerstein had seen. Vot Otter took the news and attempted to let as many other people know as possible. Gerstein kept on talking, telling the Protestant bishop and the Dutch underground (Hilberg 220). The courageous acts of this man were realized by very few. He saw a need, and he acted. In doing so he knew he risked his life and would not get any recognition. He used his high rank to transform his outrage into actions that were necessary for the survival of many Jews.
While Gerstein did all his work behind the scenes, a man by the name of Franz von Newman used his considerable financial and political resources as an industrialist to help sway the Romanian authorities on a decision to deport the Jewish community of Southern Translvania (154). He spoke out and allowed his opinion to be known, and as a result action was taken. The community was not deported. Another outspoken critic of the Nazi party was Chaim Weizman. On behalf of the World Jewish Congress he proclaimed a declaration of war on Adolph Hitler. Weizman knew the World Jewish Congress had no standing in international law and therefore no authority to declare war, but he did it to prove a point (Miller 36). With this extraordinary proclamation he wanted people to know that the World Jewish Congress would not sit back and watch Hitler destroy their people. They would do everything possible, even declare war without an army to back it up, to stop his actions.
A young school girl in Germany asked her teacher why nobody wanted to help the Jewish people who were being killed. The answer, because the world was oblivious to the fact. Other people and nations were so caught up in their own problems and hardships they did not have the time nor the desire to risk their lives to help the Jews. The Nazis did an excellent job of hiding the concentration camps, and other nations did a good job of not searching for them. Even with groups like the World Jewish Congress screaming for help, many nations did not want to get involved. Germany was such a superpower that nobody wanted to challenge their policies. It took a long time for the horror stories to seep out of the concentration camps. Nobody made it out alive to tell what it was like on the inside. And when other nations did attempt to investigate, the Nazi party set up ideal camps much like Potemkin villages to fool the investigators.
There were, however, people who tried to bring the news to the outside world; these messengers' brave actions saved many lives. It was the people who got wind of these stories and did nothing that were the bystanders. A famous depiction of this kind of messenger is Moshe the Beadle in Elie Wiesel's Night. As a stateless person, the beatle was deported with his family during the summer of 1941 from the largely Jewish town of Sighet in Greater Hungary to a newly occupied area in the USSR where he witnessed the shooting of his wife and children, as well as the deaths of countless other Jews. After he managed to return to Sighet, those who heard him tended to turn away from him, and when he repeated his story, they considered him a madman (Hilberg 217). It was the people who turned him away and the nations that turned away from the call of help from the Jews that chose only to think of themselves. These people were mostly induced into silence through fear. They feared for their lives without thinking about anyone else's.
The many people who chose to help rescue Jews came from all nations, professions, and walks of life. Singly and in groups, they saw a need, found an opportunity, and acted (Fogelman 4). Some of the rescuers risked their lives because it was what their religion called them to do. Others, who did not even believe in God, did it for the sake of humanity. Some rescuers often questioned whether they "should continue to place their children's lives in peril?" Should they continue to risk their lives when their children were dependent on them? However most would reply to this question like a Danish fisherman who ferried a boat full of Jews to safety did; "Someone came who needed help, we did not think about the risk"(6). It was this phenomenal underlying kindness in the hearts of so many rescuers that saved so many Jews' lives. Their motivation, like that of the White Rose's, came from deep within their heart. They could not sit and watch the inhumane policies of the Third Reich go unopposed. By tediously formulating plans and carrying them out, these individuals transformed their outrage into effective resistance against the Nazis.
Block, Gay, and Malka-Drucker. Rescuers. New York: Holmes and Meir P., 1992.
Fogelman, Eva. Conscience and Courage, New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders. New York: Harper Collins P, 1992.
Miller, Judith. One by One by One. New York: Simon, 1990.
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