How Ordinary They Were
By Alexa Bryn
Hollywood, FL


“You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis all at once. One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence,” explains Irene Gut Opdyke in In My Hands (143). As a young girl working as a housekeeper in a Nazi major’s household, Gut Opdyke hid twelve Jews in the Nazi’s own basement. When they were discovered, Gut Opdyke agreed to a sexual relationship with the Nazi, so that he would spare these twelve Jewish lives.

Kreszentia “Zenzi” Hummel was a Catholic maid in Germany, asked by a member of a Jewish family for whom she once worked, to hide his daughter as her own. Both of Zenzi’s sons were away at war, and she hoped that if she saved one life, her own sons would be spared. Zenzi’s sons survived, as did the girl, Charlotte Knobloch, today the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Kazmierz Sroka, a Polish farmer, was struggling to make a living, trading food to Jews for money and gold on the black-market in Warsaw. There he met a Jewish doctor who promised him the deed to the family’s large estate, if only he would hide his children from the Nazis. Sroka would not take the boy, but agreed to take the girl–my grandmother– and it is because of the Srokas that I am alive today.

Each of these rescuers wrestled with complex choices, and seemingly impossible moral decisions. They did not become heros overnight, but incrementally grew into their roles. They easily could have made different choices. They were not saints, but human. We lose the lessons of the Holocaust, and risk its repetition today, if we ignore the ordinariness of these heros, as well as those who made different choices, and became Nazis.

The Nazis were not born monsters. Contrary to the thesis of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, “Hitler’s willing executioners” were not all–or even mostly–virulent anti-Semites. Hannah Arendt notes in Eichmann in Jerusalem, that when psychiatrists examined Eichmann, they found nothing pathological, sadistic, or extraordinary about him. He did not have an “insane hatred of Jews, or fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind” (25-26). He joined the S.S. not for ideological reasons, but because he had been fired from his job, and sought to avoid the “humdrum of military service” (31, 35). This was the astounding “banality of evil” as Arendt put it–how naturally the ordinary morphed into the extreme, and violence and cruelty became mundane, second-nature to so many.

Unfortunately, the crucial message of “ordinariness” is often lost in the “big picture” manner in which the Holocaust is taught today. More often than not, it is squeezed into a day or two at the end of a course on European history. The focus is on the genocide, not the process of getting there. It is not surprising, therefore, that our generation views genocide as a tragedy from a different era or culture–something so profoundly “different” from us, that it could never happen in our progressive, Democratic society. Students today do draw parallels between the Holocaust and the genocides in Darfur and Armenia, to the decimation of the Native Americans and internment of the Japanese, to the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy “witch hunts.” But students still have trouble recognizing the “little Nazis” and empowering the “little heros” within themselves. And as long as both the executioners and the rescuers in all of these tragedies remain larger than life, until we make their stories and transformations more personal and palpable, we cannot assure that this chapter of history will not repeat itself.

So how do we teach the lessons of the Holocaust in a more personal, human way? First, Holocaust education must be expanded beyond the “history” classroom, and integrated into the broader curriculum, with educators highlighting the behaviors–the small steps–that led ordinary people to become both executioners and rescuers. The English curriculum should be a starting place. Take, for instance, Lord of the Flies, the story of British schoolboys dropped on a remote island, without parents, food, or shelter, whose basest instincts reign. The boys follow the power-hungry, brutal Jack because he plays into their fears, spreading propaganda about a monster on the island and giving them a scapegoat. Jack kills Piggy, an intelligent, overweight boy, because he stands out–intellectually, aesthetically–from the rest. And then, when gentle Simon suggests “maybe [the beast] is only us”(Golding 77), the boys silence him in a heated moment, and then refuse to take responsibility. At the end of the novel, Ralph, the sole rational, moral person left on the island–though imperfect, taking part in Simon’s death like the rest–“weeps for the darkness of man’s heart”(Golding 182). These are children, not Nazis or rescuers, but we see the same evil propaganda, scapegoating, and mob dynamic, as well as the courage of the rescuers in Ralph’s ability to stand up to Jack, to fight alone when all the boys turn against him and threaten his life.

Teachers do not sufficiently draw these parallels, or those to our own current events–such as the extreme acts of inhumanity committed in Abu Ghraib by ordinary U.S. soldiers, who poured phosphoric liquid and cold water on naked detainees, sodomized them with a chemical light and broom stick, and used dogs to frighten, intimidate, and bite detainees (Hersh 1). What is most disturbing about the Abu Ghraib photographs, are the soldiers on the sidelines, smiling and giving the “thumbs up.” One soldier said he initially questioned practices such as leaving detainees without “clothes or in female underpants, handcuffing them to the door of their cells.” But the answer he got was, “This is how military intelligence wants it done,”(Hersh 3) and so, when he brutally beat a prisoner in the rib cage, he was just “following orders.” Are these American soldiers better than Mengele, who conducted experiments on Jewish prisoners, dissected live babies, castrated men without anesthetics, and administered high-voltage shocks to his “specimens”?

It is imperative that we teach the Holocaust as a series of small-scale decisions–to be active or passive, to humanize or dehumanize, to lead or conform–decisions that human beings make every day. If we view the Nazis as monsters whom we can never become, or the rescuers as “saints” so beyond us in their altruism, we will never understand our own capacities for cruelty or be able to risk our own well-being to help others. On playgrounds, in lunch rooms, in boardrooms–character is being challenged. Whether bullying occurs among third graders or US military officials, we must condemn such behaviors and draw Holocaust parallels. If we can teach an ordinary third-grader why teasing the “different” boy who sits next to him is wrong and dangerous, we can prevent him from becoming the twenty-year-old soldier who gleefully watches the sexual violation of prisoners, and prevent that twenty-year-old in turn, from becoming the next Eichmann. And, if we learn to stand up for our peers in school, as well as the weak, homeless, persecuted and even the imprisoned–we, like Gut Opdyke, will be storing “food under the fence” for future generations.


References and Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Penguin Books , 1977.

Axelrod, Toby. “Profile: Charlotte Knobloch.” Hadassah Magazine. August/September 2007.

Bryn, Felicia. Never Forget to Lie. Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2005.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Goldhagen, Daniel Joseph Hitler’s Willing Executioners . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Gut Opdyke, Irene with Jennifer Armstrong. In My Hands. New York: Random House, 1999.

Hersh, Seymour M. “Torture at Abu Ghraib.” The New Yorker 10 May, 2004. <>



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