Sunday, 27 November 2016

Stories of Resistance to the Holocaust

Between 1939 and 1945 the Nazi German state murdered 5.5 - 6 million Jews in occupied Europe, as well as another five million gentiles by the same methods of mass gassing, extermination through labour, starvation and mass shooting. This was itself only part of the 30-40 million killed in the European section of the 2nd World War. But the Jews of Europe were never entirely alone in their struggle, and many Jews themselves resisted by any means possible. In the darkest night the light sometimes shines out the brightest and in every country and corner of Europe there were individuals and organisations who risked their lives to save Jews: a veritable army of resistance, both violent and peaceful. In the worst period of human history these people in turn produced some of humanity's most noble heroism.

It can somehow seem wrong to talk too much about resistance to the Holocaust, as though doing so could give the impression that the Holocaust 'wasn't so bad after all'. But it is also wrong to just say that resistance failed because millions still died. It saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and those people who were involved 'succeeded' in saving all they could. But this resistance was horribly outnumbered and outgunned, facing political and military power they could not match either militarily or peacefully, and divided and scattered thinly over an entire continent.

Resistance took many forms, both Jewish and Gentile, collective and individual. It ranged from individuals, to organisations, to towns, and even whole countries. It defies easy categorisation, due to the sheer breadth of experiences that made up the genocide. The Holocaust is unique in global genocides in terms of the sheer diversity of the area and people it destroyed, united only by all being of Jewish ancestry. It affected European countries from France to Russia, and Greece to Norway. Its victims differed in language, nationality, appearance, skin colour, social integration, economic development, and religion. It destroyed poor, isolated, religious communities in scattered, rural, Ukrainian villages, and integrated, secularised, wealthy individuals living in Dutch cities. It killed followers of Orthodox and Reform Judaism, Christians, and secular, non-religious people. Victims were stripped from every European community and equally the scattered resistance came from every circumstance and corner of Europe.

Yad Vashem, the official Israeli museum for the Holocaust operates a program to recognise 'Righteous Among the Nations', non-Jews who risked their lives during the War to save Jewish lives. They have so far officially recognised over 26,100 people after submission of applications and evidence, from 51 countries. This number is obviously less than the true number, even of those who directly risked their lives, but nobody can accurately say by how much. Certainly many times this must have been involved in rescuing, sheltering, protesting, or just remaining silent about hidden Jews at grave risk of Nazi reprisal, and whilst constantly overcoming the shortages, poverty and want that was the constant condition for all citizens in many occupied countries. And many heroes were caught and killed during the war, with no-one then left to testify to their resistance later.

Every Holocaust Memorial Day I feel the stories of those who risked everything to save lives should be better known. Oskar Schindler, is perhaps the only name of a rescuer that will be immediately familiar to most people and yet he was one of, at least, tens of thousands. For years I've been put off by the sheer complexity of trying. Even to give a thin, representative sample of stories would take many pages, and anything else risks giving an inaccurate picture. But I think it better to write something, however feeble, and hope it encourages someone to investigate further themselves. So in this article I give a few examples of cases of bravery from both whole countries, towns and villages, and much smaller, more individual stories taken from Poland, the country with the highest number of Righteous Among the Nations. These examples are deliberately random and fragmentary, even so this makes for a rather long post. I implore you to read further on your own, and explore the links on Wikipedia, or the wonderful website for Yad Vashem itself. I finish with some brief thoughts on estimating the total number who contributed to rescue.

Amidst the general darkness some whole countries saved almost all their Jews. Bulgaria was a Nazi ally, but when the Germans demanded Bulgaria deport its Jewish population to occupied Poland a campaign by the Orthodox Church, leading writers and intellectuals and the Royal Family forced the government to refuse the order. Bishop Kiril of Plovdiv reportedly stood on the tracks in front of the transport train in Plovdiv to stop it from starting the journey to the concentration camps. Bulgaria was lucky in that it was small and distant, and so unlike Hungary or Romania, attempts to refuse the deportation of their Jews were not met with immediate occupation by German troops. All Bulgaria's 50,000 Jewish citizens survived.  Even this victory was not simple though, because although Bulgaria protected all the Jews within Bulgaria itself, it did allow the deportation of foreign Jews from areas of Yugoslavia and Greece occupied by its soldiers, from which thousands were killed.

In Denmark more than 90% of the small Jewish population, around 8,000 people, was successfully spirited away to neutral Sweden by the Danish resistance. After the Germans threatened deportations the Resistance, with the collusion of some in the government, organised to move thousands through a series of hiding places to distant north-east fishing ports, and then across the sea to safety in Sweden. The Nazis occupied Denmark in 1940 without firing a short, in theory to 'protect' it from Allied aggression. The result was the Danish government was left largely intact rather than being replaced by Nazi or collaborationist fascist officials, and this, combined with the strong sense of shared national identity, and the deep historical integration of the Jewish community into Danish society, encouraged the successful effort to save them.

Albania was the only country in occupied Europe to end the war with more Jews than it started. From some 300 before the war there were around 1800 Jews in the country by the war's end. Jews in Albania were protected by the fact the country fell under Italian rather than German occupation until late 1943, and that the Albanian and Yugoslav partisans liberated much of the area by late 1944. Meanwhile many hundreds were hidden in remote mountain villages under strict local customs of hospitality dating back centuries. Still around 500 Jews in Albania proper and Albanian dominated Kosovo were captured by the Germans and killed.

In other countries scattered across Europe whole towns and islands rallied to refuse Nazi demands for the deportation of Jewish citizens. In France the protestant town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon worked as one, under the leadership of its local church minister, to shelter and protect over a thousand Jews. They were housed in homes throughout the town, fed, and hidden in the forests nearby whenever German soldiers came searching.  Local people continued to protest the persecution of the Jews in open defiance of the authorities, once handing a petition opposing the deportations directly to a Vichy minister. Townspeople were arrested and murdered in the concentration camps, including the Church Minister's cousin, Daniel Trocmé, and his children.

In the Netherlands the small village of Nieuwlande came together to agree that every house and family would hide at least one Jew, binding the whole population of the village to a common effort and reducing the risk of any traitor giving them away. Arnold Douwes, the son of the village's Reformed Church pastor worked tirelessly through the war years, encouraging villagers to hide Jews on the run from the Nazis and support them with food, official documents and money, as far as they possibly could, saving around three hundred lives.

In Greece, the island of Zakynthos, refused to hand over its Jews for deportation. In 1944 Mayor Loukas Karrer was ordered at gunpoint to hand over a list of Jews residing on the island. The list, presented to the Germans by the island's Bishop Chrysostomos, contained only two names: the Mayor and the Bishop. The Bishop told the Germans, “Here are your Jews. If you choose to deport the Jews of Zakynthos, you must also take me, and I will share their fate.” Meanwhile all the Jews of the island were safely hidden in mountain villages. The Germans backed down and not one of the 275 Jews living on the island were lost. After the war in 1953 the island was struck by a terrible earthquake that destroyed almost every structure. The first boat to arrive with aid was from Israel, with a message that read, “The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us.”

Poland has the highest number of recognised 'Righteous Gentiles'. Over 6,600 gentile Poles have received this award from Yad Vashem for risking their lives to save Jews. Poland was the country occupied longest by the Nazis, with the largest Jewish population, and both the most ferocious implementation of the Holocaust and the harshest regime of occupation for gentile Poles. Three million Polish Jews and three million gentile Poles were killed during the war, and the punishment for offering any aid to Jews, even selling food or giving a lift in a vehicle, was the immediate death of the rescuer and their entire family. Nonetheless 50,000-100,000 Polish Jews were aided by gentiles and it is estimated that each person received help in one form or another from at least several people, if not many more. Władysław Szpilman, Polish musician and author of The Pianist, on which the film of the same title was based, identified no fewer than 30 Poles who helped him survive the War.

Zegota was a branch of the Polish underground government dedicated to helping Jews. A joint
enterprise of Catholic activists and Jewish organisations, it provided money, food and hiding places to more than nine thousand Jews hiding with gentile Poles. Irene Sandler headed the Zegota children's section responsible for smuggling Jewish children out of the ghetto and placing them with families, orphanages and Catholic convents. Facing the most extreme danger her group of 30 volunteers physically smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw ghetto however they could, in ambulances, prams, packages and suitcases. She buried jars with the children's information in the hope they could be reconnected with their families after the war. In 1943 she was even arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and sentenced to death, but luckily escaped and continued her work. After the war she was arrested again by the Communists along with many members of Zegota, imprisoned, interrogated and tortured but eventually released.

Rescuing people involved huge personal ingeuity, quick thinking and sacrifice. Eugeniusz Lazowski was a medical doctor who saved thousands by generating a fake typhus epidemic in eight villages. He discovered that injecting someone with dead typhus bacteria would generate a positive typhus result on a test without harming the person. He injected enough people to persuade the Germans to quarantine an 'infected' area covering several towns rather than risk a widespread typhus outbreak, thus saving several thousand people from being deported to the death camps. Irena Gut was a nurse, she was employed a housekeeper for a German Major and hid twelve Jews in the basement of the house, where every day they emerged to help her clean the place. After several months she was discovered by the Major but struck an agreement to become his mistress for the rest of the War in return for his silence, thus saving the twelve lives. Jan Zabinski was the director of Warsaw's Zoo before the War. All the animals had been killed during and shortly after the Nazi bombardment and occupation of Warsaw so the Zoo with its grounds was deserted. Taking advantage of this with the help of his wife Antonina he temporarily hid hundreds of Jews in abandoned animal cages, supplying them with food and money, before Zegota could smuggle them to more permanent hiding places. He also hid two dozen people through the War within the grounds of his own house in the Zoo.

In outlying towns and villages it was sometimes possible to hide whole families on farms and estates. Franciszek and Magdalena Banasiewicz constructed a bunker underneath the farm where they lived where they eventually gathered and hid fifteen people for over three years. Once one of their rescuees was caught by the Germans, but they managed to bribe the guard to release him and he escaped back to hide on the farm. Many others hid Jews in a similar way, but this was astonishingly dangerous. In a nearby village to the Banasiewicz's a farmer called Kurpiel was caught sheltering 27 Jews and killed with his entire family and all their fugitives. In another nearby town over 500 Poles were killed, in that town alone during the war, for attempting to help the Jewish population.

I could go on for days. To even try to discuss this topic without mentioning the heroism and tragic end of Witold Pilecki, one of my personal heroes, seems dishonourable, but this article is long enough already. My final question, of how many people were involved with resistance across Europe is a difficult one. As I said, Yad Vashem credits over 26,000 people as proven Righteous Gentiles, those who directly risked their lives to save Jews. It recognises that this is a dramatic under-estimate though. Even within this list, for example, the hundreds of people involved in the Danish resistance are listed as one entry, as per their own request. In Poland over 50,000 Jews were saved, and estimates suggest each would've been helped by multiple people during the course of the war, but there are only 6,600 recognised Righteous.

700 of Poland's Righteous Gentiles were killed during the war for their efforts, but many estimates put the total number of Poles killed for aiding Jews at many thousands. Italy, for example, has only 700 Righteous recorded by Yad Vashem, but in Rome alone over 4,500 Jews were hidden almost overnight when deportation was threatened in 1943, largely in Church buildings and institutions, and tens of thousands more were protected around Italy. Obviously each recognised Righteous did not hide dozens of Jews, entirely alone. The true figure of rescuers must be many times higher. Other groups are not eligible for Righteous Gentile status, because although they campaigned against the Holocaust they did not directly aid specific Jews, but were involved, for example, in a general strike in Amsterdam against the treatment of Jews, or in reading out a joint declaration in every church in that same city protesting the treatment of Jews.

A true reckoning cannot be accurately calculated or even estimated without a huge further amount of painstaking historical work.  But I think it highly likely that at least a hundred thousand people met the tight criteria laid down by Yad Vashem. And many times that number, hundreds of thousands at least, were directly involved in hiding, feeding, transporting, or otherwise assisting Jews, and in actively protesting the Holocaust under the threat of deadly reprisal and amidst all the other dangers of the War. If anything these guesses are still conservative, across Europe the number of people in the second category could easily pass over a million. Their example deserves to be remembered for its own sake, but also to remind us that even in the darkest times opposition to evil is possible in very many ways.        

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