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Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank and her family in Holland during the Holocaust
The act of rescue was a rare occurrence during the Holocaust. Few protested or chose to help when their Jewish neighbours or colleagues were singled out, segregated and ultimately deported. It is estimated that less than one half of one percent of those under Nazi occupation helped to rescue Jews. Yet our imaginations are drawn to the stories of those few, who chose moral action during that desperate time.
Why some people chose to help, while others remained bystanders, challenges our most basic assumptions about human nature and is a central issue in Holocaust education. Educators direct their students to understand who these rescuers were, what motivated them and what can be learned from their actions, as a way of seeking moral guidelines and the courage to act similarly.
Those who helped Jews during the Holocaust were clearly not the saints or heroes some have suggested, but rather ordinary people, capable of making a moral decision and acting on it at a critical moment in time. Academics who have studied altruism during the Holocaust have not been able to establish a clear set of determinants or personality characteristics that we can associate with helpers and rescuers. Nechama Tec, a professor of sociology who survived with the help of Christian Poles, has characterized rescuers as having had a high level of individuality and a commitment to helping the needy. Samuel and Pearl Oliner have suggested that rescuers were more likely to have had close family relationships and a caring, non authoritarian upbringing. Their altruistic behaviour does not appear linked to any overt factors such as age, sex, class, education or religion.
Although the terms "rescuer" and "helper" are often used interchangeably, in reality, only a few people were in a position to successfully rescue Jews. Most could at best only help. They helped by hiding Jews, falsifying documents and securing food and clothing, as in the case of Miep Gies and three others, who hid Anne Frank and her family for more than two years. Yet despite their most valiant efforts, the inhabitants of the Secret Annex were betrayed and deported with only Otto Frank surviving.
Smuggling Jews to neutral countries generally required the concerted efforts of organized groups, or even a nation as in the case of Denmark. Some helpers joined resistance groups or other underground organizations but many acted independently. Some individuals, such as Oskar Schindler, are well known and yet most are known only to the individuals they rescued.
Churches and foreign diplomats were uniquely positioned to help. Churches were often permitted relative autonomy by the Nazis, as were diplomats. As a result, many Jews were issued life saving visas and other safe passes or found asylum in churches, convents and orphanages. Geography, political climate and other external factors also played a role in the act of rescue. Jews found refuge more readily in the more sympathetic countries of Belgium, Denmark and Italy than in Poland, where the death penalty for helping a Jew was more severely enforced by the Nazis.
It appears that most individuals did not seek out opportunities to rescue but responded when faced with a desperate need or direct request for help. Some rescuers may have been motivated by friendship with Jews, some by financial gain and others simply by moral conviction. The Huguenot farmers of Chambon sur Lignon, who hid hundreds of Jews in their small French village, acted upon their strong religious beliefs.
Most who helped are reluctant to acknowledge that what they did was in any way extraordinary or heroic. It is common for rescuers to assert that they only did what they had to, that it was their duty and that they simply could not have acted otherwise. The Chinese diplomat, Dr. Feng Shan Ho, said , "I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help. From the standpoint of humanity, that is the way it should be."
Our need to understand and honour the act of rescue speaks to our hope that moral action is possible during a time of crisis. Jewish individuals and organizations around the world work to identify and honour those who helped Jews. Survivors are often understandably determined to locate and honour those who hid or rescued them. The title of "Righteous Among the Nations" is an honour bestowed by the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in Israel on those nonJews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. The exact number of rescuers may never be known as many Jews and their rescuers did not survive the war or lost contact afterwards.
The actions of all people during the Holocaust are at issue, challenging us to consider the responsibility of individuals, groups and nations. The stories of rescue, diplomatic or otherwise, offer us some insight into the nature of human response during moral crisis and tangible evidence that opportunities to fight injustice did exist.
- Frieda Miller