Notwithstanding the passivity of most European Christians during the Holocaust and the active participation of others, clearly, there were in Germany and in every Nazi-occupied or allied European country, people — clergy, religious and lay — who behaved humanely, even heroically. These righteous people bore witness that compassion and decency still existed in what had become hell on earth. Despite considerable peril, these good people provided rays of light in the darkness of profound depravity. Among other things, they joined resistance movements; sheltered children and adults in their homes, convents, and schools; concealed and provided for individuals or entire families; established underground passage routes to neutral countries; provided false baptismal certificates and travel documents; shared their meager provisions; and refrained from denouncing their Jewish neighbors to Reich authorities.
In the face of unimaginable horror, people of conscience modeled respect for human life and empathic behavior. Making the morally correct choice, they engaged in acts of kindness, large and small, reaching out to suffering people surely among “the least’ of (Jesus’) brethren.” (Matthew 25:40) Clergy, religious and lay people were among the over 23,788 people (through 2010), who risked their lives to rescue Jews, recognized as “Righteous Gentiles” by the Israeli government at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and Memorial. Most assuredly, these exemplary people deserve to be remembered and celebrated. Among the over 5,900 Righteous Gentiles from Poland (largest number from any country) were:
Irena Sendler, a social worker, (photo above) who smuggled many hundreds of Jewish infants and children out of the Warsaw ghetto. Eventually discovered, both her legs and arms were fractured during a vicious beating by the Gestapo. After the war having kept a record of the rescued children, she attempted to reunite them with their families, but most the parents had perished. Sendler then worked to have orphaned children placed for adoption with foster families. Asked why she did what she did, Sendler responded: “My mother taught me that what matters is whether people are honest or dishonest, not what religion they belong to.” A truly remarkable and humble woman, she also said: “We are not heroes. I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little.”
Marie Szul, a member of Zegota, the only organization formed in Nazi-occupied Europe for the specific purpose of Jewish rescue, after receiving her recognition from Yad Vashem said: “I was scared to death, like everyone else. But I made up my mind then and there: If I can help, I will…my mother always taught me that God made everyone the same; He does not care if they are Jews or not, because everyone has the right to live.”
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a founder of Zegota, worked to provide false documents to Jews living outside the Warsaw ghetto. In the fall of 1942, he helped found Council for Aid to Jews, an organization that saved many from the gas chambers.
Anna Borkowska, a Polish nun in a Dominican convent outside Vilnius, Lithuania, who hid children and resistance fighters in her convent, even smuggling weapons into the ghetto. Polish nuns were especially active in the rescue of Jewish children in Poland, sheltering them in their convents and schools.
Dr. Jan Karski, the intermediary between Polish resistance groups and the Polish government in exile, who secretly entered the Warsaw ghetto to observe conditions there. Asked to describe what he witnessed, he reported to world leaders, including President Roosevelt.
Wladyslaw Kowalski, a retired colonel in the Polish army, who helped some fifty Jews in the Warsaw region, moving them to places of refuge with friends and remaining with some of them in an underground shelter, until the Soviets liberated Poland in January, 1945.
Dr. Jan Zabinski, a zoologist and head of the parks department in Warsaw, who sheltered Jews in empty animal cages, described in the book, “The Zookeeper’s Daughter,” by Lori Space Day.
Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer worker in the formerly Polish city of Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine) used his knowledge of the city’s sewer system to shelter a group of Jews. After the war, when Socha was accidently killed in vehicular accident, some townspeople viewed his death as God’s punishment for saving Jews. Director Agnieszka Holland’s film, “In Darkness,” dramatized the exploits of Socha and “Socha’s Jews.”
Archbishop Adam Szeptycki of Lvov who, like other bishops in occupied Europe, encouraged priests of his diocese to provide false baptismal and marriage certificates to protect Jews in hiding.
Rescue efforts ranged from isolated actions of individuals to coordinated efforts of organized networks like Zegota which resulted, for example, in the survival of approximately 100,000 “hidden” children. The Allies’ stated priority to win the war before attempting rescue operations, together with widespread indifference and lack of access to victims, however, hampered major rescue operations. Righteous people sheltering Jews faced formidable obstacles, including summary execution if discovered. Rescue activities were influenced not only by the extent of Nazi control of a geographic area, but by the level of hostility or sympathy for Jews within local populations. The degree of hostility towards Jews, especially in Eastern Europe, was a particularly daunting obstacle. Regrettably, moreover, not all rescuers acted from moral or humanistic conviction. Some provided aid only in exchange for compensation.
The difference in Jewish survival rates varied greatly in the countries of Western and Eastern Europe, ranging from 95 percent survival in Denmark to 10 percent survival in Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Irving Greenberg, a member of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Council, explains the variation in Jewish survival rates as follows:
“Clearly the difference (in survival rate) lay not in Jewish behavior, neither passive nor armed resistance. Armed resistance was a decision how to die, not how to live… The single critical difference was the behavior of bystanders. The more bystanders there were who resisted, the greater the chance that Jews would survive.” (Emphasis mine)
Dr. Nechama Tec, a Holocaust survivor, has written extensively on the characteristics of rescuers and resisters. She identified three common characteristics: 1) having a clear sense of right and wrong; 2) not being afraid to stand or act alone and; 3) having no need to follow the lead of others.
Although thousands of Christians during the Holocaust acted humanely toward Jews, even heroically, tragically, the vast majority did neither. Notwithstanding that Europe was 95 percent Christian during the dark days of the Third Reich, too seldom did Europeans respond to suffering by Jews with compassion — a clear violation of Jesus’ Gospel of Love. This is a painful truth, and a most unfortunate and unintended consequence, but a truth that must be acknowledged, because as St. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) said, centuries ago: “Though scandal be taken at a truth, it is better to permit the scandal than to abandon the truth.”