ON MORAL COURAGE

28 November 2016

 

“Righteous Among the Nations” – Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Germany

 

Ever since I have been a child and first heard about Hitler and the atrocious crimes committed in Nazi Germany, I have been fascinated by the question how this episode of history could have happened.  Why did the Germans allow this to happen?  How could they stand by as such a large number of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen were first openly harassed, simply on the grounds of their race, and then gradually disappeared from their neighbourhood?  Why did they not ask questions when the Jewish friends of their children suddenly stopped coming to school?  Why did they not ask questions when their Jewish colleagues did not turn up to work any longer?  What would have happened if, in the early days of Hitler’s regime, Germans, en masse, had continued to buy their bread from their Jewish baker, despite government directives to boycott Jewish shops, and if they had continued to consult their trusted Jewish family doctor instead of walking over to the other side of the road to avoid having to greet them?

These are deep questions, and for those who lived through the Hitler years in Germany, they were deeply uncomfortable questions.  The Germans did not really confront them until the 1970s, about 25 years after the end of the Second World War.  In the immediate aftermath of the war they were too busy rebuilding their bombed country, and they were not ready, neither physically nor emotionally, to confront their past.  These big questions were opened a generation later by the sons and daughters of those who, through their compliance, silence and obedience, had enabled one of the biggest mass murders in history. 

I started school in 1972 and was probably part of the first generation of school children who were taught comprehensively about Germany’s collective guilt or, as Germany’s first president Theodor Heuss called it, our collective shame.  In the 1980s, around the time when I was at university, the debate about Germany’s past reached a heated climax in the so-called ‘Historiker-Streit’, the ‘quarrel’ of the historians.  This was prompted by some academic publications that claimed that Germany’s Holocaust needed to be seen in a historical context, similar to other mass murders, such as Stalin’s crimes in the Soviet Union or the Turkish genocide of the Armenians.  Other historians protested and said that this comparative approach was not right and that the mass extermination of the Jews needed to be seen as a unique crime of monstrous proportions. 

Despite acknowledging that other nations, too, committed horrendous crimes, I do agree with the latter view.  The shocking fact about the Hitler years was not so much Hitler himself.  His ideology was crazy, his antisemitism irrational, and he was undoubtedly a dangerous psychopath.  But most of his many followers were none of this.  Most of his officers and those of his staff who made the Holocaust possible (not just those who masterminded it but also the people who stood guard in concentration camps, who experimented with the most effective poisonous gases, who opened the holes in the ceilings to let the Zyklon B  in, who stood by when hundreds and thousands of people in a day were stripped of their clothes and their dignity, or who shoved the dead bodies in the ovens for mass cremations) were normal German citizens, good husbands and fathers, people who would come home after their day’s abnormal work and tenderly kiss their spouses, read bedtime stories to their children and sing carols with them under the Christmas tree.  Most of them, in normal times, would have been decent, normal, law-abiding citizens. 

What was it that drove them to such unquestioning obedience and to follow an ideology that was so obviously evil, cruel and inhumane?  And why did their wives comply and stopped allowing their children to play with their Jewish friends?  Why did they suddenly ostracize their Jewish neighbours, thus adding severe social isolation to the list of the problems of those who were already politically isolated and persecuted?

An important factor that has been considered as an explanation was Germany’s past:  after many years under Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Germans had not been ready for the democracy that was suddenly thrust upon them at the end of World War I, and this, so it was claimed, led to the disastrous failure of the ill-conceived Weimar Republic.  Its chaos had prompted the Germans to ask for ‘a strong man’ again to lead them out of this trouble, and they found him in Hitler.  The fact that under his regime the street fighting stopped, employment went up again and stability seemed to return was reassuring and seemed like a good enough reason to comply with whatever the new regime demanded of its citizens in return.

I remember that, as a teenager, I asked myself the question very earnestly:  what would I have done if I had lived in that period?  As somebody who has always had a strong sense of justice and a stubbornly rebellious streak, I could not quite see myself to be so unquestioningly obedient.  And as somebody who strongly believes in friendship and loyalty, I could not see myself suddenly shunning a friend only because the government had made some arbitrary rules against their race.  If anything (or so I hoped with the idealism of youth!): that would have made me even more loyal and protective of them.  But what right did I have to think this, having grown up in a free democracy myself?  Surely one can only answer this question if one is in such a situation oneself?  Moral courage seems easy as long as it does not come with the risk of imprisonment, torture or death, surely? 

Was it right what some people said:  that such a regime could only have happened in Germany and not in any other country, because its citizens were particularly wired to be obedient?  If so – what did this say about my nation?  Or were other nations simply luckier because they had never been in that situation?  Were we simply unlucky that this Austrian immigrant chose Germany to put his twisted ideology in practice?  What would happen today if a ruler with a sick philosophy and irrational hatred (racial or otherwise) took over a country?  Could history repeat itself?  Or have we all learned from our past, are we all such seasoned democrats that neither we nor other democratic nations would ever allow an unjust regime to come to power?  Recent political events make me wonder. 

When I was a teenager, it was drummed into my generation how important it was to listen to those who had witnessed this dark period in German history, to hear their tales, to document their stories.  Now, sadly, most of these eye witnesses have died, and it is all the more important to continue documenting the past to enable future generations to learn from it.  What prompted me to write about this topic today is a fascinating read I have just completed, of a book that documents in a big, impressive volume the story of the “Rescuers”, people who did not comply and obey and instead rescued and protected Jews, which came with unbelievably great risks to themselves and their own families. 

Much has been written about the perpetrators of the Nazi crimes, Hitler and his executioners, and about the silent bystanders.  Much has been written about their victims, the Jewish people and others who did not fit in with Hitler’s ideology.  Some heroic stories of large-scale resistance are also reasonably well documented:  the assassination attempt against Hitler of 20 July 1944 or the distribution of leaflets by Sophie and Hans Scholl and their fellow members of the ‘White Rose.’  Far less well known, apart maybe from the story of Anne Frank, are the individual stories of rescuers who hid Jews in their flats and houses, who faked pregnancy so that they could adopt a Jewish baby as their own, who helped Jews to escape or organised fake documents for them.  Each and every rescuer, whether they were citizens of Germany or of other countries occupied by the Germans, be it France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland or Hungary, whether they saved just one Jewish life or hundreds by joining underground resistance organisations, risked their own lives and those of their families by doing what they did.

Reading this book restores one’s faith in humanity:  not only because of the heroic deeds these people did, but also because of their humbling modesty.  Most of the people, when they were interviewed for this book in the 1990s, were already in their seventies, eighties or nineties, and most of them have now died.  They come from all sorts of backgrounds:  some of simple upbringing who merely acted instinctively and intuitively, others of intellectual upbringing who acted out of a deep philosophical conviction.  Some were deeply religious, others agnostic; some even shared the anti-Jewish prejudices of their era, yet did not condone the inhumane cruelty and injustice inflicted upon the Jews.  Some were betrayed by neighbours, some were busted in night-time Nazi raids; others were protected by those who may not have had the courage to hide Jews themselves, but who at least had the moral decency to keep quiet about the courageous acts of their neighbours.

There is the story of the wife whose husband was shot when the Nazis found a Jew hiding in his house; she did not waver and continue her husband’s rescue work after his death.  There are harrowing stories of Jewish mothers who knew that if they were deported their children would be killed straightaway, so they handed their babies to these rescuers, often complete strangers, not knowing whether they would see them again.  If they survived, they would try and find the rescuer to be reunited with their children, yet the children – having lived with their rescue family for six years through the war – clung on to their host fathers and mothers because they did not recognise their own parents. 

In other cases, parents had died in concentration camps and rescuers were willing to keep children as their own, yet some distant relative claimed them back, as they insisted on them being brought up in the newly founded state of Israel, amongst a Jewish community.  Even those Jews who had not been particularly religious and completely assimilated in Germany had rediscovered their religion in this period of communal suffering, and they did not want their kin to be brought up by Germans – not even those who rescued them.  In some cases the trauma was so deep that those who were rescued never contacted their rescuers again; in other cases deep and lasting relationships developed after the war.

What makes the testimony of these rescuers so humbling is the fact that almost all of them said that they would do again what they did.  They felt they only did what was right:  there were people in need and they needed help.  After the war, Israel started a process of officially recognising the rescuers.  They collected testimonials of those who were rescued, contacted the rescuers, invited them to an official ceremony to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a memorial to the Six Million, to plant a tree of remembrance and award them with a medal and certificate as “Righteous Among the Nations.”  They did not make a difference between those who supported large-scale rescue operations and those who saved just one or two lives:  “Whosoever saves a single life is as one who has saved an entire world. “

It is moving to read what the rescuers thought about this.  Hardly any of them felt they deserved the honour.  Most of them were still harrowed by the fact that they did not, could not do more.  Many had been confronted with heartbreaking decisions:  if they only had capacity to take in one or two children, but were asked to take more, sometimes they had to make a choice, knowing that those not chosen would face almost certain death.  Most of them lived with guilt rather than pride in their courage.  Hardly any of them, right up to the award ceremony in Israel, had told even their closest family, their own grandchildren for example, about what they had done, and only 40 or 50 years after the war did they find out about their grandparents’ courageous rescue missions.

Arie van Mansum, one of the Dutch rescuers portrayed in the book, was a young man when he saved many Jews – he was arrested more than once and spent six months in solitary confinement on one occasion. And yet he said: “My children never knew what I did until recently.  They asked: ‘Dad, why didn’t you tell us?’ But first, I’m afraid people will think I’m bragging, and I’d hate that. It’s nothing to brag about.  I guess I have helping in my blood. But, you know, not everybody had the opportunity to help during the war.  I wouldn’t say I had courage. If you had asked me before if I could have done it, I’d have said: ‘Oh no, not me!’ But if the moment’s there, and there’s somebody in need, you go help, that’s all.”

One Belgian lady speaks with compassion about the terrible impact the hiding under false identity had on the young Jewish children who often did not understand why they could not use their Jewish name and identity during the war.  “The children I rescued, for forty years they would not talk about the war. Only now, when they have become adults, do they have an urge to talk about it. They come out and express emotions which they felt when they were five or six years old.  These emotions are so strong that I cry whenever I’m with them now. It’s terrible to hear what a five-year old child felt when I told her: “Your name is not Sarah, your name is Susanne.  You are not Jewish and you never were Jewish, and you never were called Sarah.”  And the child does not understand.  She does not know why she cannot use her real name. It’s only now, forty years later, that these emotions are surfacing.  It’s really terrible to hear; they describe such anguish.”

Another rescuer, Marion Pritchard, at the time of being interviewed an elderly lady, describes in laconic terms how she had no choice but to shoot a Dutch Nazi police officer who during a raid was about to detect the Jews (a young man and his three small children) she had been hiding in her house.  She had to weigh up the four lives entrusted to her care against the one life of the officer, and she did not think twice.  She got help from a local undertaker to dispose of the body (he put it in a coffin with another body), and she comments upon it with the words:  “I hope that the dead man’s family would have approved.” 

It is no wonder that many of the rescuers were reluctant to be interviewed and that they had remained quiet for half a century about the traumatic decisions they had been faced with.  Talking about these experiences, in many cases, brought back the nightmares and the guilt. Marion Pritchard blamed the educational ideal of unquestioning obedience as the root cause of Hitler’s success:  “And all the concentration camp directors said the same thing: ‘I wasn’t responsible.  I just did what I was told.  I had a good Christian upbringing and I was taught to be obedient.’  This kind of obedience is a disaster.  Children must be helped to develop their own sense of what is right by questioning.”

It is so important to teach such examples of moral courage to our school children.  As teachers, we consistently try to impart important life lessons:  about truth, courage, honesty, justice, service, humility.  When we talk to our girls and boys about bullying, we remind them to stand up for themselves and for others, not to bully others, not to turn a blind eye, not to become passive bystanders. Many of the rescuers spent their old age going round schools to talk to children about their war time experiences to reinforce that message.  In the words of one of them:  “I go out and talk to schoolchildren today and I tell them that people like to join groups which think like they do, and dress the same, just to feel like you belong.  And then they become cruel to those who don’t belong, who limp, or are different, and we have to be careful not to hurt others who don’t belong to our little group.”

Semmy Riekerk, another brave Dutch rescuer whose husband was arrested and died as a result of his courage, regularly told school children who asked her why she rescued Jews: “It’s because they were persecuted not because of what they did but because of the way they were born, and that was something they couldn’t help.  And I relate this to apartheid.  I think the children need to realise that all that was bad in the war, that was done by the Germans, could have been done by themselves.  This possibility lives inside of them, too.”  I think this answers the question I asked at the start:  Hitler could happen any time, anywhere, not just in Germany, and not just in the 1930s.  The potential for evil, or for condoning it through fear or cowardice, lies in all of us.

And it is so important that as teachers we model what we preach.  If, as teachers, we turn a blind eye when somebody needs support or turn our back on somebody who is no longer a member of the ‘in-crowd’, do we have the right to expect our pupils to stand up for each other and take an active stance against unkindness or play with the child who is not part of ‘the cool gang’?  If we see that somebody is harassed on public transport on the grounds of their race or nationality and we stand by and do nothing, are we setting the right example, or do we lose the right to criticise our pupils for being bystanders of bullying incidents? If a good friend of ours falls out with our boss and we quietly end our friendship with them because it seems the safer bet for our career, does that bode well for the way in which we would behave, should the political tide turn? 

 

If we behave with moral cowardice in our democratic society, where human decency comes without any risk for our life and safety and with only very minor risks for our social standing, would we have had the moral fibre to stand by our Jewish friends in Hitler’s Germany, at least still greet them in the streets, let alone the courage to do what the rescuers did and support them without any regard for our personal safety?  These are extreme questions, and they are uncomfortable questions.  But they are important questions.

Chris Walsh, an American academic, has written a brilliant book on Cowardice, an erudite study exploring the concept predominantly in its military context, but with a thought-provoking chapter on moral cowardice.  He quotes Hannah Arendt who coined the famous phrase of the ‘banality of evil’ that would not have been possible, had Hitler’s executioners not abdicated their will and refused to be autonomous persons.  Many Germans, after the war, claimed that they had not been aware of the scale of atrocities committed against the Jews.  This may even be true.  But the reason was not that the knowledge was unattainable.  The reason was that people chose “the more prudent path” (Primo Levi) of not knowing.  Walsh phrases this rather elegantly:  Our ability to anesthetise ourselves is so powerful that just being aware of the ways we deceive ourselves is not enough to prevent self-deception, nor will all the good intentions in the world suffice to make us actually do the right thing.  Walsh quotes another reference as saying, with equal elegance, that we are good at “not acquiring information that would make vague fears specific enough to require decisive action.”

I would recommend the book Rescuers to anyone who is interested in examples of moral decency and civil courage. In those days it was hard to distinguish moral from physical courage:  those who showed moral courage often had to back this up with physical courage when undergoing hardship (the hunger that came from sharing sparse food rations with Jewish house guests, or the physical torture, or imprisonment and the constant fear of execution). Nonetheless these brave men and women did acquire enough information to prompt them into decisive action and they did not anesthetise themselves.  Some of the rescuers did not survive their heroic efforts because they were detected, others had to witness members of their own family being killed in order to rescue the children of strangers.  Some rescuers never got over the trauma of the constant fear of detection and the nightmares suffered throughout the war, others had to suffer torture to reveal the hiding places of Jews and yet stayed silent, spending the remaining fifty or sixty years of their lives crippled and in agonising pain.  One of the rescuers was left with a permanent speech impediment after being hit on the head during a Gestapo interrogation.

Their courage and their almost unanimous conviction that they would do it again puts a deeply humbling perspective on the type of moral dilemmas we face these days in countries that adhere to democratic values.  Let us hope that most of us will never have to live through such an unjust regime and such brutality and inhumanity.  But in the meantime, on a smaller scale and activating our moral fibre, let us live as decently, compassionately and courageously as we can, with as little self-deception and false narratives as we can muster, and let us model and practise the type of behaviour that will make a successful recurrence of such a regime as hard as possible.

 

 

I highly recommend both books mentioned in this article:

Chris Walsh:  Cowardice. A Brief History.  Princeton University Press 2014.

Gay Block and Malta Drucker:  Rescuers.  Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.  New York 1992

© 2013 by Astrid Seele