By Elizabeth Perry
When I studied the Holocaust as an undergraduate, part of my class focused on rescuers – we particularly looked at the book Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by Eva Fogelman. While many of the survivors interviewed by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education state definitively that they received no help from non-Jews, others have some stories of receiving help. A Jewish family in Berlin received a warning from an officer just before their family was deported, enabling them to escape through Russia to Shanghai. A Hungarian Jewish family’s neighbor offered to take their daughter after the Germans invaded Hungary in order to protect her from deportation. The same family later escaped to Switzerland with 1,700 other Jews. Jewish-Hungarian lawyer Rudolf Kastner negotiated their freedom by bribing Nazi officials.
The most extensive rescue effort I found in the transcripts was a Jewish mother and son hidden for the entire war by an older Swedish man living in Berlin. The other accounts of going into hiding are less pleasant – some interviewees reported other Jews only being able to hide if they paid someone to hide them, and if they ran out of money they would be handed over to the Nazis. One survivor remembered being hidden in a tiny space under the floor of a barn with her sister – they almost drowned when the space flooded. Other events, which I would very much hesitate to call rescue efforts, affected survival. A young Polish Jew was taken out of a deportation transport group by a German officer who admired his skills as a plumber.
I can’t generalize about the attitudes of entire countries from the few survivor stories I’ve heard, but I see the fewest rescue stories in the interviews with Polish survivors. Poland indeed had one of the lowest rates of survival, despite having the highest Jewish population of any European country by far (see this graph for more info). Many of the survivors say the Poles did not want them there, that they were happy to see the Jews taken away and were irritated when a few of them tried to come home. While I am generalizing from limited sources, it’s hard not to see some connection between the attitudes of non-Jewish Poles and the survival rates of Polish Jews.