Individuals: Motivations and Consequences
Within Germany, Nazi intimidation and control of public spaces made even small gestures of help toward Jews difficult. Some Germans managed, through telephone calls or personal messages, to warn old Jewish friends of danger, for example, during the violent attacks on Jews of November 9-10, 1938 (Kristallnacht). Others showed kindness toward Jews forced to wear an identifying star or secretly provided food to Jews struggling to survive. Such actions were not without risk. A wartime decree made “friendliness” toward Jews punishable by imprisonment in a concentration camp. Hiding Jews inside the Reich was risky and difficult. Only a few thousand Jews survived living ‘underground’ or hidden in Nazi Germany.
In European countries occupied by Nazi Germany or their wartime allies, a small minority of the local populations helped Jews. Some individuals provided short-term help by supplying food and water to those in need. At the request of some Jews, neighbors and friends safeguarded their possessions while they were confined within Nazi ghettos or were in hiding. Belongings could be sold off little by little in exchange for food, helping the original owners to survive.
Sheltering Jews who were evading ghettoization or deportation was most difficult and dangerous. It was often punishable by imprisonment in a concentration camp under harsh conditions or by death. The risk was greatest for helpers in occupied Poland and other parts of eastern Europe under direct Nazi control. In those places, authorities sometimes killed entire families caught hiding Jews as punishment and a warning to others. In places where physical risks of helping were not as great, helpers often took social and professional risks.
Those Jews more integrated into the larger population, typically in western Europe, had the best chance of receiving aid. Many individuals who helped Jews knew them as neighbors, former colleagues, domestic servants, or members of an extended family that included non-Jews. While some helpers were motivated by religion or altruistic feelings, others took the risk to help because they needed the money offered by Jews for food and shelter to survive hard times. Some helpers were promised compensation after the war.
The largest number of Jews survived in hiding as a result of the work of organized religious communities and networks and anti-Nazi resistance organizations. Many of those rescued in this manner were children. In some countries, such as the Netherlands and France, some Jewish teenagers were placed with farming households that needed help because of labor shortages. They were provided room and board in exchange for work. Usually with the help of non-Jews, Jewish organizations such as the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Children’s Aid Society), the Eclaireurs Israelites de France (a Jewish scouting movement), and the Mouvement des Jeunesses Sionistes (a Zionist youth movement) in France rescued thousands.
As the war dragged on longer than expected, lending aid became even harder. One had to secure extra food without attracting undue notice, turn Jewish belongings into cash, and often move Jews from safe house to safe house. As a result, many Jews had to find a chain of helpers, a daunting task that decreased overall Jewish survival rates. Research shows that in Berlin, for example, it took an estimated 30,000 individuals to rescue 5,000-7,000 Jews.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced the decisions of rescuers?
- Are these factors unique to this history or universal?
- How can societies, communities, and individuals reinforce and strengthen the willingness to stand up for others?