Shlomo Grzywacz (front row, third from left), a Jewish child from Warsaw hidden from the Nazis by gentiles in Dembniki, Poland, performing duties as an altar boy under the name Marek Kaczynski. (YIVO)

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Righteous Gentiles

Title bestowed by Yad Vashem (the Israeli Holocaust remembrance authority) on certain gentiles who rescued Jews in opposition to Nazi efforts to annihilate them. The distinction is granted according to stringent criteria requiring conclusive evidence. Depending on the nature and extent of help, special kinds of recognition are bestowed upon Christians who saved Jews. To qualify for any one of the distinctions, Christian actions had to involve “extending help in saving a life; endangering one’s own life; absence of reward, monetary and otherwise; and similar considerations which make the rescuers’ deeds stand out above and beyond what can be termed ordinary help.” In part ambiguous, the criteria leave no doubt that those who saved Jews primarily because of payment do not fit the definition of righteous Christians.

As of 1 January 2006, Yad Vashem had recognized 21,310 persons as Righteous Gentiles. Poles formed the largest group, with 5,941 having been recognized. Other East Europeans came from Ukraine (2,139), Hungary (671), Lithuania (630), Belarus (564), Slovakia (460), Russia (120), Czech Republic (115), Latvia (100), Moldova (71), Romania (52), and Estonia (3). Yad Vashem cautions, however, that its figures do not represent the actual number of people who rescued Jews in each country. For example, gentiles who saved Jews for financial gain are excluded. Thus many more people rescued Jews than are officially recognized. Because Poles constitute by far the largest group of Righteous Gentiles, they have been the most extensively studied, and most of the following observations are based on data concerning them.

Many gentile rescuers of Jews appear to have been characterized by six interdependent features: (1) individuality or separateness—an inability to blend well into their social environments; (2) independence or self-reliance—a willingness to act in accordance with personal convictions, regardless of how their actions were viewed by others; (3) an enduring commitment to stand up for the needy that expressed itself in a history of doing good deeds; (4) a tendency to perceive aid to Jews in a matter-of-fact, unassuming way, as neither heroic nor extraordinary; (5) a propensity to save Jews through unplanned and unpremeditated acts, which were performed even impulsively; and (6) a universalistic perception of Jews that defined them not as Jews but as helpless beings, totally dependent on the protection of others.

Polish gentiles who rescued Jews had several obstacles to overcome. The most serious were the German laws against protecting Jews and the corresponding obligation to identify those who violated these laws. On 15 October 1941, the Nazis introduced a widely publicized law making unauthorized Jewish movement outside ghettos a crime punishable by death. The same punishment applied to gentiles who helped Jews escape. Transgressions were promptly followed by executions that were also widely publicized.

Additional barriers stemmed from antisemitism, which was rampant in the cultural climate of Eastern Europe. Gentile rescuers thus often feared censure from their fellow citizens. Moreover, significant numbers of gentiles had to confront their own personal, sometimes unconscious, anti-Jewish feelings. Indeed, postwar interviews with rescuers have shown that although they tended to describe the Jews they saved as fine people, many characterized Jews in general as dirty, loud, greedy, aggressive, dishonest, deceitful, or underhanded.

Who among gentile Poles was most likely to stand up for persecuted Jews? What propelled these rescuers to risk their lives for them? What characteristics, motivations, and circumstances did the rescuers share? Most attempts to answer these questions focus upon standard sociological categories: researchers consider the rescuers’ class, education, political and religious commitments, friendships with Jews, and level of anti-Jewish prejudice. The results of such investigations have not led to clear conclusions. Some studies suggest that economically deprived Christians more readily identified with Jewish suffering. Others conclude that intellectuals were more likely to have been protectors because they had better insight into German aims and were committed to undermining them.

Systematic examinations of rescuers have actually shown a high degree of heterogeneity among individuals. Rescuers came from divergent social backgrounds, varied widely in terms of political and religious involvements, and displayed different levels of friendship and animosity toward Jews. None of these variables has turned out to be a reliable predictor of the sort of person who was more or less likely to rescue Jews.

However, an examination of other variables suggests that rescuers shared a cluster of common personal characteristics. One of these can be called individuality or separateness. Polish rescuers often did not quite fit into their social environments. To illustrate, the peasant Jan Rybak, who helped save both Jews and Russian prisoners of war during the German occupation, had little formal education but was nonetheless a compulsive reader. His knowledge and love for learning gained him the nickname philosopher. Moreover, he avoided alcohol and did not follow the local custom of wife beating.

Gentiles whose status placed them on the periphery of a community generally had fewer social constraints and a higher level of independence. This sense of independence, in turn, seems to have made many rescuers more likely to act in accordance with their personal values and moral precepts, even when these standards were in opposition to societal norms. Such rescuers were propelled by values connected to self-approval. In interviews, they insisted again and again that they had to be at peace with themselves, with their ideas of what was right or wrong.

Many rescuers exhibited a longstanding commitment to help the needy. This commitment was reflected in their habitual engagement in a range of charitable activities. For example, beggars and vagabonds who reached Jan Rybak’s village had routinely been directed to him. Similarly, when neighbors were overburdened with chores, Rybak would step in to help.

Nevertheless, some acts of rescue seem to have been unplanned, spontaneous extensions of a general habit to help the needy. Indeed, most rescuers do not appear to have thought carefully about their actions or analyzed them; instead, they viewed their assistance to Jews as a natural reaction to human suffering. Some even insisted in postwar interviews that there was nothing special about what they did to save Jewish lives. Only a small fraction of rescuers saw their saving of Jews as extraordinary. A large majority of rescuers described aiding Jews because they were in pain and in need, while just over one-quarter said that they helped because it was a Christian duty. About half saw their actions as a protest against the occupation. For some rescuers, such attitudes required protecting even people they disliked.

Suggested Reading

Eva Fogelman, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (New York, 1994); Philip Friedman, Their Brothers’ Keepers (New York, 1957); Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (New York, 2003); Philip Paul Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon, and How Goodness Happened There (New York, 1979); Samuel Oliner and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York, 1988); Mordecai Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (Hoboken, N.J., 1993); Michael Phayer and Eva Fleischner, Cries in the Night: Women Who Challenged the Holocaust (Kansas City, Mo., 1997); Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York, 1986); Nechama Tec, In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen (New York, 1990); Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (New York, 1993).