A survivor of the Nazi “Death Camps” of WWII was one of several being interviewed by a television reporter at the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Museum as I watched the proceedings from the comfort of my living room. After a succession of heart-rending narratives, this one gray-haired lady had no hesitation in answering the question: “What is your most vivid memory of those terrible years?” What she said has rung in my mind ever since hearing it. “I was twice saved from the gas chambers by the intervention of a German soldier; the second one was himself executed for his act of kindness. That is something I remember every day.”
The question I most often hear Americans ask when discussing the Holocaust is something like this: “How could fellow humans have allowed something like that to take place in the 20th century?” While that is a valid question, it rests heavily on the assumption that “fellow humans” failed to act. I would begin my response by pointing out that it was our own government in 1939 that refused to allow the SS St. Louis with its shipload of 915 escaping Jews to land at any U.S. port, despite the determined efforts of its German Commander Gustav Schrӧder ( a true hero) to save his passengers from consignment to the killing camps. [See HOME COUNTRY 8/4/14] Shrӧder was even prepared to run his ship aground off the U.S. east coast in order to give his passengers a chance for freedom until two Coast Guard cutters took up monitoring posts on both sides. While the UK and two other European countries did step up to help, more than a third of the passengers were rounded up and failed to survive the war.
Modern Israel has not forgotten those courageous souls who placed their own lives at risk to aid Europe’s embattled Jews. On one of Jerusalem’s most sacred hillsides – just below the Temple mount – lies the only non-Jew, known-Nazi and one-time spy for the infamous Abwehr to be so honored. This grave site is of course that of Oskar Schindler, (1908 – 1975) perhaps the most well-known of Jewish protectors thanks to the film (partly fictionalized to be truthful about it) Schindler’s List.
Schindler was a Moravian by birth, a money-motivated industrialist by profession and a faithful and early member of the Nazi Party by convenience. When he purchased an enamel factory in Krakӧw, Poland he inherited a working staff of 2,000 of which half were Jewish. At the time his motivation was profit and he began paying his former Abwehr friends a bribe to protect his Jewish workers from arrest and transfer to the nearby “death camps”.
As it began to be obvious that Germany was losing the war in 1944 he got permission (by the same means) to move his plant to a safer location in the Sudetenland where his employees would be farther from the gas chambers. The so-called “list” was a document drawn up by the secretary of a cooperating police official naming the 1200 Jewish workers given permission to make the move. Now Schindler found himself having to purchase food and supplies for the growing dependency on the black market with an ever-longer list of bribes which had to be paid in advance. By this time, Schindler no longer thought of his people as employees. He had grown to love them. Even after the end of the war which left him penniless, these people were known as Schindlerjuden (Schindler’s Jews), a label they wore with pride. For some years, it was this alumni who raised money to help their “savior” in hard times.
The entire Schindler Story is a much larger one than I have space for today. He died at the age of 66 in Germany an admittedly flawed man, but one of those whose basic humanity deserves all the honor history can heap upon him.
Israel and Holocaust survivors created a Memorial Medal for “people who risked their lives, liberty and position to help Jews during the Holocaust”. Recipients are accorded the title The Righteous Among the Nations. In Poland where the penalty was death, there are 6532 recipients; In Netherlands 5413; France can claim 3760; Ukraine 2472 and Belgium 1665. There are 40 other nations on the list with an aggregate of 25,571 Medal winners; Including 4 Americans.
So far, more than 10,000 individual “rescue stories” have been documented.
“All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”. Edmund Burke