Bystanders, Perpetrators, and Rescuers

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For the most part, the nations of the world offered little assistance to the victims of the Holocaust. German plans for the annihilation of the Jews could not have succeeded without the active cooperation of non-Germans in occupied Europe. A long tradition of anti-Semitism aided the Nazis in their efforts. Many of the death camps were staffed by eastern Europeans, recruited and trained by the Nazis.

During the early stages of Nazi persecution of German Jews, few countries offered refuge to the victims. This was true even after it became clear that discrimination against Jews was a deliberate policy of the German government. Although its charter forbade such actions, the League of Nations remained helpless to stop Hitler’s plans for the forced expulsion of the Jews. The League did set up a commission to help German Jewish refugees, but League member nations offered so little assistance that the head of the commission, James McDonald, resigned in protest. No nation offered to revise its immigration policy to meet this crisis. None except England offered to accept Jews in large numbers while they could still get out. Most refugees accepted by England at that time were Austrian- and German-Jewish children.    

The countries of the world continued to restrict immigration from Europe. In the 1930s government officials in the United States and Great Britain as well as others outside Nazi Europe received numerous press reports about the persecution of Jews. By 1942 Britain and the United States had confirmed reports of Hitler’s intent to annihilate European Jewry. However, a variety of factors including anti-Semitism and fear of a massive influx of refugees stopped both countries from changing their immigration and refugee policies. The American public learned about the death camps in November 1942 when the State Department made this information available to the public and gave it to the mass media. It was never treated as a major news story in American newspapers. The Allies’ stated goal of defeating Germany’s military took precedence over rescue efforts. Despite U.S. knowledge of the genocide taking place in the death camps and labor camps, U.S. military and political leaders did not take any specific steps to stop or slow the murder of Jews until 1944 when mounting pressure from the public, particularly Jewish-American groups, forced the United States to undertake limited rescue efforts.

A few church leaders worked with American Jewish organizations to urge the government to act, but on the whole deafening silence prevailed. The United States immigration quota remained largely unfilled even for children. There was little leadership from President Roosevelt to put pressure on State Department or government officials. Despite this, several thousand Jews did manage to get out. Refugees went anywhere they could get a visa, an official paper attached to a passport which enabled entrance and travel within a particular country. China, Brazil, Japan, and India were among the few places offering entry.

By late 1938, the Nazis had recognized that forced emigration of German Jews was a failure. The German Foreign Office noted that the world had closed its borders to the Jews. How could the Jews leave Hitler’s Germany if there was now no place for them to go?

Through early 1939, the United States admitted about 100,000 Jews from Germany and other eastern European nations. Yet nearly 400,000 openings went unfilled. Certain officials within the State Department resisted attempts to fill the quotas allowed for Jewish emigration. Reasons for this are complex. Throughout the Depression years, some Americans feared job competition from incoming refugees. Anti-Semitism   also played a part in American policy. Great Britain, Canada, and a number of Latin American countries had policies similar to those of the United States. Once the war began in 1941, U.S. immigration from war-torn Europe basically stopped.

While the doors to official emigration were closing to German Jews, many still tried to leave their country for a safe haven abroad. Counting on the good will of the United States and Canada, several shiploads of German Jews sailed for North America in 1938 and 1939. In May, 1939, 937 German Jews boarded the S.S. St. Louis bound from Hamburg, Germany, to the United States. The passengers on the St. Louis already had American quota permits but did not yet have visas.

The St. Louis reached Cuba. For over one month, the passengers waited for their papers to be processed by American authorities. When permission was eventually denied by the United States and a number of other nations, the St. Louis returned to Germany where most of the passengers died in concentration camps.

The world’s religious communities did little to protest the mistreatment of Germany’s Jews. Before the war, few Catholic and Protestant clergymen officially condemned the Nazi treatment of Jews. Church leaders in Germany looked aside when in 1935 the Nazis implemented the Nuremberg Laws.

After war broke out, however, a number of Catholic and Protestant leaders did offer some assistance to Jews, including false baptismal certificates and refuge in monasteries and convents. In Germany, Pastor Martin Niemoeller, a World War I hero, eventually spoke out against some Nazi policies, as did a few other high-ranking German religious leaders. But such protest was limited and came too late to make a difference. The Vatican, under Pope Pius XII, stood silent throughout the war. Even when Italian Jews were deported from Italy within view of the Vatican, the Pope offered no official condemnation.

Many courageous individuals and nations did attempt to stop the Holocaust. The Danish government refused to accept German racial policies, even after that nation was occupied in 1940. The Danish king, Christian X, forcefully told German officials that he would not permit the resettlement of Denmark’s small Jewish population. In the fall of 1943, when the Nazis ordered the deportation of the Danish Jews, the Danish Resistance, with the strong support of the local population, organized a boatlift to neutral Sweden. Danish fishermen and police risked their lives, ferrying Jews across the Baltic Sea to Sweden. The rescue that followed saved almost the entire Danish Jewish community of 7,000..

ITALY AND BULGARIA                
Although Italy and Bulgaria were allied with Germany in the war, both nations resisted German orders to deport Jewish citizens. The Bulgarian king and government slowed efforts to deport Jews, as did the Italian government. Despite severe German pressure and local anti-Semitic political parties, Bulgaria saved some of its Jewish citizens, while allowing the Nazis to take Jews from areas that were newly annexed to Bulgaria.

While the Hungarian government at first resisted efforts to deport Hungarian Jews, it finally agreed to let the resettlement begin in 1944. Hungary’s 500,000 Jews were the last to be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat working in Budapest, gave tens of thousands of Swedish passports to condemned Hungarian Jews, often handing out these documents to people already loaded on German trains bound for the death camps.

Wallenberg’s efforts during 1944 saved about 20,000 lives, and provided shelter for hundreds of others in “safe houses” protected by the Swedish government in Budapest. Suspected of spying for the Allies, Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviets after the liberation of Budapest in 1945 and disappeared.

The small French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south-ern France saved between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews. Urged to act by the local pastor of the Reformed Church André Trocmé, townspeople hid thousands of Jews in their homes and farmhouses. From there many were smuggled across the border into Switzerland. The Dutch village of Nieuwlande performed a similar act of heroism. Beginning in 1942, each of its residents agreed to hide one Jewish family or at least one Jew. Sharing the danger equally, no one villager risked being denounced by the others.

Several factors determined how many people became rescuers and how successful their efforts were. In some occupied countries, Nazi control was more direct than in others or occurred later in the war. In Poland, for example, Nazi control began early and was direct, while in Hungary the Nazis did not take control until 1944. Another factor influencing the extent to which rescue was possible was the degree of control the Nazis exercised over a country’s government. In Denmark, non-Jewish citizens were treated leniently by Nazi authorities during the first year of the war because the Germans viewed the Danes as racially superior Aryans like themselves. In Poland, the Nazis exercised almost total control. Nazi officials did whatever was necessary to annihilate the Jews. In Poland Nazi law made helping Jews an offense punishable by death. The names of those executed were widely publicized and punishments often applied to the rescuers’ families as well as the rescuers themselves.

BystandersDespite this, many Polish citizens aided Jews during the war. A few resistance groups supplied arms to Jewish fighters in various Polish ghettos. Zegota, a small underground organization of Polish Catholics, hid Jews from deportation. Older Jews in hiding were given money and medicine. An estimated four thousand Jewish children were taken form the ghettos and put into Catholic orphanages, convents, or cloisters where they assumed new identities and survived the war. There were many instances of individual Poles hiding Jews in their homes and farms. However, most Polish resistance groups ignored, or even persecuted, Jews who escaped from ghettos and camps.

Another key factor was the degree of anti-Semitism within an occupied country. Historically many eastern European countries had a strong tradition of anti-Semitism. Denunciations of Jews and those tried to protect them were common. In such areas, before they could act, prospective rescuers had to overcome deeply ingrained anti-Jewish attitudes as well as the knowledge that their actions on behalf of Jews would be condemned by non-Jewish friends and relatives. The sheer number of Jews within a particular country and the degree to which these Jews were assimilated also affected their chances of rescue. It was easier to get Denmark’s 7,000 Jews to safety than Poland’s 3 million.In addition, it was easier in some places than in others for Jews to physically blend with the rest of the population. Hiding Jews in countries like Italy was made somewhat easier by the fact that many Jews looked similar to their Italian rescuers. Italians saved more than 30,000 Jews following Hitler’s occupation of northern Italy in 1943. Nuns, priests, and others hid families in convents or forged new identity papers for those they rescued. In Poland this was not the case. Finally in many parts of eastern Europe, Jews and Christians lived in separate social and cultural worlds. This lack of assimilation made it very difficult for Jews to blend into the Christian world. In Poland, for example, over three fourths of all Polish Jews spoke Yiddish or Hebrew as their first language.

At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel, non-Jews who aided Jews during the war are honored as Righteous Among the Nations. Hundreds of trees have been planted along a pathway on the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem. Each tree on this avenue bears a plaque which gives the name of the person or group honored and a brief description of his or her actions.   The Avenue of the Righteous reminds museum visitors of the courage of non-Jews who, despite risk to their own lives and families, refused to stand by whole others were persecuted. To date over 12,000 people and groups have received this honor. The country with the largest number honored is Poland. The country with the highest per capita contribution is Holland.

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Resources include Teaching Lesson 8 and Handouts 8A, 8B, and 8C.
Also includes Teaching Lesson 9 and Handouts 9A and 9B.