Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the
Holocaust, Part 2
When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of
Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland - Review
of When Light Pierced the Darkness
Tec wrote her memoir Dry Tears: Story of a Lost Childhood, she became
increasingly curious about the
experiences of other Jews who hid and
passed in the foreign
rescuers and those who were rescued and
documents, diaries, and unpublished manuscripts related
to experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland, Tec used her training as a sociologist
to carry out a systematic examination of non-Jewish men and women, who risked
their lives to save Jews. Guiding questions for her investigation were:
were the characteristics and actions of Christian rescuers?
What were the
How did religious beliefs influence rescuers?
were the interactions between rescuers and rescued?
How did Polish antisemitism
affect rescue efforts?
Did rescuers share any characteristics or do no
identify rescuers as a group?
entitled When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in
Nazi-Occupied Poland divides into four major parts:
I. The World of the
Rescuer and the Rescued;
The Exceptions: Paid
and Antisemitic Helpers;
Those Who Were Rescuers.
This part features some of the
Polish rescuers and rescued she has interviewed. She discusses the numerous
obstacles and challenges rescuers met in saving Jews. Particularly
outstanding in this opening section are excerpts from Tec’s interviews that
tell the story of rescue in the words of rescuers and rescued: not only does
this technique enable the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the
rescuers and rescued but it provides concrete examples of everyday life. In
addition to the overt forms of political, social and economic antisemitism,
Tec describes the “diffuse cultural antisemitism” that attributes many
negative features to Jews but “calls for no special action.” For example,
non-Jews using negative stereotypes about Jews in everyday language and having
little interaction with them because they saw them as different.
Unobtrusive and latent though it is, [Tec
continues] this diffuse cultural form of antisemitism acts as an insidious
foundation for all other forms. Many Poles, and particularly the rescuers,
find objectionable other more explicit forms of anti-Semitism, but this almost
subconscious type they tend to shrug off as insignificant. Expressions that
reflect this form of anti-Semitism are dismissed as mere jokes. (56)
This part focuses on two particular kinds of rescue that further illustrate the
complexities of relations between rescuers and rescued—individuals who took
money to help Jews, and Poles who despite overt antisemitism, engaged in
rescue. Tec refers to Poles who saved Jews solely for monetary gain as “paid
helpers” rather than as “rescuers.” Not only did she find the paid helpers
often without compassion for Jews, but also in several cases these individuals
abandoned their Jewish “guests” or reported them to the authorities.
the other hand, Tec learned of Poles who were overtly antisemitic but took the
risks of saving Jews. This was only a small minority among the rescuers but,
as Tec observes, they illustrate how the extraordinary circumstances of war
and Nazi occupation of Poland contributed to their willingness to help Jews.
Marek Dunski, a well-known Polish writer engaged in rescue, explained this
made people more introspective. In time of peace one says I hate this one
because he has a long nose, or he talks differently. During the war people
tend to forget about such things. They tend to see a person as a human
being. This is what happened with the Jews. They were not seen as Jews but
as human beings. Only the war showed us that underneath all this difference
and all this strangeness, we are all the same. It was a question of a common
struggle. We all felt as a part of the same group.
Irene Opdyke, a Righteous Among
Nations Gentile Rescuer from Poland
This part presents Tec’s analyses
of her data, the “whys” of rescuer behavior. Why did rescuers take risks on
behalf of Jews? After reviewing traditional explanations that sought to
explain rescue on the basis of class, religion and education, Tec found that
none of these characteristics could be generalized to explain rescue
behavior. Rather, she identified six characteristics common among the
rescuers she studied. In many cases these characteristics overlap.
The rescuer is independent and self-reliant; he or she seeks to fulfill
personal goals and moral values despite how he or she might be perceived by
others. As the rescuer Emil Jablonski explained:
To be sure I was
influenced by the opinions of others but only up to a point . . . regardless of how others felt I let myself be
guided by my own personal moral values. I am an individualist, a cat
who moves on his own road. I always have a special and individual
approach to things, my own which is often different from the way others
do. For me moral values are of the greatest importance.
The rescuer had a
history of helping the needy. Often before the war the needy were not Jews but were the poor
3. The rescuer views rescue as a duty and does not view his or her actions
as heroic. Essentially, they viewed their actions as
ordinary behavior. The rescuer Dr. Estowski aptly observed:
Whoever came to us we always managed to help. I
felt that it was my duty to help people. It was not for us
a question of them [sic] being Jews
or not, just anyone who needed help had to get it (177).
4. The rescuer often had
not planned to rescue: the act of saving happened without careful
deliberation. Often the act of saving was impulsive.
5. Pity and compassion overrode all else
for rescuers. For example, the rescuer
Felicia Zapolska protected a Jewish woman who was unfriendly, ungrateful, and
a burden to Felicia and her neighbors. Yet, she did not hesitate to risk
hiding this woman. “What could I do?” she asked Tec. ”Could I have thrown
her out? She would surely perish” (180). As a trained sociologist, Tec would have
preferred to have a control group of Poles who
did not engage in rescue. Although specific data on non-rescuing Poles is
not available, Tec has used information she gleaned from survivor testimonies
about paid helpers to serve as a control. Paid helpers, as Tec discovered,
were different: while individualistic, they were not guided by moral
imperatives to help the needy. In many instances, paid helpers regretted
that they had taken in Jews and threatened to abandon their “guests” when they
no longer could pay. But often this was not an alternative and the paid
helpers felt frustrated and angry with their arrangement with Jews. “Money,”
writes Tec, “is but a transient unstable incentive for life-threatening
Part IV is
Tec’s “Postscript to Methodology.”
describes her interview techniques. First, she devises open and uniform
questions based on Holocaust scholarship, her own experiences and what she finds is
missing from published accounts, memoirs, and testimonies (201-2). Second,
she allows the interviewee to speak in the language he or she is most
comfortable with. Tec herself speaks Polish, German, Hebrew, French, and
Yiddish, so she could later translate the interview into English (202).
Third, Tec recorded the interview to preserve it (203). Fourth, sometimes a
follow-up interview was necessary, if the questions were not answered
forthrightly or if there were inconsistencies (203). Fifth, each interview
ideally is conducted in private (204). Sixth, Tec addresses the question of
memory; she compares testimonies with earlier ones and when possible with
independent sources (204-5). She explains in a number of cases that she had
information about a single individual from a number of sources: unpublished
testimonies, published accounts and memoirs, and direct interview (205).
Moreover, Tec was able to interview six pairs: the rescued and their rescuers,
which insured the accuracy of the process. She found no serious distortions,
commenting, “Time I believe is most likely to cloud our memory of common
events but less likely to rob us of extraordinary experiences” (204). This
process, she hopes, achieves “a certain balance between an observer and a
participant, between objectivity and involvement” (205).
When Light Pierced the Darkness takes
us into wartime Poland where
antisemitism permeated the culture. The minority of Poles who engaged in
rescue for altruistic reasons served as the light in this otherwise dark and
threatening world. Tec has offered explanations for the courageous few that
brought light—individuals that she feels offer hope for present and future