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Volume 17, No.2 / Fall 2003            
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

Recent Works by Nechama Tec
When Light Pierced the Darkness
      • Review
      • Questions & Activities

In the Lion's Den
      • Review
      • Questions and Timeline

Defiance: The Bielski Partisans
      • Questions & Activities

Resilience and Courage
      • Review
Reflections on Nechama Tec's Life and Work


Cover of When Light Pierced the Darkness

As Nechama 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 Christian world. Conducting interviews with rescuers and those who were rescued and studying historical documents, diaries, and unpublished manuscripts related to experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland, Tec used her training as a sociologist to carry out a systematic examination of non-Jewish men and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:

  • What were the characteristics and actions of Christian rescuers? 

  • What were the motivations of rescuers? 

  • How did religious beliefs influence rescuers? 

  • What were the interactions between rescuers and rescued? 

  • How did Polish antisemitism affect rescue efforts? 

  • Did rescuers share any characteristics or do no particular characteristics identify rescuers as a group?                              

Tec’s book 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;

II.    The Exceptions: Paid and Antisemitic Helpers;

III.   Explanations of Those Who Were Rescuers.

IV.   Postscript: Discussion of Methodology

Part I

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)

Part II

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.

On 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 phenomenon:

The war 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. (105)

Irene Opdyke, a Righteous Among the
Nations Gentile Rescuer from Poland

Part III

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.

     1.  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. (161)

     2.  The rescuer had a history of helping the needy.  Often before the war the needy were not Jews but were the poor and downtrodden.

     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 behavior” (193).

Part IV

Part IV is Tec’s “Postscript to Methodology.”  It 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 generations. 



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