Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the
Holocaust, Part 2
When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of
Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland - Questions and Activities
Questions for Discussion:
In the article “The
Pivotal Role of the Bystander” the psychologist Ervin Staub points out that
the bystander has a choice to be supportive of perpetrators or caring
individuals. In most cases, Staub continues, bystanders support the
perpetrators by doing nothing or going along. In much rarer cases bystanders
opt to support altruistic, caring individuals. Discuss Staub’s observation.
What makes evil doing more compelling that goodness?
Nechama Tec focuses her
research on individuals who risked their lives to save Jews in wartime
Poland. What were the obstacles in Poland for individuals engaged in rescue
efforts: Consider the antisemitic environment, the laws of the era, and the needs
of the rescued?
Frida Nordau, a
Holocaust survivor today living in New York, described her experiences with
Poles in an interview with Nechama Tec:
[Having built a special bunker in the forest that
consisted of a camouflage hole and a second hole for hiding, the Nordaus
stayed in the second hole and at night would go out scavenging for food:]
One night those who left returned with a warning that the Germans were
preparing to raid the forest. Early next morning my father insisted that my
sister and I leave. He wanted at least some of us to survive, since it seemed
that here in the forest only death awaited us. He himself was afraid to
leave; he had a beard and he knew that he could not pass for a Pole. Actually
neither could we; we could be recognized through our speech and partly by our
looks . . . . The moment we moved out of our hiding place Poles caught us.
They were armed with axes and rakes. We begged them to let us go but they
would not listen, all they said was: ”You are Jewish and you have no right to
live.” They took us to a nearby village where they left us with the Germans.
Maybe these were the Germans who were supposed to make the raid, I don’t
know. But after we left there the Germans started to kid us about how pretty
we were, they seemed so relaxed. I was fourteen, my sister was nine. I said
to her: “Come let us walk away, let them kill us from the back. I don ‘t want
to be shot at from the front.” I took my sister by the hand and we started
walking away. As we did I waited for the bullets. I walked and walked and
nothing happened. Then I began to think that maybe this was death. I was
afraid to look back. I just waited. Later, curious, I slowly turned my
head. The Germans were far away. They had not killed us . . . . I had an
address of some peasants my father had given me. I decided we should go
there, and maybe they would take us. Father always used to help these
peasants, lending them money, doing favors for them. Now we told them our
story and how we had saved ourselves. The peasant said to us: “You go into
the barn and I know about nothing.” It was cold, and snow was falling. We
were glad; we hid in the straw. Then we heard shooting, and we saw that the
forest was on fire. They were looking for Jews. I cried all day long. My
mother, father, brothers were there. We had no food but we were thankful to
have a roof over our head. (Light, 42)
From this story:
How do you explain the differing
behaviors of Poles?
What do you learn about the environment in Poland?
do you learn about Mr. Nordau?
Nechama Tec points out
that a characteristic she found among Polish rescuers was independent
thinking. What does she mean by independent thinking? How could the ability
to think for oneself contribute to risk-taking behaviors as exhibited by
Nechama Tec is critical
of “paid helpers” and excludes them from her definition of rescuers. The
“paid helpers” did help to hide Jews and there are instances where their
actions resulted in the survival of Jews. If their actions resulted in
rescue, why would their motivations matter?
Nechama Tec has been
fascinated with the antisemitic rescuers trying to discern how they could risk
their lives for people they had overtly criticized. Komornicka was one of
these antisemitic rescuers, whom Tec learned of through the testimony of
survivor Vera Ellman. Vera had wanted to avoid this woman, a pious Catholic
in the Department of Education, who had expressed her hatred for Jews. Even
when Komornicka made gestures to help Vera, Vera refused to take her help.
Only after Vera’s friends insisted that Kormonicka was helping Jews did Vera
reach out to this woman. “I followed their advice,” Vera continues. “[A]fter
I became active in the Council for Aid to Jews, I used to meet her [Kormonicka]
How do you interpret
the title: When Light Pierced the Darkness?
Nechama Tec’s interviewing methods with someone in your community or
school. Interview a teacher, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, coach, or
close friend using a tape recorder. Ask them to identify an historical
event that they remember and ask them to tell you what they remember about
this event and their feelings about the event. After the interview go over
your audiotape and take notes or transcribe the interview.
Then, wait for a few weeks and re-interview the person on the same subject.
Then take notes or transcribe the second interview. What did you learn
about the two interviews? Were the responses similar or different? What
were the similarities and differences? Consult encyclopedias or other
reference material to verify the accuracy of the facts that you were given.
What do you do with the information if the interviewee makes a mistake in a
date or chronology? Do you use the information or discard it because of an
photographs of individuals in your school or neighborhood whom you believe
have done outstanding deeds on behalf of others. Prepare short biographies
of the subjects and arrange the photos in an exhibition in your school. Ask
students and teachers to tour the exhibition. Upon leaving the exhibition
ask visitors to write a brief paragraph in the exit book discussing what
they think motivates someone to do good or altruistic deeds.
class into pairs to do A Big Paper Exercise Project. Give each pair a
large paper with a copy of the cover of When Light Pierced the Darkness. The copy
of the book cover should be placed in the middle of the large paper with
plenty of margin space for writing. Ask each pair
to conduct a silent dialogue writing project: What they think the title of the book
means and how they interpret the picture on the cover. Pairs need to
silently record their responses. Then ask pairs to
walk around silently looking at the work of other pairs and adding remarks
to the chart paper. Then have pairs return for an oral discussion of what
they had been thinking silently. Keep a chart at the front of the room with
all the ideas explaining the cover of Tec’s book; some students may want to
propose a different visual for the cover or may propose a different title.
Discuss a time when you think you were a bystander. Discuss whether or not
reading When Light Pierced the Darkness made you think about
inaction. Do you think your reflection on this might make you take action
in the future when you witness an injustice or persecution of a person or a
reading When Light Pierced the Darkness or other works about
rescuers, discuss the following observation by Cynthia Ozick:
For me, the rescuers are not the ordinary human
article. Nothing would have been easier than for each and every one of
them to have remained a bystander, like all those millions of their countrymen
in the nations of Europe. It goes without saying that the bystanders,
especially in the occupied lands, had troubles enough of their own, and hardly
needed to go out of their way to acquire new burdens and frights. I do
not—cannot—believe that human beings are, without explicit teaching, naturally
or intrinsically altruistic. I do not believe, either, that they are
naturally vicious, though they can be trained to be. The truth (as with
most truths) seems to be somewhere in the middle: most people are born
bystanders. The ordinary human article does not want to be disturbed by
extremes of any kind—not by risks, or adventures, or unusual
“ Prologue,” Rescuers: Portraits of
Moral Courage in the Holocaust. Eds. Gay Block and Malka Drucker, xvi.
Do you think Nechama Tec would be in agreement with Ozick?; What
is your response to Ozick’s observation?