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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 - Questions and Activities

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


Questions for Discussion:


1.      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? 


2.      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? 


3.      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? 

  • What do you learn about Mr. Nordau?


4.      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 rescuers?


5.      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? 


6.      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] there. 



7.      How do you interpret the title: When Light Pierced the Darkness?



Classroom Activities:


  1. Try 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 inaccuracy?


  1. Take 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.


  1. Divide the 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.


  1. 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 group?


  1. From 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 responsibilities.

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?



Dimensions Online
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Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

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Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

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