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Volume 17, No.1 / Spring 2003            
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust
Biography of Nechama Tec

About Testimonies

Importance of Testimonies in Holocaust Education

Using Testimony in the Classroom

Recorded Testimonies of Survivors (1946)
Nechama Tec


Historical Background: Jews in Poland

Writings of Nechama Tec
  • Intro
  • Dry Tears (6th Grade - College)
      • Overview
      • Questions & Activities
Nechama Tec-Today and Yesterday

The nine year old daughter of Nechama Tec's editors read Dry Tears, Tec's memoir, and fell in love with the young Nechama, who is about her own age in the story. When this avid reader heard that she would have a chance to meet Nechama, she was excited beyond words. Upon meeting the older Nechama, her excitement evaporated and her disappointment was apparent. Nechama's young fan explained that she thought Nechama would look like the girl pictured on the jacket of Dry Tears: a vibrant girl with blond hair and blue eyes.

Quite different was the reaction of the editors of this special edition of Dimensions. We met with Nechama last October to talk about her life and work. She is in her early seventies but looks much more youthful. She is a strikingly beautiful woman with thick grey hair, a fresh complexion, and erect posture. She was dressed professionally in a pale blue suit. She speaks with a clear, strong voice-a confident, vibrant woman, enthusiastic about her work and her writings. As we watched her, we could not help but think of the courage and ingenuity she showed as a young girl, taking the risks to "pass" as a Christian in Nazi-occupied Poland. After our meeting, we walked to the train station with her but had trouble keeping up with her pace. Nechama strides as she goes through life. She is still researching, writing, and teaching-looking forward to her forthcoming book. She is truly an inspiration.

Childhood: Poland and Antisemitism

Nechama Tec was born in Lublin, Poland, in 1931. She was the second daughter of Roman Bawnik, the owner of a candle and a chemical factory, and Esther Finkelsztein Bawnik. Lublin, a large city (population about 200,000), had a substantial Jewish population of about 40,000. Most of the Jews of Lublin lived in the old city. Nechama's family lived in the Christian section. In a recent article about her life and work, Nechama described her family background:

    Mixed into my family life were religious orthodox and assimilative currents. For example, although my mother chose to maintain a kosher home, both parents discouraged me from speaking Yiddish [language spoken by Jews in Poland and Germany]. Vaguely, they explained that my use of Yiddish would undermine my facility with the Polish language. Whenever I was around and my mother and father wanted to share secrets, they spoke Yiddish. . . . Tolerant about people's diversity, my father insisted that being Jewish, Christian or any other religion was an historical accident. He argued that people ought to be neither proud nor ashamed of what group they might have been born into.
      Nechama Tec, "Personal, Educational, and Research Encounters,"

Even before the Nazis invaded in September 1939, Nechama was aware of antisemitism. She had witnessed Polish antisemites breaking windows and shouting, "Dirty Jews. Christ killers." Nechama was protected from these assaults because she looked like a typical Polish girl with blue eyes and blond hair.

Map of Poland, including Lublin, Warsaw, Otwock, Kielce

World War II and Hiding

After the German army conquered Poland in September 1939 and occupied the western and central portions, the Nazis imposed restrictions on every aspect of Jewish life: Jewish civil and political rights were removed; Jewish property was expropriated; curfews were imposed; Jews were required to wear the yellow star. In 1940, Jews were crowded in ghettos, such as in Warsaw and Lodz, and during the next three years those surviving in the ghettos were deported to death camps.

By 1942, Nechama's father felt that his family should leave Lublin and "live in the forbidden Christian world." First, the Bawniks went to the larger city of Warsaw where they were hidden. But after hearing of betrayals and Gestapo raids, Nechama's parents decided to send their daughters to the nearby town of Otwock to live with a Polish couple, Marta and Tosiek. Food was scarce, lice were plentiful, and Marta proved unkind to her charges. Yet for the time being the sisters were safe.

Nevertheless, in search of greater safety Nechama's sister went to Kielce, where her parents joined her. Left behind, Nechama felt lonely: "All my life revolved around hiding; hiding thoughts, hiding feelings, hiding my activities, hiding information. [ . . .] always on the alert, always dreading that something fatal might be revealed"(109).

Reunited with her family in Kielce, Nechama felt "loved and protected"(115). The Bawniks paid to live in the home of the Homars, a Polish Christian family. For the Homars, the acceptance of the Bawniks was a commercial arrangement. On the whole they treated them with respect and some affection.

After 1943, the Germans became more ruthless and rations were more limited. Thus Mr. Bawnik helped the Homars establish an underground business bootlegging vodka. The Bawniks themselves began baking and selling bread and rolls in order to earn money. Because Nechama had a "Polish" look, she took on the dangerous task of selling, marketing and distributing the bread in the marketplace-this was extremely risky since the Germans forbade these transactions.

In 1945, the Russians took over Kielce, making it possible for the Bawniks to come out of hiding. The Homars, who had offered them shelter and kindness for more than two years, asked their boarders not to reveal their Jewish identity in Kielce.

Map of Ghettos

After Hiding and Passing

The Bawniks returned to Lublin, where they found only about 150 Jews had survived. The Bawniks were one of only three intact Jewish families. Their homecoming was a mixed and conflicting experience. Their possessions had been taken by the former factory janitor and his wife; their factory co-opted. Above all, a resurgence of antisemitism frightened the family, especially Nechama's father. For a time the sisters were able to study in Lodz, Poland, but soon their parents decided that the family would have to leave Poland. They traveled to the American zone in Berlin, Germany, where they lived in a displaced persons camp (DP camp).

DP Camp Photo

Coming to the United States

In 1950, Nechama married Leon Tec, a physician and, in 1952, came to the United States. They have two children, Leora and Roland. Soon after arriving in the United States, Nechama continued her education at Columbia University where she earned a B.A. in 1954; M.A., 1955; Ph.D., 1963; all in sociology.

Her Writings

For almost thirty years, Nechama kept a "self-imposed silence" about her girlhood in Nazi-occupied Poland. But, as she explains,

    I succeeded in part, and in part only. Thirty years later my memories began to stir. They called for attention. At first weakly, almost imperceptibly, they began to tempt me to read. Later more forcefully an urge to talk began to assert itself. The need to face and deal with my past became gradually stronger. It was as if I had no choice in the matter. I hardly understand this need, or its power. I only know that I had to let myself be guided by its compelling force. I decided to revisit my past. I began to write my memoirs, the story of a Jewish girl who was eight years old when the war began and fourteen when it was over.
      (Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness, vii-viii)

Working on her own memoir Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982, Oxford UP, 1984) raised many questions about rescuers, whose lives were threatened in Nazi-occupied Poland. Why did some Christians rescue Jews whereas others engaged in persecution of Jews and collaboration with Nazis? What were the motivations of the rescuers? Researching these questions led to her second Holocaust publication, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (Oxford UP, 1986), Her next two works explored individuals and groups she had learned about in her initial research on rescue: In the Lion's Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen (Oxford UP, 1990), the story of Rufeisen, a Jewish man who rescued hundreds of Jews and converted to Catholicism; Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (Oxford UP, 1993), a Jewish partisan unit that saved approximately twelve hundred Jews.

Nechama Tec's current research delves into a new, unexplored aspect of the Holocaust in her forthcoming book, Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust (Yale UP, April 2003), the first comparative study of the differing experiences of women and men in various Holocaust settings. Questions explored in this text originally emerged while she was working on When Light Pierced the Darkness, In the Lion's Den, and Defiance: Did men and women react differently to the experiences of the Holocaust? What happened to traditional gender roles during the traumatic years of the 40s? Are women more likely to show care and empathy for the persecuted than men? How will we learn more about promoting care in our contemporary society by visiting the dynamics of gender in the Holocaust era?

Nechama Tec believes that her training as a professional sociologist has benefited her work as a Holocaust scholar. Not only did her study of sociology help her refine interviewing techniques, but it also honed her skills in interpretation and analysis of data.

Nechama Tec, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, CT. A Holocaust survivor, for many years Professor Tec's research and writing have explored the intricate relationships between cooperation, compassion, altruism, rescue and resistance during the Holocaust. She has received numerous awards for her work. In 2003 she will receive an Honorary Doctorate from Seton Hall University. In 2002 Tec was appointed by President Bush to the Council of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and serves on the museums's Academic Advisory Committee. From 2001 till the present she has served as a Consultant to the Jewish Museum in New York City, for the museum's exhibition, "Mirroring Evil, Nazi Imagery/Recent Art"; in 2001 she received from the American Society of Yad Vashem the Achievement Award for Holocaust Scholarship. In addition, Professor Tec was a Senior Research Fellow at the Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Dimensions Online
Volume 18, No. 1, Fall 2004
Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

Articles from the Print Editions of Dimensions
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