There is something, I don't know what it is though, I wish I could explain it because I'm not a people that would run with flags, or would, would walk in demonstrations or, no way! And I'm not an ideologist. I'm not politically involved in something, and...it had nothing to do with it! It was just...I loved the people. -- Constance Koster, aid provider in the Netherlands
Rescue is a crucial topic in understanding genocide survival and appreciating the difficult choices that people make in extreme circumstances. Although many stories of survival during the Holocaust are due to unexplained and unexplainable circumstances, there are also numerous accounts of individual and group acts of aid and rescue that contributed to the survival of thousands of Jewish people. Individuals in every country, from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds did help, and small and large acts—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—saved lives. Individuals and groups who engaged in rescue activities did so at great risk to their own lives, endangered their families and friends, and provided future generations with signs of hope that even in times of turmoil, there are people who manage to rise above circumstances to preserve the dignity of humanity. These individuals and groups have been acknowledged by local, national, and international organizations in various ways, and their testimonies will serve as reminders of the importance of these brave acts for generations to come.
This exhibition, born of a partnership between UNESCO and USC Shoah Foundation – the Institute for Visual History and Education, contains excerpts of testimonies from 9 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and 4 rescue/aid providers discussing: Organized Rescue, Diplomats and Rescue, Rescuing Children, Religion and Rescue, and Acknowledging Rescue. On International Holocaust Memorial Day, and every day in perpetuity, these testimonies will memorialize the acts of courage and anti-genocidal defiance that rescuers represent.
USC Shoah Foundation – the Institute for Visual History and Education maintains an archive of nearly 52,000 audiovisual testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses. While the vast majority of the collection is composed of interviews with Jewish survivors, there are 1,132 testimonies of rescue and aid providers, recorded in 23 languages, in 29 countries. The Visual History Archive also contains testimonies from Homosexual survivors, Sinti and Roma survivors, Jehovah’s Witness survivors, Survivors of Eugenics policies, Political prisoners, Liberators and liberation witnesses, and War crimes trials participants. The Institute is currently working to expand the content of the archive to contain voices of survivors of the Armenian, Rwandan, and other genocides.
Given this substantial collection of voices of survivors and witnesses, there are many possible paths through which we could navigate the topic of rescue. We have chosen five themes that both acknowledge the rescuers and aid providers whose stories are contained in our archive and allow the voices of the victims to continue to resonate and remind us of the importance of preserving humanity.
It is estimated that over a million Jewish children lost their lives during the Holocaust. Some of those who survived did so in hiding and/or by concealing their identity. Many thousands were also saved through organized rescue efforts that allowed them to escape from Nazi-occupied territories.
Children, being a particularly vulnerable population, elicited special rescue operations. Possibly the most well-known example of these rescue operations involved individual British families agreeing to “host” children from Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic through a program known as Kindertransport. Through this program, an estimated 10,000 refugee children, most of them Jewish, were housed in the United Kingdom during the war. These children were able to avoid ghettoization and camp experiences; in many cases, they were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust.
Eva Lewin, part of whose testimony you see here, was a member of one of these Kindertransports. The Visual History Archive contains 856 testimonies discussing rescue of Jewish children during the Holocaust in 11 languages, including 659 testimonies in 8 languages that discuss Kinderstransport experiences.
While hundreds of people who participated in rescue activities may still remain anonymous, many thousands have been acknowledged and honored by governments, local and international organizations, and those who directly benefited from their activities. Recognizing the importance of participating in rescue activities during a time of authoritarian rule is one of the enduring lessons from the Holocaust; one that many teachers and students explore both inside and outside of classrooms around the world today. How can everyday acts make a difference in history, and what can we learn from these acts? Remembering and acknowledging the acts of a small number of people who decided to do what they could to help their neighbors is an important act of memory that resists genocidal ideology.
Yad Vashem-The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority founded a commission in 1963 that officially recognizes the extraordinary heroic actions and deeds of non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Rescuers are conferred with the honorific status of "Righteous Among the Nations" (Hasidei umot haolam). The Visual History Archive contains 773 testimonies in 15 languages that discuss Righteous Among the Nations, and 823 testimonies in 18 languages about aid giver recognition in general. Betty Berz, whose testimony you see here, participated in the process of securing this honor for the Bastian family, who saved her life by hiding her in Paris during the war.
While many aid providers were individuals, operating independently, there are numerous examples of organized rescue during the Holocaust. Religious groups, political and resistance groups, and even neighborhoods and villages formed networks that worked together to save Jewish people in their communities. Rescue activities involved seemingly simple acts, such as finding and securing hiding places for families, and more complex activities, such as negotiating with German cadres for prisoner exchanges.
Count Folke Bernadotte
One well-documented example of such negotiations is the case of Count Folke Bernadotte. Count Folke Bernadotte (1895-1948) negotiated the rescue of Jewish and political prisoners from concentration camps during the war. The nephew of the king of Sweden, Gustav V, and the count of Wisborg, Bernadotte became vice-chairman of the Swedish Red Cross in 1943. In March and April 1945, Bernadotte met with Heinrich Himmler and his aides and negotiated the release of 7,000 Scandinavian prisoners from concentration camps and the Theresienstadt ghetto. Bernadotte also worked for the release of 10,000 female prisoners, 2,000 of them Jewish, from the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany who were then transferred to Sweden. Irene Fainman-Krausz, part of whose testimony you see here, was one of these prisoners. The Visual History Archive contains 229 testimonies that discuss Count Folke Bernadotte rescue activities, in 11 languages.
Organized rescue also involved governmental and civilian cooperation. In Denmark, when the German police began arresting Jews (October 1-2, 1943), Danes successfully mobilized to help Jews flee to neighboring neutral Sweden. The Danish underground as well as ordinary citizens organized a nationwide effort to smuggle Jews to the coast where Danish fisherman transported them by boat to Sweden. As part of this operation, Kruuse Caroe, part of whose testimony you see here, helped to organize the evacuation of Jews from Copenhagen to hiding places in the countryside. Only 2% of Danish Jewry perished in the Holocaust because of the assistance of the Danish people, along with the organized protest of the Danish civil administration, which protested the deportation of Danish Jews and repeatedly asked to visit them in Theresienstadt.
Organized rescue often involved international and transnational cooperation. In addition to the countries in Europe participating in rescue, Americans also engaged in rescue activities. American rescue worker Varian Fry served as the European director of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). He and the ERC helped intellectuals, artists, writers, and politicians escape from Europe to the United States by legal or illegal measures. The rescue operations, headquartered in Marseille, took place between 1940 and 1941. Fry arrived in Europe with a list of 200 refugees to locate and opened a cover relief agency called the American Center for Relief (Centre Américain de Secours) to distribute money to refugees while helping them acquire visas. Many of Fry's efforts succeeded as a result of his willingness to engage in illegal activities such as forging passports and procuring false papers. While in France, Fry and his committee assisted in the escapes of over one thousand refugees, including Hannah Arendt, Lion Feuchtwanger, Heinrich and Nelly Mann, Franz and Alma Mahler Werfel, Max Ernst, and Marc Chagall. In September 1941, French authorities arrested and expelled Fry from France. In 1994, Yad Vashem granted him the honorific Righteous Among the Nations for his efforts to save Jews. The Visual History Archive contains twelve testimonies that discuss Varian Fry’s activities, in English and French. Jean Gemähling, who worked closely with Fry, describes these activities in the clip of testimony you see here.
Diplomats and Rescue
Some of the best-known cases of rescue occurred at Embassies. Diplomats in countries throughout Europe helped Jews escape persecution by issuing visas and other travel paperwork that allowed Jewish citizens to flee Nazi-occupied territory. Three exemplary cases of diplomats engaged in rescue activities involve Chiune Sugihara (Lithuania), Raoul Wallenberg (Hungary), and Aristides de Sousa Mendes (France).
Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara
In Lithuania, Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara saved an estimated 5,000-10,000 people by issuing visas that allowed Jews to escape through Japan. Born on January 1, 1900, Sugihara was a career diplomat for Japan who moved in 1939 from Helsinki to open a consular office in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania. Working as vice counsel, Sugihara worked with Dr. Zorach Warhaftig, a leader of the Jewish community, and Jan Zwartendijk, the honorary Dutch consul, to help move Jewish refugees from Lithuania to Dutch-controlled Curaçao via Japan and the Soviet Union. When the Japanese government declined to grant transit visas, Sugihara ignored his government's instructions and issued transit visas anyway. With the help of his wife, Yokiko Sugihara, he issued between 1,600 and 3,500 visas between early July and August 31, 1940. After this, he worked in Prague and Königsberg, where he continued to issue transit visas to Jews. When he returned to Japan in 1947, the Japanese government demanded he resign from the diplomatic corps as punishment for ignoring his government's directive in 1940. In 1984, Yad Vashem granted him the honorific Righteous Among the Nations for his efforts to save Jews. Sugihara died in Kamamura, a suburb of Tokyo, Japan, on July 31, 1986. Sugihara is discussed in 62 testimonies, in 6 languages, in the Visual History Archive. Notably, the archive contains a Japanese-language testimony with Sugihara’s wife, Yukiko, who assisted him in his rescue activities.
Born near Stockholm, Sweden, Raoul Wallenberg (1912-?) was a Swedish businessman and diplomat who became a rescuer during the Holocaust, saving an estimated 20-35,000 Hungarian Jews. In 1944, after the German occupation of Hungary, Wallenberg was assigned by the U.S. War Refugee Board (WRB)—a governmental agency created by President Roosevelt to rescue victims of enemy oppression—to help the Hungarian Jews. Although he had no experience in diplomacy or clandestine work, Wallenberg accepted the assignment. From 9 July 1944 to 16 January 1945, Wallenberg worked ceaselessly to save as many Jews as possible in Budapest, funded by the WRB. He issued protection papers that were known as the "Wallenberg passport" (Schutz-Pass) and convinced Hungarian authorities that Jews with these passes qualified as Swedish citizens who would soon leave Hungary. The Jews with these papers lived in safe houses that Wallenberg had requisitioned and designated as Swedish property. He continued his activities after the Arrow Cross takeover of October 1944, often driving through the city to hand out documents to the Jews and persisted even when Adolf Eichmann warned him to stop. In January 1945, Wallenberg was taken into custody by the occupying Soviets and his fate after the war is unknown. Sweden and the United States investigated his possible whereabouts. The USSR reported that Wallenberg had died in a Soviet prison in 1947 although no death certificate was ever issued. In 1963, Yad Vashem granted him the honorific Righteous Among the Nations for his efforts to save Jews. Raoul Wallenberg is discussed in 225 testimonies, in ten languages, in the Visual History Archive.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes
Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches (1885 - 1954) was a Portuguese diplomat who, after the defeat of France in 1940, issued transit visas to Jewish refugees in Bordeaux and Bayonne to leave France, and subsequently Europe, via Spain and Portugal. He continued issuing transit visas even after he was ordered to cease doing so by the Portuguese government. As a result, he was recalled to Lisbon and stripped of his position; he died in poverty in 1954. In 1966, Yad Vashem granted him the honorific Righteous Among the Nations for his efforts to save Jews. The Visual History Archive contains 5 testimonies, in English and French, which discuss the work of Sousa Mendes. Sousa Mendes’ son Pedro, discusses his father’s work at length in his testimony.
Religion and Rescue
Individuals and groups from a variety of religious backgrounds helped save Jews during the Holocaust. Churches, monasteries, and other places of worship became houses of refuge for hiding Jews, especially children. Religious leaders, such as Andrei Sheptytskyi, participated in rescue and aid activities and recruited and/or obliged their co-clergy to participate in rescue and aid activities. Religious groups formed networks of help, but individual clergy such as Abbé Joseph André also engaged in activities and saved dozens of lives. These representatives as well as other clergy have been honored within their churches and by external organizations for their rescue efforts.
Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytskyi (1865-1944) was the head of the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church in Ukraine during the time of the Nazi occupation. In February 1942, Sheptytskyi sent a letter of protest to Heinrich Himmler decrying the use of the Ukrainian police to carry out anti-Jewish measures and his November 1942 pastoral letter openly called for an end to wartime violence. Together with his brother Klemens, he organized a network that contributed to saving several hundred Jews by providing refuge in convents and monasteries under his jurisdiction. Andrei Sheptytskyi died on November 1, 1944, in Lviv. The Visual History Archive contains five testimonies in English and Ukrainian that discuss the work of Andrei Sheptytskyi. Edward Harvitt and Kurt Lewin, parts of whose testimonies you see here, were both recipients of aid from Andrei Sheptytskyi.
Abbé Joseph André
Abbé Joseph André (1908-1973) was a priest who rescued Jewish children in Belgium during the war. From his parish office in Namur, André worked with the underground Jewish organization Comité de Défense des Juifs to locate hiding places for children in monasteries, convents, and private homes. Aware that the Gestapo was intent on arresting him, the Abbé went into hiding until the Allied armed forces liberated Belgium in September 1944. After liberation, he gathered the children he had placed into hiding and returned them to the parents or Jewish organizations. In 1968, he was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for his rescue work. Isaac Sephiha, part of whose testimony you see here, worked with Abbé Joseph André to save Jews in Belgium.