Confronted with the persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust, individuals had a choice whether or not to intervene. Many opted not to act as Jews were systematically targeted, robbed of their property, crowded into ghettos, separated from their families, and deported to forced labor camps and killing centers. But a small number of individuals in every European country and from all religious, ethnic and political backgrounds risked their lives to help Jews. Rescue efforts ranged from the isolated actions of individuals to organized networks, large and small. Some stories of rescue are well known, such as that of the German factory owner Oskar Schindler who protected more than 1,000 Jewish workers employed at his plant from deportation to Auschwitz. But many stories of rescue are less familiar; stories of ordinary people, acting in extraordinary ways, in the face of great danger.
In Poland, to assist a Jew was very risky. The Poles who were guilty of assisting Jews were often, not always, but on many occasions, killed or sent to a camp. In some villages, their house was burned down. I know, for example, of a man who did assist my family, a Mr. Kubinsky, whose farm was burned and his family was killed.
Whether they saved a thousand people or a single life, those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust demonstrated the possibility of individual choice even in extreme circumstances. As we remember the victims of the Holocaust, we honor the rescuers whose actions saved lives.
Some Jews survived because non-Jews risked hiding them. Sarah Kupfer was ten years old when she, her two-year old sister and their mother went into hiding in Poland for eighteen months in the home of Mrs. Orlewska.
She was a beautiful woman. Tall, with swept up hair, beautiful smile, deeply religious, with a heart of gold, obviously. The woman went to mass every single day, and if she sold a piece of jewelry for us, what my mother gave her, and my mother would say, “Take a little money from this,” she would not accept it. And Mama would say, “Take a little money when you go to mass, and give it to the poor.” And she would say, “There are no poorer people than you. Your children have no fresh air. You have no light. You have no freedom. Nobody is poorer than you.” She wouldn’t take a penny, never, she never took a penny. She did it out of the goodness of her heart.
As a Swedish diplomat in Hungary, Raoul Wallenberg worked with others to protect Jews in Budapest. Agnes Adachi was twenty-six when she assisted in this rescue effort.
Budapest is two cities, and in the middle is the so called Blue Danube. For me it is the Red Danube, but that’s what it was. And they took people down there, the Hungarian Nazis, and they roped three people together, and they shot the middle one, so they all fell in. And if they saw a movement, they shot again, so they’d be sure. But many people by themselves somehow got out. But it was a terribly cold winter, as I said, and the Danube was frozen with big slabs of ice. So, Raoul came home the third night, and there was no moonlight, no stars, just cold and dark. And he turned to us-- the first time, usually only talked to the men and the Red Cross--”How many of you can swim?” I have a big mouth. I put up my hand. I said, “Best swimmer in school.” He says, “Let’s go.” And we went down on the other side. The Hungarians didn’t even hear us coming because they were so busy roping and shooting. And we stood on the left way over. We had doctors and nurses in big cars and then we had people outside to pull us out. Four of us, three men and me, we jumped and thanks to the icicles, the ropes hang on to it, and we saved people out.
Some Jewish parents saved their children by placing them with non-Jewish families. In Holland, Helen Waterford and her husband sent their 4-year-old daughter away in 1940.
We decided not to kiss her anymore, not to have her too close physically. Both of us did that, and it has helped her because when we had the time that she had to leave. And we told her -- she was a outgoing child -- she would go and visit a couple, and they have no children, and they would so much like to see her. And she always liked to visit people, so when those other people came, they talked to her, they too, and they came on a Sunday afternoon. And we didn't know their name, we didn't know where they lived. And she saw them, and we told her, “Those are the friends who would like you to see where they’re living. They have no children.” And she went with, we went with her to the streetcar, and we said goodbye. Like that, no kissing, nothing.
In 1939, nearly ten thousand children were sent abroad from Germany and Austria on what were called Kindertransports. Norbert Wollheim assisted in sending German Jewish children to France, Sweden, and mainly England.
Most of the children were in some kind of a mood of expectation, and the parents tried to control their emotions, to show they are courageous, in order to make it not difficult for the children. None of us, nobody of us, could foresee even at this moment that for most of the children and most of the parents, it would be the last goodbye. That a year and a half later or so, from over the same railways where the train left to take the children to a new country and to freedom and liberty, the trains would roll towards the east and take the parents to the human slaughterhouses in Auschwitz and other places.
Denmark had one of the highest Jewish survival rates of any European country, thanks to a remarkable mass rescue effort. Preben Munch-Nielsen was one of many ordinary Danish citizens who helped over 7,000 Jews escape by boat to nearby neutral Sweden.
The first night I remember had two or three… no, two trips to Sweden and I think we got ten to twelve passengers every time. And then later on we had in October seven hundred Jews and, totally I know that this boat brought about 1,400 people from Denmark to Sweden. There’s no question of why or why not, you just did it. You couldn’t let people in need down. You can’t turn the back to people who need your help. There must be some sort of decency in a man’s life, and that wouldn’t have been decent to turn the back to people in need.
For the longest time I didn't speak about all this because I didn't think that my story was that important, compared to all the other horror stories that I have heard from other people. But I feel it's very important to know that people risked their lives, they risked the lives of their families, of everything. They truly believed that they had to help.
You never thought of being afraid because that was the strength, that was the most wonderful feeling that you can do something. You have to go on teaching our children to be that strong, and that caring, and that their eyes should be open to what they can do for others.
[Text on screen] Ordinary people in every European country and from all religious, ethnic and political backgrounds risked their lives to help Jews.