Saving One's Own

Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust

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Mordecai Paldiel
  • Jerusalem, Israel: 
    Jewish Publication Society
    , April
     2017.
     636 pages.
     $49.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780827612617.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that the Jews cannot be automatically discharged of responsibility for being the target of antisemitism. Their “guilt” rests in their lack of political ability and judgment. Fearing physical extinction and dissolution, they mistook antisemitism as a way to stick together and guarantee the existence of their people. Arendt thinks that the Jews were also the last to understand the circumstances that drew them to the center of the conflict. They “never knew how to evaluate antisemitism,” which, according to Arendt, is based on a conundrum: “each class of society which came into a conflict with the state as such became antisemitic because the only social group which seemed to represent the state were the Jews” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966, 25). Thus, the Jews appeared to represent a state to which they actually did not really belong. Antisemitism was already escalating in the 19th century, while the Jewish people remained “the only social group that was unconditionally loyal to the state” without political ambitions of their own (Arendt, 37).

Historian Mordecai Paldiel acknowledges that this lack of political judgment continued under Nazi rule, as the Jewish leadership failed “to properly assess the real nature of the Nazi onslaught on the Jewish people” (453). However, it is time to put to rest the myth that all Jews were unaware of the threat: if Jewish leaders did not recognize the danger of what was happening, “the mostly unknown Jewish rescuers of the Holocaust period” were much more conscious of the scale of the murderous Nazi plan and set out to save as many lives as they could. Paldiel wants to rescue these heroes from anonymity and he is uniquely equipped for the task. In the preface of Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust, he explains that from 1982 to 2007, he “headed the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, whose mission [was] to identify and honor non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust” (xiii). While the non-Jewish rescuers received this tribute, the Jewish ones were left out. 

Paldiel interrogates himself on the reasons behind this omission: it has largely to do with the “Zionist ethos” that accompanied the creation of the state of Israel—an ethos which minimized  the significance of Diaspora Jewry and Judaism as much as possible, and dictated that “in order to survive the ongoing explosions of anti-Jewish rage in the countries inhabited by Jews,” the best course of action that the Jews themselves could adopt was to remain “passive and submissive,” so as to avoid any aggression from outside forces. It was better to depict the Jews as totally overwhelmed by the Holocaust and their bitter fate, over which they had no possible control. The only ones who were fully aware were Righteous Gentiles, who risked their lives to save the Jews, and who consequently deserved their gratitude (xx).

Yet, in Paldiel’s work he came across the files of many Jewish rescuers; when he retired from Yad Vashem he decided to counter the aforementioned Zionist narrative by writing a book about these unsung heroes. Saving One’s Own reads like an encyclopedia: Paldiel specifies that, when confronted with far more stories than could fit in the book, he chose “the most remarkable accounts” of the Jews who established rescue networks in the German-occupied countries, as well as Switzerland, England, and the United States (xx). Each chapter starts with an overview of one country’s history during the Nazi takeover and then delves into individual portraits of the Jewish rescuers who operated there. Measured against the insufficient actions of Jewish leaders who would have more leeway and resources for rescue missions, the often-singlehanded efforts of these rescuers stand out. I would argue that their initiative and effectiveness also counter the Allies’ general policy of “silence” towards the Holocaust. Many scholars have in fact established that American and British intelligence services had information about the Holocaust very early on but chose not to divulge that information because of the more pressing priority of their efforts in the battlefield. The author demonstrates that these Jews were even able to negotiate with the Nazi high ranks, such as in Norbert Masur’s case: a representative of the World Jewish Congress, he secured the liberation of thousands of Jews—including one thousand Jewish women from the Ravensbrück concentration camp—by reaching a deal with none other than Heinrich Himmler on April 20, 1945.

While Paldiel’s work is impressive and he should be commended for bringing these stories to life, as a reader I sometimes felt like a museum visitor, lost amid a series of biographical posters. The book would have been easier to navigate if Paldiel had drawn more connections between these individuals, discerning common traits among them to give us a collective social geography of the Jewish rescuers. However, there is also value to this democratic approach. There is something for everybody in Paldiel’s collection: among the many voices that he resuscitates, readers are ultimately left to retain those who touched them the most. If one of the Nazis’ most horrendous crimes was the slaughter of innocent Jewish children, I was particularly moved by the stories of those rescuers who tried to save them, sometimes paying for their efforts with their lives. Such was, for instance, the fate of Marianne Cohn, who volunteered to smuggle children across the French-Swiss border and was arrested by the Nazis on May 31, 1944 during one of these rescue missions (247–51). Her Jewish friends would have helped her escape, but she declined to avoid Nazi retribution against the children who had been caught with her. Instead, she wrote a moving poem declaring that she would have held as long as possible under torture. She stayed true to her word and on the night of July 7–8, 1944, the Nazis murdered her. Telling stories of courageous Jews like her certainly does not detract from the bravery of non-Jewish rescuers and is a worthy enterprise.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benedetta Carnaghi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Cornell University.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mordecai Paldiel is a Professor of History at Yeshiva University–Stern College and Touro College and is a consultant to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. He is the former longtime director of the Righteous among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem and was himself rescued from the Holocaust by a “Righteous Gentile.” Paldiel is the author of eight books, including Sheltering the Jews: Stories of Holocaust Rescuers and Saving the Jews: Amazing Stories of Men and Women Who Defied the “Final Solution.”

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