|Web Book Review: Braunstein|
|Written by reviewed by Leslianne Braunstein|
They Were Just People by Bill Tammeus and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri © 2009|
I saw the movie, Schindler’s List in 1993. I thought Oskar Schindler was incredibly brave and appropriately recognized by the State of Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations – a non-Jew who risked his life to save Jews from Nazi extermination. During my trip to Auschwitz in 1999 my admiration of Oskar Schindler met with conflict. Our Polish guide reflected that many Poles did not think much of Oskar Schindler because without money, there was no hope of being saved by him. That revelation made me uneasy. How was it possible to be heralded as Righteous Among the Nations if one’s motivations were not solely altruistic?
I knew to be named Righteous Among the Nations assistance had to be given without profit expected in return. Only financial consideration in an amount sufficient to cover the expenses of hiding was permissible. Living in a faith world where our intentions seem to carry at least 85% of the freight of our conduct, that people would take any money to save a life was at the very least problematic.
I had not thought much about our Auschwitz guide’s revelation until I read these stories of Holocaust survivors. If you are looking for high-spirited stories of selfless courage, this is not your book. In these stories you will discover that the rescuers were often reluctant and always afraid. While we might long to hear of deep spiritual motivations for rescuing God’s chosen, more often than not these fearfully brave people rescued both neighbors and strangers simply because it was the right thing to do. Rescuer Wanda Cherpatuk observed, “A neighbor brought Anna and the others to us, and they were just people. We couldn’t turn them away because to us they were just people.” It seems the rescuers were "just people" as well – people who were willing for whatever reason to put their lives on the line to hide others whose lives were in even greater danger. These rescuers were "just people" with fear and reluctance and varied motivations. Whenever someone survives a holocaust, however it happens, rescue is a mitzvah – a good deed, an act of human kindness.
Many of the stories reveal the seamier side of rescue. These are the stories we do not want to hear — stories of greed, stories of betrayal. In Maria Devinski’s rescue account, we learn her brother-in-law gave his family’s flourmill to local non-Jews telling them they could keep it if the family did not survive the war. Lamentably, the family did not survive because the man hiding them turned them in to the Polish police saying they were robbers. Maria’s extended family was murdered on the spot. The authors observe “[t]his kind of betrayal was not uncommon.”
Aaron Elster and Irene Budowski were saved by a very reluctant rescuer who took her anxiety out on her charges. Irene’s mother had sewn a good sum of money into a garter belt for safekeeping – money that apparently was stolen by the woman who rescued her. When the Russians were bombing their town, their rescuer would not allow them into the cellar because “she did not want to die with Jews.” Life can be very incongruous.
Irene Bau’s story of a priest who lied to authorities so she could get the papers she needed to live safely as a non-Jew reminds us that there are those who were willing to risk their lives in countless ways we will never know. We will never know how many townspeople did not report Jews hidden in neighbors’ homes, even though they may have known. Although not officially recognized, these unknown heroes are Righteous among the Nations.
What sets this book apart from many other collections of Holocaust survivor stories are the brief accounts of the survivors’ post-war lives and the interviews with rescuers and/or their family members. The end of the war did not mean the end of danger. Those who tried to return to their homes most often were met with hostility. In Poland even today there are those who will not speak of their participation in rescuing Jewish lives for fear of reprisal.
The authors recorded these stories as they were told. As is often the case, the telling does not always translate into fine print. Some of the stories were hard to follow; and still, they are authentic and well worth reading. Book groups will be gratified the authors include a readers guide with thoughtful, in-depth questions that evoke many of the complex moral issues emerging from these stories.
LESLIANNE BRAUNSTEIN is associate pastor of Potomac Church in Potomac, Md.