The Holocaust, or Shoah as it is known in Hebrew, saw around two-thirds of Europe’s Jews killed by a state that set up 40,000 facilities devoted to wiping out a race. There were other victims too, Romani, the disabled, homosexuals, political opponents… as the Nazis tried to “cleanse” the continent of people they considered sub-human.
Hitler was a virulent and violent anti-Semite long before he came to power and started to persecute before the war. The Nuremburg Laws, passed in 1935, removed citizenship from Jewish Germans among other attacks on their place in society. By the time war broke out the concentration camp system was well developed and as the Nazis took over Eastern Europe they became ever more brutal in their extermination efforts.
The Wannsee Conference in 1942 introduced the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish question”, a horrifying program of mass murder.
The extent to which the Nazis’ Jewish policies were known about or shared by the majority of Germans is still a subject of great historical controversy. There were though some who were willing to stand up and take action to defend their fellow human beings at great personal risk.
Here are 10 heroes who helped Jews during World War II.
1 – Oskar Schindler (1908 – 1974)
Oskar Schindler is, thanks to Thomas Kenneally’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s film, probably the most famous helper of the Jewish people in World War Two.
Schindler was a Nazi spy in Czechoslovakia and Poland before the Germans invaded and a member of the Nazi party from 1939. He was also a businessman and in 1939 was in charge of an enamelware factory in Krakow. Many of his employees were Jewish and should have been killed. It’s believed Schindler initially saved their lives for financial reasons but eventually came to act for more humanitarian reasons. He saved 1,200 Jews when he moved his factory west as the Nazi empire collapsed. By the end of the war, all the money was gone, Schindler had spent it bribing Nazis to keep his workers safe.
He never really made much of his life after the war and often had to rely on the help of those whose lives he saved to keep body and soul together. In 1963 Israel named him Righteous Among the Nations.
Schindler seems to have had a conversion as a result of seeing the Nazi liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. After that he became a committed defender of Jews whenever and wherever he could. When some of his workers were sent to Auschwitz he managed to get them out and also got 3,000 women transferred to textile factories from the camp in the hope that they might survive. He and his wife set up a hospital in their factory to care for 250 Jews who had been considered not fit enough to work in the mines.
Schindler is the only member of the Nazi Party to be buried in Mount Zion cemetery in Jerusalem.
2 – Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou (1891 –1949)
Leaders who stood up to the Nazis didn’t usually last long. Archbishop Damaskinos told them where to go and survived. His churches gave out thousands of baptismal certificates to Jews, enabling them to claim Christianity and survive the deportations in Nazi-occupied Greece.
As Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Damaskinos was the spiritual leader of his country. He’d been elected first in 1938, but the Greek dictator, Metaxas, didn’t like him and put his own man in place. The German invasion got rid of Metaxas and Damaskinos was elected again.
When, in 1943, the Germans started deporting Greek Jews the Archbishop sent a document to the occupation authorities that is believed to be unique, the only such protest made to the Nazis.
In it he speaks of the country’s anger at the treatment of their fellow citizens: “Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences.”
Despite the promise of a firing squad, he published his letter, telling the Nazi who threatened him that it was the local tradition to hang not shoot prelates of the church, “Please respect our traditions!”
3 – Ho Feng-Shan (1901 – 1997)
Ho is known as the “Chinese Schindler” for his efforts to save Jews while working as a diplomat in Vienna.
Ho was the First Secretary of the ROC Chinese (the government of China until the communist takeover in 1949) legation in Vienna from 1937, the year before the Germans took over Austria. The situation for Jews were getting desperate and after the Kristallnacht attacks in 1938 it became obvious to anyone that the only way to survive was to get out of Europe. Austria had 200,000 Jewish citizens, but to be allowed to leave they needed proof that somewhere would accept them. Unfortunately 31 countries had just signed an agreement at the Evian Conference that effectively shut most of the world’s borders to Jewish refugees.
Ho didn’t care and went against his bosses to issue hundreds of visas to Jewish families to travel to Shanghai at enormous speed. He signed around 2,000 in just six months and no-one knows exactly how many Austrian Jews were saved by this courageous act.
He died aged 1996, but it wasn’t until after his death that his actions were honored. During his lifetime the only record of his life-saving work was a black mark on his personnel records for not following orders.
4 – Irena Sendler (1910 –2008)
Irena Sendler was tortured and sentenced to death by the Nazis for her heroic efforts to save Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, but somehow survived and lived to old age.
Irena was a Catholic, but her family had a history of fighting anti-Semitism. Her father, a doctor, died after treating typhus patients many of whom were Jews and Jewish groups helped to pay for Irena’s education at Warsaw University where she got into trouble for opposing the university’s segregationist policies.
When the Nazis invaded her homeland she immediately began to help Jews to escape, forging documents for them and joining the resistance’s children’s unit. Any Pole found aiding Jews would be killed along with all their family. Her work as a social worker included visits inside the Warsaw Ghetto and she started to smuggle children out to stay with nuns and local families.
Around 2,500 Jewish children were taken out of the Ghetto by Irena and her team. She was arrested in 1943 and saved by her resistance colleagues who bribed her guards as she was about to be executed. Even after this she continued to work for Jewish children.
She was named Righteous among the Nations in 1965, the first of many honors from Polish and Israeli authorities. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and died aged 98 in Warsaw.
5 – Raoul Wallenberg (1912 –1947?)
Raoul Wallenberg was another diplomat who during World War Two used his powers to save tens of thousands of lives. He probably died in the custody of the KGB after the war. He is one of the most honored heroes of the Holocaust.
From a rich Swedish family, Wallenberg was 1-16th Jewish and proud of it. When Hungary’s increasing support for Nazism made it impossible for a Jewish colleague to do business in his homeland, Wallenberg started to travel there on his behalf, learning the language and watching the Nazi state in action.
Hungary was finally occupied by the Germans in 1944 and the Nazis immediately began the process of deportations. Wallenberg was recruited by the War Refugee Board to travel to Hungary to help the nation’s Jews. By the time he arrived in Budapest, 400,000 Jews had already been sent to the death camps and around 230,000 remained in the country. Wallenberg started to issue “protective passports” to Hungarian Jews. The documents identified the carrier as a Swede waiting to go home. They had no legal force whatsoever, but were usually accepted by the authorities. He also started to rent out buildings and put them under the Swedish diplomatic umbrella, essentially declaring them Swedish territory. He managed to shelter 10,000 people in his stock of 32 buildings.
Wallenberg braved bullets to hand out passports to Jews already loaded on to trains heading for the camps. With the Soviet armies at the gates of Budapest he negotiated and bribed German and Hungarian fascists to leave the ghetto unharmed.
Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviets, accused of espionage, and vanished. He was probably killed in 1947 in Moscow, but there have been reported sightings of him – always in custody – going up to the 1980s.
6 – Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches (1885 –1954)
The impressively named Portuguese diplomat also put his bureaucratic duties to one side in the service of a greater good, granting thousands of visas to refugees from his base in Bordeaux, allowing them to make the trip to neutral Portugal from where many fled on to America.
It is often said that Sousa Mendes issued 30,000 visas with 10,000 going to Jews but that figure has been disputed. He certainly saved the lives of thousands of people who were able to get out of France thanks to his documents, issued despite his government’s insistence that he stop. Some historians have called him the greatest single life saver of the Holocaust.
Sousa Mendes had a long history of breaking the rules in his job, thankfully. He wasn’t your typical freedom fighter though, he was a supporter of the Portuguese dictatorship and happy to be quite ruthless in dealing with its opponents. He was kicked out of America for his “anti-democratic” and “anti-American” pronouncements in the press.
Portugal wasn’t even big enough to be invited to the Evian Conference at which many countries shut their doors to Jews fleeing the Nazis. The country did much the same, issuing an order tightening up their processes around issuing visas.
Sousa Mendes started issuing visas against the rules in 1939, one to a refugee from Franco’s Spain. He was warned about his future conduct but was to carry on issuing visas off the books from May 1940, falsifying details if he thought it necessary at the risk of a long prison sentence.
AS the Germans swept into France, an assembly line system was set up to deal with the demand for visas. When the Portuguese authorities tried to stop the Spaniards letting through people of Sousa Mendes’ documents he personally led them to a border post with no telephone where the message can’t have got through.
Lisbon became one of the chief escape routes for refugees from occupied Europe, much to the Nazis’ dismay. They started to issue threats to the Portuguese government, who in turn cracked down on their rogue consul. He was put on half pay for a year and returned to Portugal where he was forced to rely on Jewish relief charities to feed his family.
He died still in disgrace as far as his government was concerned, but has been honored since his death. In 1966 he was named as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in Israel. The Portuguese honored him in 1987 and he is now recognized as a national hero.
7 – Varian Fry (1907 –1967)
Varian Fry helped up to 4,000 people escape the Nazis, some Jewish, some anti-Nazis, while working as a journalist in Vichy France.
Fry came from a privileged American background and got the best education available before turning to writing. By 1935 he was a foreign correspondent in Berlin, disgusted at what he saw of the Nazi regime he started to raise money for anti-Nazi groups.
In 1940 he was sent to France by the Emergency Rescue Committee with $3,000 and a list of threatened refugees, tasked with getting as many of them out as he could.
He used a villa near Marseille to hide his charges before they were smuggled to Spain, then Portugal, before setting out for the USA. Some were put on ships to Martinique in the West Indies, from where most of them also headed for the States.
Wealthy American supporters helped pay for his work and yet another brave diplomat, Hiram Bingham, issued thousands of visas. The Emergency Rescue Committee, which still operates today as the International Rescue Committee, was helped by American Unitarians in Lisbon. Fry was a trenchant critic of his government’s policies towards European Jewish refugees and was recruited in 1944 when President Roosevelt did set up the War Refugee Board. Many famous artists, writers and intellectuals owed their life to Fry.
He was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1967 and is listed as the Righteous Among the Nations in Israel, who posthumously made him a citizen. A Street in Berlin is named for him as is one in his New Jersey home town.
8 – The Danish Underground
Denmark shares a border with Germany and was occupied from 1940, but miraculously almost all the country’s Jews were able to survive the war thanks to a massive collective effort by the country’s resistance movement and many ordinary people.
The Nazis were relatively nice to their Nordic neighbors, promising not to interfere with their independence. The Germans needed Danish meat and butter and were willing to turn a blind eye for a while at least.
However, in time that changed and pressure to deal with the “Jewish problem” grew. Some Danish anti-Semites tried to burn down a synagogue but were dealt with harshly by the government. As Danish resistance grew the Germans issued a series of demands to the authorities. When they were refused, Germany took over the running of the country and Jewish Danes were in real danger.
A German diplomat tried to get the country’s nearly 8,000 Jews to Sweden but the plan failed. So he leaked the German plans to a left-leaning politician who tipped off the resistance and through them Denmark’s Jews who were told to go into hiding. Danish civil servants went through phone books looking for Jewish names, called them and told them to flee.
The Swedish ambassador in Copenhagen started issuing passports to Danish Jews. Niels Bohr, a physicist of Jewish descent was desperately wanted for the American nuclear weapons program but refused to leave Sweden until the country opened its borders to Denmark’s Jews.
A flotilla of ships took the refugees to Sweden and when the SS staged their planned roundup they found almost no one at home. About 450 were sent to camps but even there the Danish government kept up the pressure and the 50 or so who died of old age or disease.
The entire Danish resistance movement is honored as Righteous Amongst the Nations in Israel.
9 – The People of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
This small French town is one of only two to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in Israel for the population’s brave decision to turn their community into a haven for threatened Jews.
The leadership for this courageous act came from two Christian priests, the minister André Trocmé and the town’s pastor Edouard Theis. Trocme had already been an outspoken pacifist and critic of the Nazis before the war, one of the reasons he was sent to such an isolated parish.
From 1942, Jews were sheltered from German and French Vichy forces is houses, farms and the town’s public buildings. When the soldiers came the Jews were spirited away to the surrounding countryside and summoned home with an all clear song.
Local people also helped find documents that would help their charges make it across the border to Switzerland.
The town wasn’t unscathed. They soon came under suspicion and the Vichy authorities sent agents to try to find out what was going on there. The Gestapo called too. When they found a group of young Jewish men they arrested them, but their guardian, Daniel Trocme (a cousin of Andre) refused to let them go without him – he too died in the camps.
The two priests were finally arrested in 1943, after Trocme had spoken up to a visiting Vichy minister. The two men refused to sign an agreement as to their future conduct but were released fairly quickly, going underground to continue their work.
The town’s people probably helped to keep 3,000-5,000 people from deportation and probable death and Le Chambon-sur-Lignon has received several honors for its bravery.
10 – Dimitar Peshev (1894 – 1973)
Dimitar Peshev used his political power to help save the Jews of Bulgaria, despite earlier supporting his country’s alliance with the Nazis.
Before the war Peshev had been a vice president of the Bulgarian parliament. In 1940 Bulgaria allied itself with Nazi Germany and within a couple of years had passed anti-Jewish laws similar to those in Germany. Peshev went along with all this.
However, when the orders were sent to deport the Jews of Bulgaria to the death camps something happened to Peshev. A delegation of Jews – including a friend – came to tell him of the deportation orders on March 8, 1943 and Peshev, after initially believing the warnings to be untrue, decided to stop it.
The Prime Minister, Bogdan Filov, refused to see Peshev, but he pestered the Interior Minister until he reversed the orders. Sadly, the change of mind did not come in time to save everyone and Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were handed over to the Germans. Peshev stepped up his efforts to save the rest of his country’s Jews, writing, with 43 supporters of the government in parliament, to Filov demanding that no further anti-Jewish laws should be passed. He was sacked for his troubles.
After the war the new communist regime tried him for collaboration, but Jewish friends managed to save his life and in the end he served only a year in prison.
In 1973 he was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in Israel and has since been honored in Bulgaria.