Introduction to The Rescuers Online Guide

This website is designed to complement the film The Rescuers, directed by award-winning filmmaker Michael King. The Rescuers traces the effort of twelve diplomats who served in Europe during the Holocaust and, at great risk to themselves (and at times their loved ones), assisted Jews in their attempt to flee Nazi persecution. The film follows Sir Martin Gilbert and Stephanie Nyombayire, a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide who has become an anti-genocide activist in recent years. Gilbert is an acclaimed and prolific British historian, who is one of the foremost historians on the Holocaust.

Of the twelve rescuers highlighted in The Rescuers, we chose to focus on Hiram Bingham IV, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, Chiune Sugihara, Selahattin Ülkümen, and Raoul Wallenberg. We chose them because they illuminate profound moral questions about personal and collective responsibility.

Here are some of the central questions that this online guide explores:

  1. Where is the line between duty and conscience? When do ethical considerations trump diplomats' duty to carry out government policies?
  2. How do our religious, ethnic, and national identities shape the way we construct our universe of moral responsibility?
  3. What leads one person and not another to do the right thing, regardless of consequences they may face? 

In creating this guide, we were mindful of the film’s power to tell these inspirational stories. We were thrilled by the opportunity to partner with Michael King and his production team not only because of the quality of the film but also because we believe that the complicated story of rescue is essential to the study of the Holocaust. This memorable film deepens our previous work on rescuers during the Holocaust by focusing on the dilemmas facing diplomats in the face of Nazi atrocities.

Facing History and Ourselves is aware of the challenge of providing historical context, analysis, and primary documents in a piece of cinematic art. This guide is therefore designed to supplement the film by offering these resources. The two should be used together: the film excerpts can tell the story of the rescuers effectively, while the guide can help students delve more deeply into the historical context and moral dilemmas surrounding their efforts.

Each section of the guide focuses on the story of one rescuer and includes seven different elements: a film excerpt, a description of the excerpt, guiding questions, a brief historical context for the story, a description of the rescuer’s work, primary documents, and connection questions for both the introduction and the primary source. There is a link to primary sources on the sidebar of each section. This link will take the user to the primary documents pertaining to that story along with text dependent questions to guide the reader.

Who Are the Rescuers?

Early in The Rescuers, Martin Gilbert recounts the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve and the first humans born to humans. The story is a tale of the first man-made tragedy: the killing of a human by another human. Abel, the Bible says, was a shepherd, while Cain worked the fields. Soon tensions between the brothers rose as they competed for God’s favor. Then, one day, Cain rose up and killed Abel, believing that God preferred his offerings. The story continues: “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’”1

The story presents the most fundamental moral question we face as human beings: Are we accountable for one another? Can we live together otherwise? This story is the first account of humans betraying their own brothers, and in that—in this symbolic sense—it is as much a descriptive tale as it is a prescriptive moral guide.2 For, from the perspective of this biblical story, we are all brothers. Moreover, as a symbolic story of betrayal, the story echoes loudly in the betrayal of the Jews by their friends and neighbors during the Holocaust. And the victims’ blood cries out from the ground to all who care about their fate.

Gilbert shares the story as he reflects on what he calls “mystery of goodness.” Indeed, the story of rescue is the opposite of the story of betrayal. The rescuers answered the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” affirmatively: the suffering and blood of the victims of Nazi terror are ours; it is our duty to protect them. Speaking for his father, Selahattin Ülkümen, a Turkish diplomat who saved 40 to 50 Jews on the Greek island of Rhodes, Mehmet Ülkümen explains in the film: “My father said, ‘It’s one man’s duty to help his brother. They were my brothers, so it was my duty to come to their assistance.’”

The rescuers’ acts of kindness need to be explored within a historical context. They must be placed within the story of how thousands of communities shattered under the marching boots of German troops and of the ways in which their inhabitants turned against Jews and other minorities. In his 1943 book, Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War, Emanuel Ringelblum, who documented the life of Jews in Poland (until his death in the Warsaw Ghetto), asked this exact question:

I am writing this while this murderous war is still going on and the fate of the remaining European Jews is still unknown. . . [I]n spite of the Polish people’s suffering, the world asks: What did the Poles do while millions of Jews were being led to the stake? What did the Polish underground [and others] . . . do in order to save at least some of their citizens of Jewish nationality? The Polish and Jewish peoples have lived together on the same soil for a thousand years. What did our neighbors do, the moment when the invader, armed from head to foot, attacked the most defenseless people of all, the Jews? When the victims of Nazism fled from the ghettos to the so-called Aryan side . . .  were they afforded asylum despite the prevailing terror or was the asylum provided only if amply paid for and then withdrawn when the funds were insufficient?

In this country where Jews contributed so greatly to the development of commerce and industry, in this country where Jewish labor built houses and factories, workshops and businesses, where whole branches of production were developed over many centuries thanks to the toil of generations of Jews[,] was all this—the whole world asks—given any thought at the time of greatest danger for Poland’s Jews?3

Ringelblum’s answer to these questions was a tragic chronology of indifference, betrayal, and actual cruelty, and there is no question that the number of people who offered help to their Jewish neighbors in Poland—and in Europe in general—was quite small. But in the beginning of this book, Ringelblum also explains that he had set out to study these questions without prejudice: he declares, “I am a historian. . . It is my wish to write objectively, Sine ira et studio [“without anger and fondness”].”4 Fully aware of the challenge of fulfilling this task, Ringelblum—and those who would later seek to study this history openly—had to account for the few who, despite ethnic differences, government orders, and Nazi terror, did offer help to the victims.

The story of the rescuers will not alter the overall picture of Nazi horrors, nor will it change the account of how so many Europeans turned on their Jewish neighbors. Indeed, in a wider perspective, the rescuers discussed in this guide had little power to change the fate that would befall most Jews during the Holocaust. Yet, their stories stand in stark contrast to those who turned their backs on their former neighbors. Although former Nazi Georg Duckwitz was able to help save almost all the Jews of Denmark—some 7,000 people altogether—and Wallenberg, together with Carl Lutz and the Catholic Church in Hungary, protected in two Jewish “ghettos” as many as 97,000 Jews in Budapest (and helped save as many as 120,000), the vast majority of European Jews knew no helper, no rescuer, no savior.5 Of the 11 million Jews the Nazi regime planned to murder (the actual number of European Jews was roughly 10 million), roughly 6 million were in fact killed. This is a staggering number by any stretch of the imagination, and it cast a long and dark shadow over our capacity to do good—indeed, on humanity itself.

What can we learn from the group of diplomats who were thrown into the violent storm of the Holocaust and faced dilemmas most people chose to suppress? While they clearly did not risk the same consequences as ordinary people if they chose to stand up to the Nazis, they faced many other perils. Clearly, the rescuers did not seek glory or material reward when they defied the Germans or their own government’s orders. Even if they did, it would have been a tragic mistake: Hiram Bingham, for example, was forced to give up his diplomatic career and lived his postwar life quite poor and unrecognized. The Japanese rescuer Chiune Sugihara was forced to resign after serving 18 months in a Soviet prison and ended up working odd jobs for the rest of his life. And Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish diplomat mentioned above, lost his wife to a German bomb, and his mother-in-law committed suicide. And the list goes on. In context of the Holocaust, where bad deeds are rewarded and good ones are too often ignored or punished, the value of human action itself loses its ordinary meaning. For, in the grand scheme of things, what kind of world is it where one’s best efforts are but a drop in an ocean of ill will, suffering, and murder? Where courageous actions are rewarded with humiliation, poverty, and death?

Still, there is one sense, a personal one, in which the rescuers’ efforts are undoubtedly of immense consequence. For the tens of thousands who were saved, there is no question that the courageous acts of the rescuers were perhaps the most important moments of their lives. Rescuers such as the diplomats discussed in this guide, in addition to the thousands of others, had a dramatic impact on those who were rescued. In the Hebrew text,6  “he who saves one soul . . . saves an entire world” [כל המקיים נפש אחת . . . כאילו קיים עולם ומלואו]. Thousands of testimonies and letters attest to the fact that in their efforts, the rescuers preformed something akin to a miracle: they gave life to those who were condemned to die as well as to the future generations of their children and grandchildren.

Are they role models? If yes, role models for whom? Do we want our children to grow up to become heroes? Or martyrs? Cynthia Ozick, a short-story writer, novelist, and essayist who has written frequently about the Holocaust, warns against wishing for heroes:

When a whole population takes on the status of bystander, the victims are without allies; the criminals, unchecked, are strengthened; and only then do we need to speak of heroes. When a field is filled from end to end with sheep, a stag stands out. When a continent is filled from end to end with the compliant, we learn what heroism is. [How sad] for the society that requires heroes.7

Certainly the rescuers are exemplars of altruism and exceptional selflessness; but can we really know what motivated them? Can we fully understand the choices they made? Can we reconstruct the incredibly complex context in which they decided to help Jews while others looked the other way or even helped bring about their destruction?

We need to recall yet another aspect of the background against which they decided to act: the reign of utter terror that shrouded daily life in Germany and occupied Europe. While the diplomats were protected to some extent, ordinary people weren’t. In his philosophical memoir, The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, reflects on the issue of moral choices of ordinary people in the context of the Holocaust:

The great majority of Germans, young people in particular, hated Jews, despised them, and considered them the enemies of the people: the rest, with very few heroic exceptions, abstained from any form of help out of fear of the Gestapo. Whoever sheltered or even simply assisted a Jew risked terrifying punishment. In this regard it is only right to remember that a few thousand Jews survived through the entire Hitlerian period, hidden in Germany and Poland in convents, cellars, and attics by citizens who were courageous, compassionate, and above all sufficiently intelligent to observe for years the strictest discretion.8

So what choices could those who wanted to help have made if Primo Levi is correct about the risks involved? If a person protecting a Jew could have been sent to a long prison term in Germany or shot if she happened to live in Poland? If 10 or 100 people from one’s village were to be hanged if one of its families was found hiding or assisting Jews? A choice involving the risk of severe punishment, torture, or even death can’t be considered a choice in the ordinary sense of the word. In a different context, Lawrence Langer, who wrote extensively about the Holocaust, wrote about how the Nazis created situations in which people were forced into “choiceless choices”: a choice made in context that is not of the chooser’s making, where he or she needs to choose between one “abnormal response and another”—indeed, where no good or reasonable outcomes can be expected. (Langer was writing not about bystanders choices, but instead he was writing about the choices in ghettos and camps described by survivors of Nazi horror.)9

And still we can ask: does Langer’s insight shed light on the choices of well-meaning persons caught in the crossfire of mass violence and genocide? Or, as some would argue, would labeling these dilemmas “choiceless choices” excuse the hundreds of thousands of bystanders from their moral responsibility as human beings? And what courage did rescuers—diplomats or ordinary people—need to rise above the tide of almost universal complacency?

Many students of the Holocaust find the story of rescue inspirational. What are the lessons of the rescue efforts? What can they teach future generations about the decision to help the helpless? The answers to this and similar questions are far from straightforward. The people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a mountain town in south-central France, set out to help Jewish refugees who fled the German occupation of northern France[AU1] (see the Bingham section). Aware that Jews were being murdered, the citizens of Le Chambon took action to save as many Jews as possible. They rescued as many as 5,000 Jewish refugees from French concentration camps, hid them, and smuggled them at great risk to safety in Switzerland.10 Magda Trocme, the wife of the town’s minister and spiritual leader, discusses the choice she and others “made”:

Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done—nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, “How did you make a decision?” There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help!11

The rescue effort in Le Chambon leaves people somewhat bewildered. We aren’t confused at all about the courage and righteousness of their actions but about how those actions came about: what did Trocme mean when arguing that “[t]here was no decision to make”?

And so the figure of the rescuer continues to both inspire and elude us. And nobody more so than the person who saved more Jews than any other described in this guide: Raoul Wallenberg. A son of one of his coworkers commented on the fate of this man who disappeared and died shortly after the war in the Soviet prison system: “Wallenberg disappeared. He appeared and disappeared before the eyes of the people he had saved, just as the heroes of the legends. He did what he had to do, saved thousands of people, and vanished after he had completed his mission.”12

Even the motives aren’t always clear, or at least aren’t entirely articulated by the rescuers. Chiune Sugihara said:

You want to know about my motives, don't you? Well, it is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees the refugees face-to-face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them.13

So Sugihara speaks of sentiments and sympathy but doesn’t frame his action in a systematic way. Moreover, many rescuers are silent about their calculations and motives, leaving it up to us to try to understand what goes on in the mind of a person who chooses to be an “upstander.” We would like to think of them as heroes, and heroes they may have been. But they reject that label: Mordecai Paldiel, the director of the Righteous Among the Nations program at Yad Vashem, writes that “[w]e are somehow determined to view these benefactors as heroes: hence the search for underlying motives. The Righteous persons, however, consider themselves as anything but heroes, and regard their behavior during the Holocaust as quite normal.”14

This is not a story of redemption, and the efforts of rescuers should not be taught to negate the absolute horror of the Nazi era. But can it teach us something about goodness in humans? This might very well be a personal answer. But it is the very complexity of the story of rescue during the Holocaust that makes it important to examine in classrooms where young adults debate the history that shapes us and our future. Most importantly, the stories included in this film and guide, with all their inconclusiveness, force us to consider the questions of what we can expect from ourselves: who will inspire us to stop injustice when we see it? Pierre Sauvage, a Jew born during the war to parents who were in hiding, believes that the kindness of the villagers at Le Chambon mustn’t be overlooked: 

If we do not learn how it is possible to act well even under the most trying circumstances, we will increasingly doubt our ability to act well even under less trying ones. If we remember solely the horror of the Holocaust, we will pass on no perspective from which meaningfully to confront and learn from that very horror. If we remember solely the horror of the Holocaust, it is we who will bear the responsibility for having created the most dangerous alibi of all: that it was beyond man’s capacity to know and care. If Jews do not learn that the whole world did not stand idly by while we were slaughtered, we will undermine our ability to develop the friendships and alliances that we need and deserve. If Christians do not learn that even then there were practicing Christians, they will be deprived of inspiring and essential examples of the nature and requirements of their faith. If the hard and fast evidence of the possibility of good on earth is allowed to slip through our fingers and turn into dust, then future generations will have only dust to build on. If hope is allowed to seem an unrealistic response to the world, if we do not work towards developing confidence in our spiritual resources, we will be responsible for producing in due time a world devoid of humanity – literally.”15


Citations

  • 1 : Gen. 4:1–10.
  • 2 : We thank Zvi Ben-Dor Benite for his interpretation of this story. It serves as a symbol for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, whose holy books all contain this story. The story is not just first from a chronological point of view but also in the sense that it is primary or fundamental to our understanding of ethical life. Not all Biblical texts, of course, share this universal point of view.
  • 3 : Emanuel Ringelblum, Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War, trans. Dafna Alon et al. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974),  1–3.
  • 4 : Ibid.
  • 5 : “Raoul Wallenberg,” the Jewish Virtual Library, accessed July 2, 2013, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/.
  • 6 : Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5. The reason for this strong affirmation of human life, indeed its sanctity, goes back to the fact that God created a single person as the origin of humanity; Adam was humanity itself and so should his sons and daughters be regarded. And God created him in his own image—בצלמו—and thus all of Adam’s offspring are of Godly origins and their destruction is an offense against God, against creation itself. A similar statement can be found in the Koran.
  • 7 : Cynthia Ozick, prologue to Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, by Gay Block and Malka Drucker, xii.
  • 8 : Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (New York: First Vintage International Edition, 1989), 154.
  • 9 : Lawrence Langer, Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), 72. We are using his term only in its heuristic sense.
  • 10 : The Le Chambon people were Protestant (Huguenots), a minority whose history was marked by Catholic persecution. They also took a firm stand against French collaboration with the Nazi persecution of the Jews. See “Le Chambon-sur-Lignon,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, accessed May 14, 2013, http://ushmm.org/.
  • 11 : Facing History and Ourselves, Holocaust and Human Behavior (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., 1994), 385. Emphasis added.
  • 12 : Palko Forgacz, A tribute presented in Budapest, June 26, 1946, The Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States website, accessed May 16, 2013.
  • 13 : Mordecai Paldiel, The Righteous Among the Nations (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 451. Emphasis added.
  • 14 : Mordecai Paldiel, “Is goodness a mystery?” Jerusalem Post, October 8, 1989. Whether humans are innately good (as Paldial argues) or not is an issue we hope this guide will help students will explore. Paldiel interviewed and research thousands of rescuers and survivors as part of his work at Yad Vashem.
  • 15 : Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers, eds., Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (New York: NYU Press, 1989), 102. Quoted in Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., 1994), 386.

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