Students explore the intertwined personal stories of Jewish refugees who attempted to flee to the United States and the American rescuers who intervened on their behalf.
Nechama Tec discusses her research on rescuers.
Now, when you look at large groups of those rescuers, hundreds of cases, as I did, they seem to be a very varied group, extremely heterogeneous. They come from all walks of life. Some of them are illiterate. Some of them are prominent writers. Some of them are pious Catholics. Some of them are irreligious, atheists.
So they represent a wide range and wide spectrum of individuals. And in terms of the conventional categories that we look at people that we tend to categorize in terms of class, education, money, what have you, religiosity, et cetera, you cannot really classify them.
Only when you look at them very closely, almost under a microscope, a social microscope I would call it, do you find a set of shared characteristics, a set of features that they seem to have in common. And I'm presenting those as hypothesis, really, because not all of them fall into it, and I have special cases which I describe, of course, in the book. And what are these characteristics?
One of them is which I refer to as individuality. These are people that don't very well blend into their respective environments. They stand out within it. They stand out in different ways. Sometimes in what we would define as positive ways, sometimes as negative. They can be at the very top of their social milieu, or they can be at the very bottom. It doesn't matter. But they are different. They don't blend into it.
Now, the question is, what does it mean if a person doesn't blend into his or her social environment? What it really means is that they are not constrained by the expectations and by the norms of their surroundings. They are free. They are independent. And while they are not aware of the fact that they are different, that they don't fit into their social milieu, they all seem to be aware of the fact that they are independent.
And invariably, they all told me: what I do, I act in accordance with my own values. And if somebody doesn't like it, it doesn't matter to me. I am an independent person. Or one man used the word, I am a cat that walks his own alley or something. I forgot, of course, the expression. [LAUGHS] Anyway, they are individualists and they are aware of it.
Now, what are they individualists about? What are they so independent about? They are independent in terms of their own values. They are independent because they act. They are independent to act in terms of what they believe in, regardless of how others feel. And invariably, these are individuals that had a long history of good deeds. Most of them have participated in what I think you would refer to as prosocial behavior. They just cannot turn away a beggar. They cannot turn away a vagabond that turns to them. There are people that like to help and have been helping.
Of course, this help never involves anything of the magnitude that was involved in risking their lives for Jews during the war, you understand. But nevertheless, they were used to it. So when the time came to help Jews, it fit into their behavior. It fit into the pattern to which they were used to. And therefore, probably, most of them, all of them, invariably tell me, what I did is nothing. It was my duty. It is a simple thing. Everybody should have done it. They never make a big fuss about the things that they were dealing with. And they would embarrass me. They would say, you would have done the same thing. Wouldn't you?
And then I was silent. I mean, you can't, I mean, I said I don't know. After all, you have to remember that helping Jews in those days was a crime punishable by death. And the Nazis were very serious about it, and executions of Christians and their families followed. So when they raised this, when they were so sure that I would have done it and I was thinking about my own children, I mean, I wasn't so sure at all. And they were very disappointed, I must say. Here she is, telling us that she wouldn't do it.
Now, so for them, it was— and I think that this attitude of seeing it as a matter-of-fact act also helped them behave this way, because I think if had they realized the magnitude— although they knew it, but there are ways of knowing— had they fully become aware of and knowledgeable about the punishments, perhaps they would be paralyzed into inaction.
And mind you, whenever they extended the help, it never followed a long, prolonged deliberation. They did it either spontaneously and suddenly or they would slide into it. They would start helping a little bit, and this little bit turned into longer periods and longer periods and they were drawn into it. And really, if you search your mind, if you think about all the most important actions or activities that you yourself are engaged in, you would realize that they don't have— you don't sit down and say, well, I'm going to donate my kidney to my child and you weigh all the dangers and all the pros and all the contras. You just do it. And this is how they did it.
Now, very much related to this was what I refer to universalistic perceptions. You see, the desire and the need to help was so strong, the pattern was so well established, that they did not see— it did not matter who this person was. They did not see a Jew in this helpless being that turned to them for help. What mattered was that he was somebody needy, helpless, defenseless, that had to be helped, that would have died unless they would extend the help, and they helped this person.
And in some cases, they even disliked the person that they were helping. I interviewed one very aristocratic lady in Warsaw, a lawyer and a journalist, and she would, as an Underground figure, find places for Jews. She would place them in different houses and homes. And in her own apartment, she helped for two and a half years a woman who looked very Jewish, which was dangerous in itself, had very Semitic features. In addition, her Polish was faulty.
But if this was not enough, she was also a very stupid woman. So whenever a neighbor came to the door, she would engage them in long discussions. She was passing there pretending to be a housekeeper, a maid. So she was telling whatever neighbor came what kind of fur coats she had before the war. So you can figure out that this wasn't very smart. And also in her broken Polish. She was, in addition, a very stubborn woman and very unpleasant.
And I am listening to this, all these negative things. She was this, she was this, she was this. Finally I said to her, why did you keep her if she was so terrible? Why did you save her and risk your life for her? She looked at me and she thought something was wrong with me. She says, what could I have done? If I hadn't taken her, she would have died. I had to take her. I said, yes, but she was so terrible.
She said, well, I couldn't act in any other way. Nobody wanted her. I tried to place her from one place to another and nobody wanted. After two, three days, they sent her back to me. So I had to keep her. And to her, this was the most natural thing to do. It was a question that overshadowed, you see, personal likes and dislikes. And in this case, she even disliked the person.