Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Josef Mengele -- these are the familiar faces of evil from World War II. Architects of a genocidal collapse of the human soul, they remind everyone that indifference to the suffering of others is perhaps the most pervasive law of nature. And yet, 50 years later, some less familiar faces are beginning to emerge from the terrible history of the Holocaust. They belong to the handful of ordinary people who not only saw the horror around them but also risked their lives out of compassion for its victims: those under Nazi rule who dared to hide Jews in their houses and apartments and on their farms. According to Samuel and Pearl Oliner, researchers from Humboldt State University in California who conducted an eight-year study of altruism, these protectors may have saved 500,000 lives.
Why did they refuse to hide behind the mask of the innocent bystander donned by so many of their fellow citizens in Germany, Poland, France and elsewhere? That question sent an unlikely pair of friends, photographer Gay Block and children's book writer Malka Drucker, on a three-year journey to photograph and interview 105 rescuers from 10 countries. The often surprising answers are chronicled in their book, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust (Holmes & Meier; $29.95 soft cover), and in a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, which runs until April 7.
Again and again, the rescuers protest that what they did was natural and even quite ordinary. "We didn't think about it," says Johtje Vos, 82, who with her late husband Aart saved dozens of Jews in Laren, Holland. "You started off storing a suitcase for a friend, and before you knew it, you were in over your head. We did what any human being would have done."
History, sadly, does not bear out that claim. Throughout the Nazi occupation, cases of citizens rescuing Jews were the exception, not the rule. And denunciation in those cruel times seemed much more common. The rescuers know that, of course. But by insisting on the banality of their heroism, they have launched a powerful challenge to our jaded moral notions of the status quo. To single them out as unusual suggests, in effect, that there was something abnormal about them. On the other hand, to treat them as ordinary human beings is to argue that altruism is accessible to anyone -- saints and sinners alike. "It tells you that you don't have to be Mother Teresa," Drucker says. "You don't have to be a better person than you already are in order to do good." Turning protectors into paragons would let the rest of humanity off the hook.
The rescuers have not escaped controversy. Their very existence has been denied by some Jews who feared that the horror of the Holocaust might be whitewashed by acknowledging their presence. On the other hand, some rescuers have received hate mail and death threats for their long-ago roles in sheltering Jews. Yet Block notes that most people are strongly receptive to the rescuers' stories. "There is a hunger for examples of goodness," she says. "People want to find out that we can learn from goodness and not from evil."