Saving One's Own

The Jewish Publication Society  2017

 

In this encyclopedic and significant book, Mordecai Paldiel recounts in vivid detail the many ways that Jews and Jewish organizations, often at great risk, extended themselves to rescue other Jews during the Holocaust. In the process they saved thousands, probably tens of thousands of Jews and gave lie to the claim that Jews were passive victims.

While survival encompassed a myriad of individual stories and circumstances, it can essentially be distilled to three basic narratives: escape to a neutral country such as Switzerland, Spain, or Sweden; hiding with the assistance of gentile rescuers and a network of Jewish self-help efforts; or engaging in armed resistance and partisan activities. Most scholarship has focused on this topic primarily from the perspective of the role of non-Jewish rescuers, and on the theme of altruistic behavior. In fact, Paldiel headed the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, whose mission is to identify and honor non-Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust, from 1982 to 2007. In that capacity, Paldiel was instrumental in adding some 18,000 names to the census of Righteous Among the Nations and is a recognized expert. Here he focuses instead on the much less studied and known role of Jews in rescue and resistance, filling a gap in the scholarship on the Shoah.

Paldiel demonstrates that the focus on non-Jewish rescue misses several important features. It overlooks the relationship between the acts of rescue and the creation of a system of networks; it minimizes the role and the structure and organization of the Jewish communities in Europe; the interrelationship between rescue by gentile and Jewish self-help; and the heroic acts and inventiveness of Jewish rescuers whose stories have heretofore not been told. Much scholarship to date has claimed that the Jewish communities and individual Jews were largely passive in the face of the Nazi threat and did little to help themselves and their compatriots. As Paldiel points out persuasively in this detailed book that is organized by country, this was not the case. Jews were not passive victims, and non-Jewish helpers were not the principal actors in the process of rescue and survival. All along the way, Jews remained active, engaged agents in their own survival.

Paldiel focuses mainly on people who were involved in saving a great number of Jews, not just one or a few, the criteria used for Righteous Among the Nations designation. Many Jewish rescuers in the book, such as Gisi Fleischmann in Slovakia, Rabbi Zalman Schneerson in France, and Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandle in Slovakia, had the opportunity to flee and save themselves from the threat of death, yet they chose to stay behind in locations of great danger in order to carry out clandestine operations to save their fellow Jews. Paldiel’s book makes important contributions to developing a more balanced understanding of Jewish responses in situations of extremity. It is a corrective to the conventional wisdom that claims Jews were the “perfect victims,” because they did not or were unprepared to act. Jews did act and the book is rich with examples of heroic behavior and the necessary historical context to evaluate what they were able to accomplish against overwhelming odds.


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