Who Shall Live: The Wil­helm Bach­n­er Story

Samuel Olin­er and Kath­leen Lee
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
In 1983, as part of the Altru­is­tic Per­son­al­i­ty Project, social sci­en­tists Samuel Olin­er and Kath­leen Lee inter­viewed Wil­helm and Cecile Bach­n­er in Cal­i­for­nia. They were of inter­est to Olin­er and his team, authors ulti­mate­ly of the sig­nif­i­cant study, The Altru­is­tic Per­son­al­i­ty Res­cuers of Jews in Nazi Occu­pied Europe (1988), that has con­tributed great­ly to our under­stand­ing of moral courage dur­ing the Holo­caust, because the researchers assumed they had been res­cued by non-Jews. It soon became clear that Bach­n­er had not been saved by the assis­tance of oth­ers but was one of that small group of Jews who had not only sur­vived but man­aged to save many oth­ers.

Wil­helm Bach­n­er was born in an Aus­tri­an sec­tion of Poland and grew up speak­ing flaw­less Ger­man. He obtained an engi­neer­ing degree from a Ger­man uni­ver­si­ty and moved his fam­i­ly to War­saw not long before the Ger­man inva­sion of Poland in Sep­tem­ber, 1939. He and his wife and par­ents were reset­tled in the War­saw Ghet­to. This extra­or­di­nary book, which reads like an adven­ture nov­el, recounts how Bach­n­er posed as an Aryan, escaped the ghet­to and found work with a Ger­man engi­neer­ing firm head­ing a crew of con­struc­tion work­ers. While pass­ing as an Aryan Ger­man, he was able to hire dozens of Pol­ish Jews as work­ers under his direc­tion and sup­ply them with false iden­ti­ty papers. He saved over 50 peo­ple from cer­tain death, most of whom sur­vived the war.

Draw­ing on inter­views with fam­i­ly mem­bers, the peo­ple res­cued, and archival sources on the Reichs­bahn, the Ger­man rail­road and the rail-based con­struc­tion unit where Bach­n­er worked, the authors have pro­duced an inspir­ing nar­ra­tive (now avail­able in paper­back) that is full of dra­ma, sus­pense, and com­pelling evi­dence to help cor­rect the myth of Jew­ish pas­siv­i­ty dur­ing the Shoah. In recent years more and more exam­ples of Jew­ish resis­tance have been described, pro­duc­ing a more bal­anced and nuanced pic­ture of Jew­ish respons­es. The Bach­n­er sto­ry is fur­ther evi­dence that if the oppor­tu­ni­ty came, many Jews seized it and attempt­ed to hide, resist, and help their fel­low vic­tims avoid anni­hi­la­tion. Because of Wil­helm Bach­n­er dozens of Jews and their future prog­e­ny were able to rebuild their lives in Ger­many, Brazil, Israel, Aus­tralia, Mex­i­co, Eng­land, Cana­da, and the Unit­ed States. The book is a fit­ting trib­ute to this hero of the Holocaust.
Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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