324: Remembering Heroes by Uncovering Long-Overlooked Stories

ODAY’s story honors Hanukkah, the festival of light that begins Sunday evening. The celebration recalls a milestone in religious liberty thousands of years ago.
    Today we’re moving Hanukkah’s timeless lessons into the modern era of another dire threat to the Jewish people: the Holocaust. We’ll let the authors — the Kansas City Star’s longtime religion writer Bill Tammeus and his colleague Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn — tell their own story and make their own connections.
    But first, A PREVIEW: Stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit in coming days for a lot more on Hanukkah and Christmas. For example, on Monday, we’re pleased to share a “Conversation With” the wise and widely read author Rabbi Harold Schulweis. We’ll also hear from the popular Jewish memoirist Judy Gruen. And we’ve got a multi-part Christmas story on tap, as well.
    Looking even further ahead: January is the 2nd Annual Interfaith Heroes Month and you will meet a whole host of men and women from around the world in January through our online magazine. Most of the stories will be focused around the site, http://www.InterfaithHeroes.info/ — but heroic stories also will spill into the main ReadTheSpirit pages in January. You’re getting a preview of one of those stories today. Irena Sendler, who is included in this story, is one of the heroes we are honoring in January.
    So, think of us as a fresh and inspirational part of your holiday season this year. There’ll always be something waiting for you — right here — to light up your day! And now …


By Bill Tammeus (next photo)
And Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn
(second photo)

he stories still stir us, no matter how many years have passed.
    Among the Holocaust survival stories we have uncovered is one about Maria Devinki, a Kansas City woman who during the war years in Europe survived for more than two years under the floors of barns.
    We documented the story of a Philadelphia-area man, Felix Zandman, founder of Vishay Intertechnology. Felix hid with his uncle and several other people for 17 months in a pit dug under the bedroom of the small home of a woman — who once was helped by Zandman’s grandmother.
    On one level these are stories of survival. At its core, Hanukkah celebrates Jewish survival in the face of improbable odds, something Jews have confronted many times since then. Working together, we’ve written about exactly that kind of unlikely survival in a book that will be out next year from the University of Missouri Press.
    “They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust” tells remarkable and uplifting stories of Jews in Poland who survived the Shoah with help from non-Jews. In most cases, these stories are based on interviews — in the United States and in Poland — both with survivors and with members of the families who helped them survive.
    The unspeakable suffering in the Holocaust was so overwhelmingly evil and cruel that attempts to infuse it with redemptive meaning inevitably fail. But with the benefit of hindsight, there are, nonetheless, lessons to be drawn from that era. The primary lesson highlighted in our book is that even in an atmosphere of malevolence, individuals can decide to act in civilized ways. People who hid Jews in the Holocaust showed that is possible.

    A related lesson — more difficult to describe but nonetheless worthy of attention — is that sometimes good results can come from even mixed motives. For instance, a few Jews survived the Holocaust even though some of the non-Jews who were willing to hide them would do it only for a price. Others helped for pure motives and still others were given money without asking for it. There was, in other words, a complex mix of motives.
    Yet another important lesson is that those who survived generally were friends or business associates of the non-Jews who helped them. So, by implication, all of us would do well to have friends from religious, racial, ethnic, cultural and economic groups other than our own so that in times of trouble we can come to each other’s aid.

    We began work on this book after Rabbi Cukierkorn — a native of Brazil but from a long line of Polish rabbis — returned from a 2004 visit to Poland, where he was privileged to meet Irena Sendler, much honored for her work in helping to save some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler died in May at age 98.
    Inspired by her story, and knowing that many stories of other rescuers will be lost if they are not recorded, he called Bill Tammeus, a Kansas City Star columnist who had interviewed him several times. Cukierkorn asked Tammeus to help him write about others who had risked their lives to save Jews in Poland, where more Jews lived at the start of World War II than in any other country.
    After establishing a research fund through a local Holocaust-related nonprofit agency, the two of us began looking for survivors who were from Poland and who had help from non-Jews.
    Each story we turned up seemed more remarkable than the last.
    In the Detroit area, we found Zygie Allweiss and learned about his story — along with his now-deceased brother Sol. The brothers found shelter with a non-Jewish family by the name of Dudzik with whom they lost contact after the war. A member of the Dudzik family located Sol through an Internet search in 1999, and now Zygie maintains regular contact with Dudzik family members in both the United States and Poland, and he helped the Dudziks to be honored for their rescue work.
    We tell about 20 stories of Jewish survival in the book, and any proceeds we earn from it will be donated to Holocaust-related charities.

    It’s been a remarkable journey for us, one on which we have met people who have lived through awesome darkness — though not alone. We did not do this project to find a silver lining to the Holocaust because we know there is none. Rather, we hoped to capture some important stories of Jewish survival and stories of a willingness to help on the part of some rare non-Jews.
    One of the most enlightening experiences for us came when we did two interviews that will not be part of the book. We first interviewed a survivor who preferred that we not get in touch with a man who was a member of the family that rescued her. The survivor asked us not to reach this man, because she feared he would come after her for money.
    Indeed, she insisted that if we ever did talk to him we could not tell him she was alive. Curious to hear his side of the story, we found the man in Poland and interviewed him, but we honored the survivor’s privacy request. The man turned out to be terribly difficult — well, a jerk! In the end, he was unwilling for us even to take his photograph.
    As we left that interview, the two of us talked about what had just happened. Rabbi Cukierkorn insisted that this may have been the best interview of all. Tammeus was surprised and asked why.
    “Because,” the rabbi explained, “talking to this man showed that to be a rescuer did not require one to be a saint. Rather, rescuers were just ordinary people who elected to take actions that stood opposed to the German policy of genocide.”
    And if the rescuers were just ordinary people, what of the people they saved? One of the rescuers we spoke to drew a parallel between rescuers and those they saved by describing the survivors exactly as we have described the rescuers: “They were just people.”
    Yes, just people.
    But like the Jews in the Hanukkah story, who kept light shining in the darkness, they are survivors with heart-stopping stories that bring much-needed light into the world.

    For more information on this new book, go to: www.TheyWereJustPeople.com.
    To reach Rabbi Cukierkorn, e-mail [email protected]. To reach Tammeus, e-mail [email protected].

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