The Courage to Care I

In those times there was a darkness everywhere…all the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed. The killer killed and the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude of either complicity or of indifference. Only a few had the courage to care.
Elie Wiesel

Imagine for a moment you are living in Nazi occupied Paris. One night an old friend comes knocking at your door. She is nervous, pale and rather emaciated. She is wearing a yellow star on her coat. Your husband is asleep, as are your three young children.

The person whispers in a pleading voice: “Can you hide me and my two boys for a few days? The Nazis are about to roundup of all the Jews in Paris.”

What do you do? Do you really have any idea? Can you imagine the risks involved, to you, and everyone in your family, that if you are caught, each of you will probably be shot or taken away to be tortured and then, if you survive the beatings, shipped off to Auschwitz in a cattle car, where your fate will be unspeakable?

The Courage to Care, edited by Carol Rittner & Sondra Meyers, recounts the experience of individuals throughout Europe who, in spite of these risks, did rescue and protect Jewish individuals in Europe during World War II. They did this by hiding, feeding, and helping them to move to a safer place that in many instances meant another country.

Each of the rescuers describes, in their own words their experience in aiding these Jewish men, women and children. All told, it is currently estimated that over 23,000 individuals can be identified as rescuers. They came from countries throughout Europe, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, France, Bulgaria, Poland, and even Germany.

It is impossible to estimate the number of Jews who were saved during the Holocaust; we know how many were not. The Courage to Care documents the story of 20 of these individuals. Portions of the book are included in the award winning film, A Courage to Care that I often showed in my social psychology class when we were discussing bystander intervention in crisis situations.

Odette Myers and her mother were saved by the Catholic concierge of the apartment building in Paris where they lived. She awoke them in the early morning of July 1942 when she heard the Nazis were beginning to round up over 13,000 stateless Jews. She hid them in a broom closet in her apartment and convinced the Gestapo agents the family had gone to their country home. After the Germans left, her husband, a member of the resistance, walked with them to the Metro where another member of the resistance took them to a hiding place in the country.

The experience of John Weidner of France was one of the most detailed of the accounts and, in several respects, representative of the majority of the others. While he wanted to help Jewish individuals in the Netherlands where he was originally from, he admitted that initially he had no idea what to do.

However, he lived close to the French-Swiss border and was familiar with several routes between the two countries. Eventually with the help of others, including his family and friends, he established a network, known as the Dutch-Paris network, that brought Jews from the Netherlands to Belgium then through France, and on to Geneva.

He described how difficult this was—it was extremely perilous to help Jews, he had to find safe places along the route, and ways to feed them, arrange for false papers and find money to pay for their papers and food. Above all he had to trust the people who were part of his group, as well as the Jews, who if caught and tortured, might reveal the names and addresses that would put all of them in danger.

One of his agents was eventually arrested and wasn’t able to hold up under the torture, resulting in the capture of nearly 300 members of his group who were deported to Nazi concentration camps. Forty, including his sister, never came back.

He concludes that the most important thing he learned was “…that you can have all kinds of theories but if you do not have love in action, those theories and creeds do not mean anything at all.”

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