It is hard to imagine an American Jew (or gentile, for that matter) whose grasp of the Holocaust cannot be significantly improved by reading just three pages (pp. 106-109) of a memoir authored in 2001 by survivor Ruth Kluger. In 1942, when she was just 12 years old, Ruth was a minute or two away from being casually commanded by an SS officer to join a line of nude females to soon die of asphyxiation in a KZ Auschwitz gas chamber. Instead she found herself suddenly confronted by a prisoner in her early 20’s who had long before been ordered to serve as a “Selection” Recording Clerk.
By softly but firmly telling Ruth to lie about her age and claim she was 15 years old the Jewish Clerk helped save Ruth’s life. When the SS Officer decided the emaciated “15 years old” was just too thin and small to continue to live, the Clerk boldly spoke up and called his attention to Ruth’s strong legs as proof the girl would make a good slave laborer. With total indifference the Officer casually changed his mind – and motioned Ruth over to the line of those females who could struggle to live as slave laborers.
In her memoir Ruth regards the incident as “an incomprehensible act of grace, or put more modestly, a good deed … I was saved by a young women who was in as helpless a situation as the rest of us, and who nevertheless wanted nothing more than to help me …” She sees in this proof that “even in the perverse environment of Auschwitz absolute goodness was a possibility, like a leap of faith, beyond the humdrum chain of cause and effect. I don’t know how often it was consummated. Surely not often. Surely not only in my case. But it existed. I am a witness.” She maintains every Holocaust survivor has a similar story, a “lucky accident,” a “turning point” to which they owe their life. (p. 108)
I call the incident an act of stealth altruism – stealth, because the Clerk knowingly undertook it at great risk to her own life (SS officers punished Jews foolish enough to tender unsolicited advice), and I call it altruistic because it had no prospect of material reward, only of a spiritual one. Jewish prisoners capable of such behavior I call Care Sharers, and in the 195 memoirs I have studied over the last 12 years I have been privileged to meet one or more such risk-takers in almost every book. I associate them with advocacy prescribed in the Pikot Avot [Ethics of the Fathers]: “ In a place where there are no men, strive to be a human being.”
Given the regrettable absence of attention to this matter in 48 Holocaust Museums I have visited worldwide I fully endorse Ruth’s recommendation for “rearranging a lot of furniture” in our “inner museum of the Holocaust.” It is past time that we understand that “in a rat hole, where charity is the least likely virtue, where humans bare their teeth … [even there in] the perverse environment of Auschwitz absolute goodness was a possibility, like a leap of faith, beyond the humdrum chain of cause and effect.” (p. 109)
To be sure, in the camps there were shooting walls and torture cells. But there were also secret smuggling systems by which prisoners could secure life-saving food from bribed jackboots (camp slang for guards) and sympathetic civilian co-workers. There were desperate informers who betrayed other prisoners to curry favor with the Gestapo and the SS [the Storm Trooper “elite” military branch of the Nazi Party]. But there were also prisoners who dared to prop up weak comrades during incredibly long mass assemblies, a violation of strict rules that could have cost supporters their lives. There were merciless work assignments that murdered exhausted prisoners. But there were also men and women who, at risk of their lives, would secretly substitute for others too ill to survive another day at their job.
Care Sharers were a special breed, and their memory warms the soul, e.g., Agi Rubin, in her 2006 memoir, remembers that during a Death March she became delirious and began to hallucinate from the effects of exhaustion, starvation, and the recent loss of blood drained from her for battlefront transfusions to German troops: “One of the soldiers was about to shoot me for wandering toward him out of line. Someone pulled me back and shoved a piece of sugar in my mouth. Somehow I gained energy. They hid me in the line [of marchers], and we went on walking.” Later Agi and two friends wound up desperately supporting each other – “While three walked, one slept, being dragged along by the others. We took turns, walking and sleeping.” (Pp. 50,52)
Naturally, there were many different ways Care Sharers had of daring to help one another, fanatical SS prohibition against this behavior not withstanding. Rena K. Gelissen, in her 1995 memoir, tells of Jewish prisoners she knew who, as clerks in the SS offices in KZ Auschwitz, felt cruelly oppressed by a tyrannical Jewish Kapo (Nazi-selected foreman). One night they dared to creep into her barrack room, pin her down, and beat on her stomach. No one later investigated because the Kapo, who was under SS protection, was smart enough not to report the incident: “She learned her lesson. She stopped berating the scribes and started to act with a little shred of humanity toward her co-prisoners.” (p.217)
Ya’acov Handeli, when 16 years old, found himself waiting in KZ Auschwitz with several hundred other 12-to-16 years old Jewish boys for some sort of examination by the doctors. A boy who had come out of the exam room passed by and whispered, “Go into the bathroom and masturbate,” a whisper that if noticed could have cost them both dearly. Ya’acov did as instructed by the stranger. Shortly later during the examination he was unable to get the erection sought by the doctors, and he was abruptly dismissed.
Only later did Ya’acov learn other boys had had one or sometimes both of their testicles cut, since the doctors were after a substance found there: German soldiers coming back from the Russian front were allegedly cured of various medical problems, including impotence, by the sperm cells of Jewish boys. In his 1992 memoir Ya’acov wonders, “Why did that boy save me of all people? I had never seen him any other time, either before we went to the concentration camp, or since.” (p. 63).
Stealth altruism sometimes involved things rather than people. Assigned one day to clean offices at a labor camp headquarters, a female prisoner was surprised to discover undelivered mail for camp inmates thrown carelessly under a desk. Knowing her life was forfeit if she was discovered with “stolen property,” she took only a few at a time over many days until the pile had gone unnoticed. Then, at risk of being turned in by one of many informers in the camp, she delivered each of the treasures.
This same prisoner, from 1940 through 1946, while moved among seven slave labor camps in two countries (often with little notice of transport), secretly held onto what amounted finally to 352 letters, documents, and photographs. Others knew of the “contraband,” and the severe punishments that its detection would bring, but they kept her secret nevertheless, and even aided in its seven transfers among camps. (Sala’s Gift, p. 217)
Similarly, Magda Herberger recalls in her 2005 memoir a fellow prisoner who “had a hysterical psychotic attack every time the heavy rains poured into our barracks. She became totally confused. She would scream, become aggressive, and attack and try to strangle some of the other prisoners. … We tried to help her by holding her down … We knew that those prisoners who had mental breakdowns like hers were executed because they weren’t considered useful anymore. So it was very important that her condition not be discovered. We had to protect her as much as we could …” During the next heavy rain, however, the screaming woman attacked the barracks leader who rushed in to help quiet the scene: “It was her final spell. She was taken away and shot by the guards. We felt sorry about the death of our fellow inmate who under normal circumstances would have had a different fate.” (p. 212)
Regarded by many scholars as presently the “major forming experience of Jewish public life everywhere in the world,” the Holocaust challenges us “to remember it in new ways that remain meaningful for a new generation … “ (Rees, p. 42) Memoirs offer much help in meeting the challenge as there are over 10,000 available in English, many as rewarding as the iconic works of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Especially noteworthy are scores available in a series published by Vallentine Mitchell and also by The Azrieli Foundation, details of which can be found on the Web.
These books beckon with a honest mix of both the Horror Story and the Help Story, a mix that keeps faith with camp realities. Reading them, with their accounts of stealth altruism, uniquely honors Care Sharers and care recipients alike, much as is expected of us by core Judaic values. For as the late Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis maintained, our effort to memorialize the Shoah is best understood as “a sacred act that elicits a double mandate – to expose the depth of evil and to raise goodness from the dust of amnesia.” (p.157)
Gelissen, Rena Kornreich, with Heather Dune Macadam. 1995. Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz. Boston, MASS: Beacon Press.
Handeli, Ya’acov (Jack). 1992. A Greek Jew from Salonica Remembers (translated by Martin Kett). Jerusalem, Israel: Roses Printing.
Herzberger, Magda. 2005. Survival. Austin, Texas: 1st World Library.
Kirschner, Ann. 2006. Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story. New York: Free Press.
Kluger, Ruth. 2001. Still Alike: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY
Rees, Laurence. 2005. Auschwitz: A New History. New York: Public Affairs.
Rubin, Agi and Henry Greenspan. 2006. Reflections: Auschwitz, Memory, and a Life Recreated. St. Paul, Mn: Paragon House.
Schulweis, Rabbi Harold M. 1994. For Those Who Can’t Believe.
Sendyk, Helen. 1992. The End of Day: A Memoir of the Holocaust. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Wells, Leon W. 1978 ed. (1963). The Death Brigade. New York: Holocaust Library. See also Wells, Leon W. 1993. “Interview.” In Cargas, Harry James, ed. 1999. Problems Unique to the Holocaust. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky. Pp. 82-96.