Survivor Memoirs and Stealth Altruism as Yiddishkeit

What has been missing from memorialization? Recognition that perpetrator atrocities and also forbidden high-risk care were inseparable aspects of the same complicated reality. Both belong in an accurate and nuanced account of the European Jewish experience.

In her 2006 memoir, The End of Days, Helen Sendyk recalls with warm admiration the behavior (aka stealth altruism) of a young Jewish female kitchen aid she knew in the KZ Langenbielau Slave Labor Camp. Every day the Aid knowingly risked her life to smuggle an extra ration of soup back to her sister in their barrack, who in turn discretely gave it to a different starving woman, any one of whom might have betrayed this violation of strict rules against sharing to the Gestapo in exchange for extra bread. As for the motivation of the soup smugglers, Helen speculates that “the feeling of [altruistically] alleviating the gnawing hunger of  [an anonymous barrack mate] helped the kitchen worker bear her own hunger and torment.” (p.203) Helen also recalls there “were those of us who fought over crumbs of bread or pails of clean water. There were ugly words, vicious name-calling, and curses pronounced. But in the midst of it all there were devoted friends, loving sisters, and cherished relatives who cared and sacrificed for each other.” (p.198)

Naturally, there were many different ways Care Sharers had of daring to help one another, a fanatical SS prohibition against this behavior not withstanding. Rena K. Gelissen, in her 1995 memoir, Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz, 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)

Care Sharers were a special breed, and their memory warms the soul, e.g., Agi Rubin, in her 2006 memoir, Reflections: Auschwitz, Memory, and a Life Recreated, 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)

An especially daring of all worksite act of stealth altruism took place at KZ Janowska. There a Sonderkomando Squad of Jewish prisoners decided one day to try and rescue “living corpses,” or those Jewish victims of the daily mass execution who had not been killed, but were only slightly wounded, or possibly not shot at all. These men and women would fated to be buried alive. Instead, as recalled by Leon W. Wells in his 1978 memoir, at the start of the day the Squad members secretly put clothing besides the scattered bodies, the pockets of which clothing had sugar cubes. They also hid two pairs of shoes complete with money and exact directions for how to escape first from the killing grounds, and then from the camp.

During the day Body Carriers took the bodies to the edge of pits into which the Squad would soon layer the dead for incineration. While doing this the Body Carriers covertly identified “living corpses,” put sugar in their mouths, and, while pretending to talk to one another, actually let the “corpses” know where escape clothing and shoes could be found. Had any of this been detected by watchful SS guards, they would have seen to it that all of the Squad along with the Body Carriers immediately joined the truly dead.

The next day revealed some escape clothing was missing, which meant some “corpses” had actually escaped. However, the capture soon after of one of the escaped “living corpses” and his summary execution – staged deliberately in front of the Squad – put a sharp end to this audacious project, though its cessation did not trump the related lift it provided to prisoner morale. (Pp. 177-178; 209-210).

Some efforts at care sharing were ill-fated, as the odds were always against providers, e.g., in the safety of their barrack in KZ Janowska, a Slave Labor Camp, 94 male prisoners secretly tried to keep alive 28 other Jewish men who were slowly dying from typhus. As Leon W. Wells, then their 17-year old leader, recalls – “Everyone helped … even to risking his own life … To every sick inmate I had appointed a healthy one as a nurse, to wash him, obtain food, and so on … we all tried to save the best of everything for the sick … [we took] all kinds of risks [for them] for between us a real and true feeling of comradeship has grown.” (Pp. 177-178.) Unfortunately the sick men soon could soon not stand up during the counting process at Appell, and this had the SS lead them off for execution.

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, 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. Memoirs beckon with their inspiring mix of the Horror Story and the Help Story. Reading such stories, especially those of Stealth Altruism, is a special type of Holocaust memorialization that uniquely honors Care Sharers and care recipients alike, much as expected of us by core Judaic values. For as the late Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis maintains memorialization 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.” (PP. 152,156)


Gelissen, Rena Kornreich, with Heather Dune Macadam. 1995. Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz. Boston, MASS: Beacon Press p. 217.

Herzberger, Magda. 2005. Survival. Austin, Texas: 1st World Library. Pp. 250-251.

Kluger, Ruth. 2001. Still Alike: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY

Rubin, Agi and Henry Greenspan. 2006. Reflections: Auschwitz, Memory, and a Life Recreated. St. Paul, Mn: Paragon House.  Pp. 50, 52.

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. Pp. 177-178; 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.