“Jew Catcher” was a profession in Poland during World War II. Non-Jews would scour the forest, countryside and towns looking for Jews hiding in the woods, barns, attics, sewers, anywhere. For each Jew caught and delivered to the Nazis, the Jew Catcher received a kilo of sugar, cigarettes, alcohol or some other valuable wartime commodity. Although a minority of Non-Jews were “Jew Catchers,” very few others actually helped Jews avoid the Nazi death traps, most were silent bystanders. Who can blame them? To be found assisting Jews in German-occupied territory was a death sentence for you and your family.
Nonetheless, a special few, provided food, hid, smuggled, provided false IDs or papers or adopted Jews into their homes. Yad Vashem calls them “Righteous Gentiles.” To be eligible for this status, a Non-Jew must have assisted a Jew during the war years and received no monetary compensation in return.
Each of their stories is unique, but there are similar themes, such as nannies who helped to save their wards and families, or non-Jews who saved their Jewish spouse. Timothy Snyder, in his book, Black Earth, tells of men who had sexual desire or love for a Jewish woman and save her, childless couples who took in children and loved them like their own, and farmers who took in older Jewish children to serve as farm hands.
The “Righteous” were from all walks of life: “university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.” These people include Anton Schmid who was executed for saving Jews. In a letter written to his family before his execution, Mr. Schmid said “he had simply ‘acted as a human being’ and regretted the grief he would cause by not returning home to his loved ones.” It also includes Feliks Cywinski, who “helped twenty-six Jews, who spoke of a sense of ‘obligation’” and Kazimiera Zulawska who “acted out of a ‘purely human sense of outrage.’”
Then there was Halena Alleshkava. She was Esther’s righteous one. She lived on a farm with acres of crops, a home and a barn in the Polish countryside, not far from Treblinka. From time to time, Helena left food for Esther and allowed her to sleep in her barn on bitter winter nights. Without her help Esther surely would have starved or frozen to death.
After Sam’s escaped from Treblinka on August 3, 1943, he met Esther in the woods. Helena saved both of them by allowing them to hide in her barn for a few days and giving them food while the Nazi’s scoured the area for the Treblinka escapees.
But what is absolutely astounding is that Helena’s son, who lived in her home, was a “Jew Catcher.” He spent his days searching for hidden Jews, capturing them and delivering them to the Nazis for his reward. It is not clear whether Helena’s son knew that his mother was assisting Esther and Sam. If he did not know, I can only imagine the fear and anxiety that Helena felt each and every day. If he did know, but did not turn them in to the Nazis, we should not be too surprised. Perhaps he viewed them as the family’s “Pet Jew” – a concept discussed in the blog post dated December 15, 2015. When it was “my Jew”, protection was the order of the day, even when that kilo of sugar was awaiting.
Timothy Snyder asks what was different or unique about the “righteous” ones. Rescuers who speak of their deeds, down play their acts. In what must be a play on Hannah Arendt’s description of Eichmann as embodying the “banality of evil,” Snyder describes these righteous saviors as embodying the “banality of good.”
This seems odd. I have a hard time thinking of these righteous gentiles as embodying “the banality of good.” Though the saviors may downplay their deeds, this does not equate with banality. These few, with their innate sense of right and wrong, helped Jews in a time of desperation in a way that cannot and should not be described as banal.
I believe that the actions of Helena Alleshkava, Anton Schmid, Feliks Cywinski, Kazimiera Zulawska and many others, redeemed the world. When hatred, murder and greed were the norm, these Righteous Gentiles helped those they could, thus saving the world from the black pit to which it was descending.
Jew Catchers may have sweetened their coffee with all that sugar, but their souls were bitter.
“Humans were created singly to teach us that . . . whoever saves a single soul of Israel, is considered as if he preserved an entire world.” Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.
Yad Vashem web site: http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/about.asp
Snyder, Timothy, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York. Tim Duggan Books. 2015.
 Snyder, Timothy, Black Earth at 315.