Ten (okay, twelve) little-known superheroes

Apropros of nothing, I thought I’d make a list of my own personal superheroes of the Holocaust and World War II. I am fascinated by those events because they involve fighting pure, unambiguous evil, and because they show the extremes of human behavior on both sides of the equation. You see ordinary individuals turning into heroes, or monsters, and there seems to be no way to predict which side any particular person will land on. I would like to say I would have done my part to fight evil, but I’m not sure I would have. I tend to keep my head down and avoid inconvenience and trouble whenever possible. But in my studies of the Holocaust — 382 books and counting, almost all of them nonfiction — I find so many people who awe me with their courage and humanity.

Warning, this entry is a tad bit depressing, for obvious reasons. In no particular order:

1. Marek Edelman, Polish-Jewish doctor and resistance fighter. Edelman was the youngest — about twenty — and last survivor of the leadership of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Following the war, he became a cardiologist and invented some kind of life-saving heart procedure that’s still used today. He was active in civic life in post-war Poland and when all the surviving Jews were heading for the hills to get away from anti-Semitism and the Communist government — even when Edelman’s own wife and children left — he refused to go. He said someone had to stay in Warsaw and remember those who had died. He was imprisoned once for refusing to kowtow to the Communists. Edelman died in 2009 and when I found out, I went down to the basement and got drunk and wept.

2. Emmanuel Ringelblum, Polish-Jewish historian. During the Holocaust in Poland, Ringelblum and some other historians, realized someone needed to record the unprecedented events they were witnessing. They formed a secret organization called “Oneg Shabbat” meaning “Sabbath Celebrants” and kept all the manner of notes, diaries, drawings, photos and documents of what was going on in the Warsaw Ghetto. Needless to say, if the Nazis had found out what they were up to there would have been hell to pay. They buried all their stuff in some milk jugs just before they disbanded. Ringelblum did not survive the Holocaust, but his milk jugs did, and they became one of the most important sources on the Warsaw Ghetto.

3. Johann Georg Elser, Claus Von Stauffenberg’s less famous counterpart. Elser, a German carpenter with a highly evolved consciousness and a great deal of patience, tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939. He did this because he believed Hitler was an evil person who would destroy the country if he wasn’t stopped. That Elser’s attempt did not succeed is no fault of his. Working absolutely alone and in secret and with no training at all, he taught himself how to make a bomb and spent a year plotting the assassination, chipping a hidey-hole for his bomb in the stone pillar behind the lectern in the building where Hitler gave his annual speech on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch. The bomb went off right on time and it was spectacularly lethal, destroying the building, killing eight people and injuring sixty-three more. Unfortunately, Hitler had changed his plans at the last minute and left the building thirteen minutes earlier. Thirteen minutes. Imagine how different history would be today if he had died in 1939. Elser was arrested that same night trying to sneak over the border into Switzerland. They held him for four and a half years and finally shot him in April 1945, only a few weeks before Germany’s surrender.

4. Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who was serving in Lithuania in 1939 and 1940. For a six-week period in the summer of 1940, in spite of direct orders from his superiors not to do it, Sugihara issued visas to Jewish refugees so they could get out of the country in advance of the pending Nazi invasion. He worked “18–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month’s worth of visas each day,” and when his hand got tired from signing he had a stamp of his signature made and used that. He would give a visa to anyone, no questions asked, when all the other countries were turning everyone away. The Japanese consulate was closed in September 1940 and Sugihara had to leave. Even at the train station he was handing out visas, even throwing them out the train window as it pulled away. He issued about 6,000 visas in all, and many were “family visas” meaning more than one person could travel on them. There are estimates that he saved about ten thousand lives. (Take that, Oskar Schindler!) Sugihara wasn’t honored for his actions until the end of his life. When he was told about how they were going to give him the Righteous Among the Nations award, he was bewildered and said he’d just been doing what any decent person would do. (The question, then, is why did so many so-called decent people not do it?)

5. Joseph Gavi, Soviet-Jewish polymath. Not a polymath on the order of Da Vinci, but very multi-talented just the same. Gavi was Jewish and grew up in Minsk, Belarus. By the time he was thirteen, he had sneaked 300 Jews out of the Minsk Ghetto (including his mom and baby brother), fought with the partisans and was decorated, traveled from Minsk to St. Petersburg (600 miles) and then to Moscow (560 miles) alone and with no assistance or money or extra clothes or any resources at all, and enrolled in a prestigious Russian Naval Academy on the strength of his army record, concealing the fact that he had no education and was totally illiterate. (He secretly taught himself to read at the academy.) Unfortunately, the academy was for orphans, and when they found out Joseph’s mom was still alive they sent him home. From his mid-teens into adulthood he got his high school education, became an expert photo restorer, became a champion mountaineer and climbing instructor, became the featherweight wrestling champion for the Belarusian SSR, became an alcoholic and then kicked the habit, got a doctorate in physiology, and taught and researched at the Minsk Polytechnic Institute. Then in the 1970s he and his family moved to the US and he started first a home construction business and then a restaurant, both of them successful. He died in 2002. I’ve nominated him for the Badass of the Week site and the owner seemed interested, but he hasn’t been profiled yet.

6. Janusz Korczak, Polish-Jewish author, doctor, pedagogue and orphanage founder. I wrote in detail about Korczak’s life and death on Executed Today. Suffice it to say that he died a hero, and that’s great, but it’s a pity that people focus on his heroic death and forget his even more heroic life. It’s easy to die for a cause; harder to live for one.

7. Sasha Pechersky, Soviet-Jewish soldier and POW. After being taken prisoner by the Germans and unmasked as a Jew, Sasha was sent to the horrific extermination camp Sobibor, where over 200,000 people were killed. The Jewish prisoners there knew their days were numbered and they wanted to revolt, but they lacked organization and leadership. Sasha provided this, using his military training and experience to carefully plan and execute the revolt: very quietly, they killed their guards one by one and then staged a and mass escape. Against all odds, 53 of the escapees survived the war, and they could never have gotten out of camp without Sasha’s help. He rejoined the Red Army, but was sent to a penal battalion because of his having been taken prisoner by the Germans. He was decorated, but after the war he was persecuted for being a Jew and eventually thrown in prison. Only after Stalin died was he released from prison, and the Soviet authorities kept him from leaving the country to testify at various war crimes trials. He died in 1990.

8. Adina Blady Szwajger, Polish-Jewish pediatrician. She had just completed her education when the war started. She worked at the Warsaw Ghetto Children’s Hospital. When the mass deportations started, Adina knew the hospital would be one of the first targets, as indeed it was. In my review of her memoir I wrote: “During the liquidation of the ghetto, as the Nazis were shooting patients and throwing into trucks those that could still walk, Dr. Szwajger went to the tuberculosis ward and gave the children each an overdose of morphine, telling them it would take their pain away. She had promised to stay with the children until the end, so she waited until they all went to sleep, then she ran for her life. But decades later she was haunted by the thought that maybe one or two of them woke up later, alone.” Amidst all the horror she tried to commit suicide with an overdose of Luminal, an anti-seizure drug and sleeping pill (a common method of suicide in those days), but the other doctors at the hospital found her and revived her. She escaped to the Aryan side to join the resistance, providing medical care for people in hiding and abortions for pregnant Jewish women. Following the failure of the Warsaw Uprising when the Nazis leveled the city, she escaped through the sewers. Dr. Szwajger resumed her medical practice in Poland after the war. She died in 1993, and her good friend Marek Edelman (see above) attended her in her last days. Polish Wikipedia says both her daughter and her granddaughter are actresses in Jewish Theater.

9. Isaac Perlmutter, Polish-Jewish husband and father. He and his family were imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto and during the Aktion in September 1942, when all children under the age of ten were deported, he was able to hide his six-year-old daughter Syvia in an unused grave in the cemetery and keep her safe. He stayed with her every night so she wouldn’t get scared. In 1944, when the Lodz Ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz, Isaac Perlmutter got himself signed up to be one of the 700-odd people who stayed behind to clean up. Without permission, he sneaked his wife and oldest daughter, Dora, into the work group. He set up a hiding place in a cellar and, as families were waiting to board the deportation trains, he would approach them and offer to hide their children. Most of the parents said no, but some said yes, and thus Isaac was able to save a dozen children — including Syvia — from certain death in the gas chambers. After the war, the Perlmutter family moved to America and Syvia changed her name to Sylvia. Her niece, Jennifer Roy, wrote an award-winning verse novel based on the story, called Yellow Star.

10. Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski, Belarusian-Jewish partisans. These three men (there was a fourth brother, Aron, who was a child at the time) formed a Jewish partisan group in the forest starting in 1942. This was a special group. Most partisans saw their primary mission as killing Nazis, and they accepted only people who had weapons or were at least capable of fighting. The Bielski group’s primary mission was to save lives; killing Nazis was secondary. There were actually two groups: the fighting group and the “family camp” of children, old people and other non-combatants. The Bielskis accepted everyone who would come, and Tuvia once said something like, “I would rather save one old woman than kill ten Nazis.” At peak population there were 1,236 people, 70% of whom were in the family camp. The Nazis were seriously annoyed and at one point offered a 100,000 Reichmark reward for Tuvia’s capture. In 1944, the group disbanded when the Russians arrived in the area. Asael was drafted into the Red Army and was killed on the front in 1945. Tuvia, Zus and Aron survived the war and moved to America. Only Aron is still alive. There are two books about the Bielski brothers and a reasonably accurate movie, Defiance, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia.

31 Responses to “Ten (okay, twelve) little-known superheroes”

  1. Saffy Says:

    It’s sad but not depressing, because they show incredible courage in the face of horrible catastrophe.

    • Meaghan Says:

      I’ve always felt this way, but just about everyone I know is always like “why do you read that depressing stuff.”

      Turns out one of the very few survivors of the Babi Yar Massacre in Kiev in 1941 (33,000+ Jews killed by Nazis in two days, no one knows how many survived but I’m guesstimating a dozen or less) is still alive or at least he was last October: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44805832/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/israel-marks-years-babi-yar-massacre/ We need to take down their stories now. Pretty soon they will all be gone.

      • Eva Marie Says:

        I’ve been asked that same question do many times. Like I’m supposedly “better off” reading only chick-lit or done such.
        I had two people go even further and one told me that I’m “changing my mind and thinking and will end up hurting my daughter”. I didn’t even attempt to ask what he meant. I’m still not sure. Not that I care. The other one told me I “should read only happy things and true stories that have happy endings or I’ll get depressed.”
        Thank you Dr. Nobody.

      • Saffy Says:

        that’s just so idiotic. However, it’s unusual that someone who’s not jewish is so passionately interested in the holocaust. Or I’m just assuming you’re not jewish. Who cares really, but it isn’t all that common. In fact, most people know nothing of history period and don’t care!

      • Saffy Says:

        I read stuff about killers and serial murderers. What are we supposed to read…Danielle Steele? I should have been a forensic psychologist!

        I actually went to this holocaust website and searched all my family names. No one in my immediate family died, mostly great grandparent’s generation. On my mothers side of the family,the surnames are so common that there are thousands so it’s impossible to tell if any are relatives. On my father’s side of the family, I found one woman in the Ukraine, with the original spelling. She died in the Ukraine in 1941, apparently shot. Probably some Babi Yar type thing. The person who filled out the “page of testimony” (basically a document with any information about the person) was her great great grandson. So he may very well be a very distant relative. Aside from that, I know there was one survivor, a niece of my mother’s grandfather, who moved to the states and is now long gone.

      • Meaghan Says:

        Nope, not Jewish.

      • Melissa Says:

        I AM a forensic psychologist, and I read all this kind of stuff as well as true crime in my spare time. Glad to know I am not the only one.

        Meaghan, you write so beautifully. Have you ever considered writing a book?

      • Meaghan Says:

        I’m working on a novel. (Nothing to do with missing people or the Holocaust.)

      • forthelost Says:

        I’ve gotten the same question in relation to my love of dystopian/post-apocalptic science fiction. It’s a genre where you can see people under the most horrible circumstances do the most amazing things. It’s strangely uplifting.

  2. Eva Marie Says:

    Do you have the two titles about the Bielski brothers handy? I’m not sure I’ve heard of them.
    That a nice list Meaghan – I remember quite a few people. My memory wouldn’t allow me to do the same but I’m glad I was able to read yours!
    Adina Blady is one I’ll never forget. It’s always atrocious reading or learning what people went through and/or did during that time but her story has always stayed with me. Maybe because it involves children and I wanted to be a nurse when I was younger.
    I’ve often wondered what kind of person I’d have been then too. Sometimes I wonder what kind of people my grandparents were. The grandparents I know would never behave like the Nazi’s. They’d take people in, try to save lives. But I have to wonder if there was a side if them I never knew..

    • Meaghan Says:

      The books are Peter Duffy’s The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews and Nechama Tec’s Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. They’re both good but I think Tec’s is better because she got a chance to interview Tuvia shortly before he died.

    • kimbg@q.com Says:

      I saw the movie Defiance with Daniel Craig. It was really good :)

  3. Katja Says:

    Have you ever heard of the group called “The White Rose”? I have a webpage devoted to the group at http://www.katjasdacha.com/whiterose . You might be interested, being as they were people who decided that they had to take a stand against Hitler. One of the members, Alexander Schmorell, was recently recognized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. I don’t know if you’d be interested in it, but the book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” had a lot about the government people who were involved in overthrowing Hitler, though there’s a lot of religious stuff going on too, so I don’t know if that’s your cup of tea. I actually did a post about Georg Elser a few years ago in my personal journal, though the search function there is pretty bad, so I don’t know how long it would take me to find it again. The funny thing is, though, that I once went to a Sheryl Crow concert in a venue named the “Georg Elser Hall”.

    • Meaghan Says:

      Yes, I’ve heard of the White Rose. Elise and Otto Hampell, a middle-aged working-class couple from Berlin, did much the same thing as the White Rose did — wrote anti-Nazi messages on postcards and scattered them throughout the city on a regular basis over a period of years. Eventually they were caught and beheaded. For some reason they never got the kind of press the White Rose did, perhaps because they were less photogenic.

  4. Justin Says:

    A little off the direct subject, but I have always been facinated by the Shanghai Ghetto where Jews fled Germany when other countries wouldn’t take them. From what I understand, there are a few still living there, though most left after the Communists took over in 1949.

  5. Saffy Says:

    and albania! another place where jews were hidden because the government hated the nazis!

  6. Saffy Says:

    you never know. it was a different time and place….everyone was united in their hatred of the nazis. A lot of people who hid jews from them may not have even particularly liked jews that much, but they hated the nazis more. One thing that drove people to acts of heroism was realizing that maybe it was one thing to not like jews, but it was quite something else to massacre innocent human beings. In fact, that was what motivated the movement to kill hitler. These guys were nazi party members. But they were so horrified when they saw massacres of innocent people that they realized their society was descending into barbarism and they had to stop it.

  7. Melissa Says:

    You must let us know when your novel is published! Can I ask what it’s about?

    As an aside, I live in Melbourne, Australia, which has the largest population of first- and second-generation Holocaust survivors outside of Israel. the neighborhood in which I live is predominantly Jewish (but I’m not), and it is amazing to see how the legacy of the Holocaust is still strong today. As an example, the community has set up its own paramedical service, as they found too many of their members were dying in their homes because they were too scared to call an ambulance in an emergency, because they associated being taken away in an ambulance with disappearing. How sad. Thought you might find that interesting, Meaghan :)

  8. Kaori Says:

    Mr.Chiune Sugihara is my hometown hero.(rural area in Gifu Pref.Japan)Also,I went same University.but,I knew his name after I graduate=He passed away in 1986,after long quiet life,And I graduate in 1988.even I was majoring political science,I didn’t heard about him back then.looking back,It’s so sad thing he had to risk his own life to do the right thing.
    Now things are different in my hometown,and my University.Even my parents knows him and proud having Mr.Sugihara in our hometown.Our University’s Glee Club has song dedicated to Mr.Sugihara.I have some concern for my country’s recent situation,but despite those situation, There are people who respect his spirit now.

    We must remember”These heroes,include Mr.Sugihara, did the right thing,against his country”.Sometimes one person’s belief lasts as right thing,not his country’s decision.

    • Kaori Says:

      Correction:Soviet-Jewish people was not against “Country’s decision”(My carelessness)
      And I guess,Mr.Sugihara said himself as decent person with modesty.So-called decent people doesn’t have modesty..

  9. Fiz Says:

    I’m not Jewish, either, but I care passionately about what happened. Like Donne, I believe each death diminishes us all, and also that such barbarity as the Holocaust should never be forgotten.

    • Saffy Says:

      yeah of course, you don’t have to be jewish, just interested in history.
      What donne said is actually what they say in Judaism, from what i know (I’m pretty secular) is that each life consecrates god or makes god’s name holy.

      • Meaghan Says:

        And in Judaism, life is sacred above all things. You’re allowed to break any of the religious rules if it’s necessary to save your own life. And “he who saves one life, saves the entire world.”

      • forthelost Says:

        You’re allowed to break any rule if it save any life, not just one’s own.

        Donne’s writings on death have always been comforting to me. “I am involved with mankind” indeed.

      • Saffy Says:

        no man is an island…it is comforting actually. There’s a psalm that expresses a very similar idea. “The lord is the earth and all that is in it/the world and those who live in it.” something like that, I don’t know the whole thing.
        I’m not religious, but it is a comforting idea- that we are all part of this sort of eternal continuum and that all your actions are part of it.

  10. Justin Says:

    I was just reading about Tuviah Samuel Friedman. He wasn’t exactly a hero during the war, but he did survive it and hunt down Nazis including Adolph Eichmann.

    He died January 13, 2011, in Haifa, Israel.

    • Meaghan Says:

      I had never heard of him.

      The Soviets were exceptionally brutal types, but as far as dealing with Nazis their brutality served them well in the wake of the war. The Americans etc. brought very few people to account, took forever to try them, acquitted many and sentenced most of the others to pitiful terms of a few years each. The USSR automatically subjected any murderous Nazis they found to either execution or deportation to Siberia, where most of them were never heard from again.

      The problem with the war crimes trials, at least where the West was concerned, was that you could not possibly arrest every one of the monsters who participated in the genocide. It would involve arresting most of the adult male population of Germany and a heck of a lot of people in other countries too. It would have been obscenely expensive and made reconstruction efforts all the much harder. So they made examples of a few (if the five-year etc. sentences could called “examples”).

      You see that with other, more recent genocides and regimes of terror (Rwanda, Apartheid): “peace and reconciliation” where if the perpetrators confess their guilt, express remorse and try to make amends by, for example, leading the authorities to the graves, they are not otherwise punished. Refer to my other entry today about the Barry Cummins book: the IRA was permitted to reveal where they hid the victims’ bodies, with no questions asked, no punishment, retaining anonymity.

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