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.