Stealth Altruism Saved Jews During the Holocaust

— by Art Shostak

If asked at World War II’s outset in 1939 what was its least likely outcome, Nazi overlords would have undoubtedly named their own military defeat.

Photo by Private H. Miller

Photo by Private H. Miller

Since Hitler’s democratic takeover in 1933 Germany had developed the strongest military force the modern world had ever known. Its standing army appeared indomitable. Its “death head” storm troopers (SS) seemed overwhelming. And its fervently admired leader appeared invincible.

Pressed in 1939 to name the least likely development the Nazi overlords would probably have named resistance from European Jews, as they were despised as cringing, defeated, and passive sub-humans (untermensch). Resistance would have required virtues Nazi ideology said sub-humans did not possess: bravery, compassion, empathy, and nobility.

Here, as in so many other decisive matters, the Nazi overlords were mistaken. In fact, Jewish resistance — militant and non-militant alike — was substantial and took quite a toll on the Third Reich. Well-known now are armed revolts that occurred in certain ghettos (Vinius, Warsaw, etc.) and concentration camps (Birkenau, Sobibor, etc.), rail line sabotage by forest partisan bands, or assassinations committed by underground units.

Less well known is non-militant resistance I call “stealth altruism,” as provided by those Jewish men and women I call “care sharers” in a book I am completing about the subject. Accounts of this forbidden care-sharing behavior exist in 190 of 195 survivor memoirs I have studied in recent years.

Typical is Livia Bitton-Jackson, who spent several years in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp. In her 1997 memoir she tells stories “of gas chambers, shootings, electrified fences, torture, scorching sun, mental abuse, and constant threat of death. But also stories of faith, hope, triumph, and love. They are stories of perseverance, loyalty, courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and of never giving up.”

Similarly, Manya Frydman Perel, a survivor of six years of struggle at eight concentration camps, recalled in her 2012 memoir, “we resisted in every way we could.”

Our weapons were our bare hands, our minds, our courage, and our faith… I resisted by stealing bread and potatoes to share with my friends. I resisted by risking my life time and time again… The Nazis could not crush our spirit, our faith, or our love for life and humanity.

Between 1933 and 1945 a network of scores of transit camps, six major death camps, more than 900 concentration camps, and about 35,000 slave labor camps blighted 24 occupied counties. Each had an overt malevolent culture where expectations and conventions “were perverted at every step, victims were inscribed in the books and ledgers of death, and women, children, and elderly were murdered first” (Donat, Alexander. 1964. The Holocaust Kingdom, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, p. 95). Each also had a covert pro-survival culture developed by prisoners where hope and compassion were nurtured, i.e., where acts of stealth altruism offered by care sharers were an invisible and consequential part of the scene.

Nowadays even outsiders like the current president of the United States acknowledge the presence of stealth altruism in the camps: During his June 5, 2009, visit to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, President Obama noted that “amidst the countless acts of cruelty that took place here, we know there were many acts of courage and kindness as well.”

The [starving] Jews who insisted on fasting on Yom Kippur. The camp cook who hid potatoes in the lining of his prison uniform and distributed them to his fellow inmates, risking his own life to help save theirs. The prisoners who organized a special effort to protect the children here, sheltering them from work and giving them extra food. They set up secret classrooms and taught history and math, and urged the [900] children to think about their future profession.

Acts of stealth altruism ranged along a continuum from brief, fleeting moments of life-saving consequence to sustained, long-term arrangements on which lives hung in the balance.

Typical of the first and predominant type was an experience of Ya’acov Handeli, who, when 16 years old, found himself waiting in KZ Auschwitz with several hundred other Jewish boys, between 12 and 16 years old, for some sort of examination by the camp’s German doctors. A boy who had just come out of the exam room passed by and whispered to him, “Go into the bathroom and masturbate,” a whisper that if noticed could have cost them both their lives, as all such talking was forbidden at pain of death.

Ya’acov did as the stranger had suggested, and when shortly later, during an unusual physical examination, he was unable to get an erection — as desired by the German doctors — he was abruptly dismissed. Only much later did he learn other boys who had gotten erections on command had had their testicles cut, since the doctors wanted 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 wondered, “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.”

Similarly, Ruth Kluger was saved in Auschwitz-Birkenau by an act of stealth altruist. Within an hour after arriving in the death camp she was, as a naked, emaciated 12-year-old ex-ghetto dweller, standing in a line of anxious female prisoners about to be “selected” by an SS officer. He would determine who went almost immediately to die in the gas chamber, and who, perhaps 10% of them all, might live a while longer as a slave laborer until they died of hunger, illness, overwork or torture.

Ruth unexpectedly found herself staring into the face of a complete stranger: a young Jewish woman entrusted with keeping records for the SS “selector.” This prisoner bent over and quietly asked Ruth her age, after which she secretly insisted the girl claim she was 15 years old. Less than a minute later, the indifferent SS officer decided Ruth was rather small and thin for allegedly being 15, and casually assigned her to the gas chamber line.

To the astonishment of all – Jews and SS alike — the record clerk rose from her desk chair and spoke to the German. She argued on Ruth’s behalf, “But she is strong. Look at her, at the muscles in her legs. She can work.” As Ruth wrote decades later, “He agreed – why not? She made a note of my number, and I had won an extension on life.” (Kluger, Ruth. 2001 ed. Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (translated by Weiter Leben), New York: City University of New York, Pp. 106-107.)

The Clerk had risked her own life, as the SS officer might have decided to punish her insubordination by ordering her over — then or later — to the gas chamber line.

Ruth now regards the brief incident as “an incomprehensible act of grace, or put more modestly, a good deed… I was saved by a young woman 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 act of stealth altruism 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.” She believes every survivor has a similar story, a “lucky accident,” a “turning point” to which they owe their life.

As for stealth altruism relationships of a sustained, long-range variety one must suffice, e.g., in her 2000 CE memoir Helen Sendyk recalls with warm admiration the behavior (aka stealth altruism) she observed in the Langenbielau Slave Labor Camp.

Every day, a young Jewish kitchen aid knowingly risked her life to smuggle an extra ration of soup back to her sister in their barrack. That woman discretely gave the soup to a starving prisoner, a different one daily, anyone of whom might have betrayed the rule-breaking sisters to the bread-offering Gestapo. Ms. Sendyk believes that “the feeling of alleviating the gnawing hunger of [an anonymous barrack mate] helped the kitchen worker bear her own hunger and torment” (Sendyk, Helen, 2000 ed. The End of Days: A Memoir of the Holocaust; New York: St. Martin’s Press, p. 203).

Naturally, in a matter as complex as this one, a large number of variables are at play, some of which elude recognition or satisfactory measurement at this time.

As significant as this behavior would seem to have been for Jewish prisoners, no attention is paid to it in 42 Holocaust museums and education centers worldwide that my wife Lynn Seng and I have visited since 2003 – including the three best known of them all: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem (Jerusalem), and The Shoah Museum (Paris). While reasons for this astonishing neglect are many and varied, world Jewry is the lesser for not knowing about the nobility of European Jewry’s stealth altruism resistance.

What is at issue here has been eloquently put by filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, himself a “hidden child” survivor:

If we remember solely the horror of the Holocaust, we will pass on no perspective from which meaningfully to confront and learn from that horror… If the hard and fast evidence of the possibility of good on Earth is allowed to slip through our fingers and turn to dust, then future generations will have only dust to build on (Sauvage, Pierre. 1988. Cited in Garber, Z., ed., Methodology in the Academic Teaching of the Holocaust, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, p. 118).

Based on my 52 years (1961-2003) of residence in Philadelphia, and well aware of its Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center up in the Northeast, its center city American Jewish History Museum, its large number of concerned synagogues and Temples, and its many resident survivors (albeit fewer all the time), I am confident its Jewish community can pioneer in showing the world a better way of understanding the Jewish response during the Holocaust.

Three projects come readily to mind:

  1. The Philadelphia Jewish community could mount the first-ever citywide effort to interview survivors directly about their experience with Stealth Altruism. The 2007 edition of the Oral History Interview Guidelines authored by staffers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, recommends asking:
    • What were the relationships among people?
    • Did you have any good friends?
    • Did anyone ever help you?
    • Did you help anyone?
    • Were people affectionate with one another?
  2. Philadelphia could host the first-ever Film Festival focused on Stealth Altruism. Such film showings – complete with Panel discussions – could feature “Bent,” “Defiance,” “Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg,” “My Mother’s Story,” and/or “The Counterfeiters.” Three foreign films stand out in this connection – “The Shop on Main Street,” “Jakob Der Lugner,” and “Fateless,” and “My Mother’s Courage” – as the forbidden care sharing and the Care Sharers in each are worth special attention.
  3. Philadelphia could host the first-ever Music Festival focused on Stealth Altruism.Performances – complete with Panel Discussions – could be offered of the Auschwitz-based opera, “The Passenger;” the opera, “Charlotte Salomon;” the children’s opera “Brundibar,” as performed at the Thereseinstadt Camp, and Holocaust-related adaptations of Beethoven’s liberation opera, “Fidelio,” or Wagner’s “Tannhauser.”

Why bother? Because, as Professor Yoram Lubling, explains, “the Nazi period, with its unspeakable violation of personhood and total elimination of life, has made Holocaust research and memory one of the most burning issues of our time. How we remember, use, document, and teach this period … will determine the moral space of our collective future.”
Philadelphia has a distinguished record where innovation in Holocaust memorialization is concerned. Its 1964 development of the Nathan Rapoport tower monument in downtown Philadelphia is arguably the first public space large-scale artwork of its kind in America. Now, a half century later, the city’s Jewish Community can show the way once again – this time by helping to bring Stealth Altruism and Care Sharers in from the shadows. It is time the world understood Holocaust memorialization is “a sacred act that elicits a double mandate – to expose the depth of evil and to raise goodness from the dust of amnesia.”

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