Survivors

Dan Stone looks at a book on Jewish self-help and rescue in Nazi-occupied Europe

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Reviewed by: Dan Stone
Author: Bob Moore
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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The holocaust, one hardly needs reminding, was a story of destruction. Although Hollywood tends to favour untypical narratives of survival and rescue, historians have for the most part not offered detailed analyses of these phenomena. Yet while the chances of survival for Jews in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe were very slim, in western Europe, the story was different: in Belgium, about 60 per cent of Jews survived, rising to 75 per cent in France and more than 95 per cent in Denmark. The exception was the Netherlands, where the survival rate was 25 per cent. 

Studies of rescue have so far been approached from the point of view of social psychology, with scholars examining individuals’ motivations for helping others, searching for the ‘altruistic personality’ type. Their approach is validated by Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial institute, which recognises the actions of the “righteous among the nations” in helping Jews during the Holocaust.

But as this excellent book points out, most Jews who survived did so thanks to rescue networks, Jewish and non-Jewish. These networks were often also involved in the rescue of deserters from labour service, resistance fighters and others escaping the Nazi net. Rescuers were not always motivated by the best intentions. Sometimes survival was gained on the basis of exploitative relationships too.Moore analyses all of these emotionally trying issues, while also setting them in the broader context of factors that affected Jews’ chances of survival: the extent to which the SS and police operated alone or in tandem with civil authorities; the nature and strength of local Jewish agencies and communities, especially with respect to class, organisation, levels of assimilation and citizenship status; and the possibility for hiding offered by the geography of the countries concerned. 

Conditions varied widely between and within the countries of western Europe, and Moore is careful to pay attention to these factors in a local context. But he makes space too to discuss anomalous cases which disturb our black and white images of the Holocaust: he finds example of ‘Nazi rescuers’ such as Karl Plagge, a German major who saved 250 Jews in Vilna, and a small number of Jews who were employed by German security services to turn in other Jews. In this sense, then, Moore’s book is not just excellent social history but confirms the maturing of Holocaust historiography, in which the complexities of the Holocaust experience are addressed head on. 

Perhaps Moore’s main point is to discredit the notion of Jewish passivity. As he demonstrates, Jews did a great deal to try to save themselves; their rescue did not depend solely on the good offices of gentiles. Many of the Jews and non-Jews who became involved in rescue did so for the simple reason that they were asked to help and that at that particular moment in time the individual concerned was able to say yes. Indeed, much of Moore’s book reads like a mirror of recent perpetrator research: just as there is no ideal-type perpetrator, so it is impossible to generalise about rescuers. The chimerical search for the ‘altruistic personality’ is replaced here by the much more convincing – because reflective of messy reality – argument that rescuers could be good or bad, religious or not, charitable or venal. 

Survival, he shows, depended on luck more than knowledge, money or skill. None of this detracts from what rescuers did – indeed, it makes their actions all the more remarkable, for they no longer appear as magical, superior beings, but as real people making frightening moral choices in a dangerous world.  

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Dan Stone is professor of modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London