Beyond the Righteous: Upstanders during the Holocaust
Added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016, “” is defined as “a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied” (Upstander, 2016). The term, coined by former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, gives a new concept for understanding actions taken during (Zimmer, 2016). Most research focuses on , victims, and of the , but relatively little attention is paid to those who saved lives. Furthermore, many studies that do exist focus on a narrowly defined term, “” which most commonly uses the definition of the Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations honor. This restricted definition limits understandings of the breadth of actions that can be taken to protect targeted groups during mass violence. By shifting to focus on the term “upstanders,” this chapter aims to develop a deeper understanding of those who saved lives during the Holocaust.
This chapter will first provide an overview of current definitions of “,” as well as alternative terms that are gaining traction. It then turns to three case studies that provide an understanding of the breadth of actions taken by upstanders during the Holocaust. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion on why the alternative of the upstander framework is so important and how we can use these case studies to take action in our own societies.
The Problem with Definitions
The definitional parameters of who is considered a rescuer during are often contested. Some of the most prominent studies, such as those by historian Martin Gilbert or sociologist Samuel Oliner and professor of education Pearl Oliner, use the parameters of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations’ honor. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum was conceptually established in Israel’s Martyrs and Heroes’ Remembrance Law (Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance (Yad Vashem) Law 5713-1953, 1953, n.d.). This law calls attention to entities that would become the Righteous Among the Nations by describing “high-minded Gentiles [non-Jews] who risked their lives to save Jews.” However, the law does not define the parameters of who can be honored with this title. The Yad Vashem Commission for the Designation of the Righteous took this responsibility, setting stringent parameters that have held significant influence on studies of rescuers during the Holocaust (The Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, Yad Vashem). The honor recognizes individual non-Jews—not groups— who, during the Holocaust, were involved in saving at least one Jew from the threat of death or deportation; individuals who risked their life, liberty, or position; those whose sole motivation was to help Jews and not for other rewards; and individuals for whom there exists testimony by those they saved or other verified documentation (Yad Vashem, FAQs). Household names such as Oskar Schindler, the subject of Schindler’s List, Irena Sendler, the focus of the popular book Irena’s Children, or Jan and Antonina Zabinski, celebrated in both print and film in The Zookeeper’s Wife are among the most famous Righteous Among the Nations.
However, these parameters inappropriately limit our understanding of the actions people took to save lives during the Holocaust. By focusing on the altruism of the rescuers, we lose the opportunity of the rich analysis of the actions taken during mass atrocities. Sociologist Nechama Tec posits that research focused on the altruistic actions of rescuers does not acknowledge those motivated by personal interests such as profit and political power (Tec, 2013). Additionally, critics of the term ‘rescuer’ argue that it does not sufficiently acknowledge those who sought to help, comfort, or support targeted individuals without saving them outright (Rothbart et al., 2016). Indeed, recent research has begun to employ the term “helpers,” “,” or, more broadly, “upstanders” instead of “rescuers,” as it includes a wider range of actors and does not call for moral absolutism.
While “rescuers” is the most commonly used term within genocide studies, this chapter will rather reframe to an approach centering the term “upstanders,” broadening conceptions of who saved lives and what saving lives could look like during the Holocaust. To do so, this chapter explores three categories of upstanders who would not normally be considered under Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations honor: (1) Communal rescuing movements, (2) Political and Advocacy, and (3) Carers (Shostak, 2017), who practiced stealth altruism.
Communal Rescuing Movements
If considering a comprehensive list of the Righteous Among the Nations, Denmark would not stand out— it only has 22 entries (Names of Righteous by Country, Yad Vashem). However, the assumption that this means there were not rescuers in Denmark would be incorrect. Indeed, Denmark likely had the highest percentage of upstanders among any occupied country. Members of the Danish Underground requested that Yad Vashem not honor individual Danes with the title because rescuing was a communal movement. The award is only given to individuals and not groups, and thus the Danish Underground was not honored with the title Righteous Among the Nations. Lacking this widely recognized label from Yad Vashem, the Danish Underground is a prime example for understanding the breadth of actions taken by upstanders during the Holocaust.
The resistance to the Holocaust in Denmark—known as “the Danish Underground”—was unique in two ways: (1) more than 98% of Jews were saved and (2) there was a consensus among the Danish people that the Jews must be saved (Yahil, 1978). From the church to the government, a wide swath of society became involved in the rescue operation. Universities shut down for a week, allowing students to support rescue efforts, and Danish sea captains and fishermen ferried a total of 5,919 Jews— of which 1,391 of half Jewish heritage and 686 Christians married to Jews—to neutral Sweden within the span of three weeks (Gilbert, 2004).
The results of the collective movement of the resistance in Denmark are significant; approximately 7,200 Danish Jews escaped to Sweden out of a total Jewish population of 7,800 (Keith, 2010). The remainder included about 500 Jews who were deported to Theresienstadt, a camp- and transit camp in the German-occupied region of Czechoslovakia. While almost all Jews of other countries of origin at Theresienstadt either starved to death or were deported to Concentration Camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Danish government and active members of the ensured that Danish Jews were given special protection and food parcels (Gilbert, 2004). Of the 464 Danish Jews sent to Theresienstadt, 423 survived (Goldberger, 1987).
The actions of the Danish resistance were unique among occupied territories but attributing these actions only to a blanket altruism is possibly inappropriately optimistic. The rescue of the Jews in Denmark is best understood outside the simple understandings of rescuing that center altruism, as it ignores the context in which lives were saved. The position of the Danish government, the behavior of the Nazis in Denmark, and good timing were also important factors in allowing the broad success of rescuing Jews in Denmark.
According to historian Leni Yahil, the “Jewish question,” as it was often referred to, was more of a political question than a humanitarian one (Arendt, 1994). For the Danes, rescuing the Jews was a means of resisting national collaboration with Nazi Germany, counteracting the loss of Danish sovereignty. The defense of democracy was an essential motivator for the Danes (Keith, 2010). Furthermore, once Denmark surrendered to the Nazis on April 9, 1940, it was the only country in occupied Europe that maintained its own government (Skov, 2000). The Danish government, for its part, refused to pass discriminatory legislation against Jewish people and would not deport refugees, stalling Germans in implementing the preparatory phases to the Holocaust seen in so many other Nazi-occupied countries. For example, in Denmark, Jews did not have to wear yellow stars, were not forced into ghettos, and did not have a , or Jewish Council, which, among other responsibilities, tracked Jews in occupied territories (Denmark, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). Additionally, high levels of Jewish assimilation with Danish communities made it harder to identify Jewish people.
Sources made available in the 1990s suggest that there may be more to the story. Assuming that the actions that ultimately protected the Jews can be accredited to a moral fight against is too simplistic an approach. Indeed, many who participated in the resistance were motivated by protecting the character of Denmark, which values tolerance and equality for its people, over a particular motivation to rescue Jewish people (Buckser, 1998). Furthermore, until August 1943, Denmark supplied Germany with products to support both the German citizenry and the German war effort (Bryld, 2007). Even when formal ties between Denmark and Germany were severed, there continued to be close contact between German authorities and leading Danish officials. It was within this complex context that the resistance, which would eventually be adopted as an inaccurate single narrative following the end of the war, arose.
Despite some Danish government cooperation with the Germans, steps to protect the Jews hindered the Nazis in the latter half of 1943, when, eventually, civil unrest ended the Samarbejdspolitik (‘cooperation policy’) and Nazis implemented a declared state of emergency, setting off the three weeks of Danish resistance where 95 percent of the Jewish population in Denmark was saved (Dethlefsen, 1990).
Even with the state of emergency declared, Nazi officials worked with the Danish community to allow for the rescue of Jewish people. When Germany took control of Denmark in 1943, Dr. Werner Best was appointed as the German Minister Plenipotentiary in Denmark (Dethlefsen, 1990). With a background in the SS, he was handpicked to deal with the ‘Jewish problem’ in Denmark (Keith, 2010). However, Best knew that upsetting the Danish public would have serious political ramifications if the Reich collapsed, and Best began double-dealing with both Germans and Danes (Countrymen, 2014). Best shared information of the planned deportations with shipping expert Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, who in turn notified Danish social leaders of the Nazis’ plan to round up Jews and worked with Swedish officials to receive Jews fleeing Denmark (Gilbert, 2004). Other instances of German collaboration with the resistance included General Hermann von Hanneken, the commander of German forces in Denmark, who refused to supply troops for the deportation process and only provided fifty men to patrol the harbor (Keith, 2020). Thus, the rescue of the Jews in Denmark would not have been possible without the collaboration of Nazi officials.
Timing also played a role in the rescue of Danish Jews. In the early 1940s, many across Europe claimed that they did not know what would happen when Jews were deported. However, by 1943, when deportations started in Denmark, the true outcomes of ‘deportations’ were known (What Did the World Know?, Facing History and Ourselves). Additionally, with Axis setbacks in Italy, the Pacific, Africa, and the Eastern front, the Allies were emerging as the forerunners of World War II. By 1943, declining conditions in Denmark including food shortages and dock strikes were driving more Danes to become involved in the Underground. At the same time, Sweden, responsible for receiving the Jews following their escape from Denmark, broke its neutral stance, ending an agreement with Germany that had permitted the German military to travel through the country. In the days preceding the deportation orders in Denmark, Swedish Ambassador Gustaf von Dardel announced that Danish Jews would be offered sanctuary in Sweden, giving the Jewish community a destination.
The story of Denmark’s resistance to rescue the Jews is one of solidarity and betrayal, double-crossing, and good timing, a far cry from the altruistic tropes of the Righteous Among the Nations, even beyond the definitional limitations of labeling only individuals. For the Danish resistance movement, whom we can consider as upstanders, altruism and bravery combined with ideal conditions, pride in the Danish character, and a virulent hatred of the Nazis, allowing for the successful escape of over 8,000 potential Nazi victims.
Political Resistance and Advocacy
There are some but perhaps too few discussions of nonviolent political resistance to Nazi aggression and violence during World War II. Celebrations of resistance more often focus on either the altruistic rescuing by Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations or on partisan resistance, which was often, although not always, violent. Even if not canonized, the broadened term of upstanders allows us to celebrate nonviolent political resistance.
The members of used calls to passive resistance to shift public sentiment against Nazi rule in the early 1940s. Passive resistance is explored in one of the White Rose leaflets:
To topple National Socialism, and in this struggle, we must not recoil from any course, any action, whatever its nature. At all points we must oppose National Socialism, wherever it is open to attack. (The Third Leaflet, White Rose Society).
The White Rose, a student movement which started in Munich and expanded to include networks in Hamburg, Freiburg, Berlin, and Vienna, disseminated leaflets that denounced the Nazi regime. The founding members of the White Rose included siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and their professor, Dr. Kurt Huber (Hornberger). The White Rose distributed six leaflets between 27 June and 12 July 1942 (Leaflets of the White Rose). The first leaflet of the White Rose underscores the role of the state in the progress of humanity; the second emphasizes the urgency of countering National Socialist philosophy and details Nazi horrors that many Germans claimed not to know (despite research that suggests otherwise); the third leaflet outlines the means of passive resistance that the White Rose encouraged; and the fourth provokes Germans to reconsider their political views and acceptance of the murderous regime (Gellately, 2013, Michalcyzk & Muller, 1997). The leaflets had a huge impact on their community; according to Inge Scholl, sister of Hans and Sophie, “all over Munich the populace was astir with rumors of secret rebellion” (Scholl, 1970). Two final leaflets were circulated across Germany between late-January and mid-February, 1943. These leaflets were meant to be part of a larger series entitled “Leaflets of the Resistance,” which was cut short due to the White Rose leaders’ executions.
On 18 February 1943, the superintendent of a university building caught Hans and Sophie disseminating the leaflets and quickly notified the . Hans and Sophie were immediately arrested, and later that day Christoph Probst was also apprehended for his involvement. The Nazi regime sent the unrelenting Roland Freisler, chief of the People’s Court of the Greater German Reich, from Berlin to Munich to preside over the trial, signifying the gravity of the case in the eyes of the Nazis.
As there was too much evidence against them, Hans and Sophie Scholl both decided to assume full responsibility for the resistance, with hopes that others would not be found or face punishment. The members of the White Rose were indicted for high treason. The Scholl siblings and Probst were sentenced to death and beheaded on 22 February 1943, the same day as their trial. Despite the brutal deaths of the founding members of the White Rose, other participants were “not paralyzed by the series of death sentences already carried out,” deeming the Nazi’s deterrence strategy unsuccessful (Scholl, 1970). Their legacy and their work lived on.
The members of the White Rose were aware of the limitations of their potential influence. Hans and Sophie’s sister, Inge Scholl, stated, “All the members of the Munich resistance were undoubtedly aware that only the use of force could topple the governing regime with its apparatus of total power” (1970). However, the White Rose was convinced that efforts to increase public consciousness could encourage the deconstruction of the Nazi system. Indeed, the Nazi regime also viewed the White Rose as a potentially existential threat, bringing one of the foremost judges to preside over the trial, and killing White Rose members who were discovered, ensuring that their work could not continue.
Members of the White Rose did not directly save a life, and yet their actions stirred political resistance that deeply threatened the Nazi regime. Almost all genocides are carried out by political regimes wielding extraordinary power, particularly over their own people. By threatening the political power of the Nazi regime, members of the White Rose were working to save the lives of all individuals targeted by the Third Reich. Upstanders describe an individual who “speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause” (Upstander, Facing History and Ourselves). While the members of the White Rose could never definitionally be considered Righteous Among the Nations rescuers, writing them out of history is equally inappropriate.
Yad Vashem specifically honors non-Jews who rescued Jewish lives, definitionally excluding the actions that Jews took to save the lives of their fellow Jews. However, not acknowledging Jewish upstanders removes essential agency from victims of the Holocaust. Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer reflects:
The only form of reaction that was specific to Jews—and it was very important indeed—was unarmed resistance, unarmed Amidah. It is worth repeating what that was: mutual aid, education, health care, food smuggling, and morale building, chiefly accomplished by maintaining a minimum of cultural life (2010).
Sociologist Arthur Shostak emphasizes these actions through the concept of stealth altruism: the secret caring behavior of certain European Jews who defied Nazi prohibitions against helping landsmen (other Jews) (Shostak, 2017). The concept of a “Carer,” Shostak’s word for one who carries out stealth altruism, as an upstander, is one not sufficiently covered in current conceptions of rescuers. While Carers may not have ultimately defeated death, they allowed their fellow Jews to live while they were living. To this end, the remainder of this section will discuss (1) education in concentration camps and (2) entertainment in “Safe barracks:” two prime examples of stealth altruism.
Conventional schooling in most concentration camps was strictly forbidden as a form of punishment (Zapruder, 2015). However, this did not stop Carers from ensuring that the youngest generation got an education. In Theresienstadt, teachers including Friedl Dicker-Brandeis gathered children in attics and other hidden spaces. Inge Auerbacher recalls her experiences as a seven-year-old prisoner: “They taught us from memory, since very few schoolbooks were smuggled into the camp” (Shostak, 2017). Teenagers in the camp also developed informal education programs that included a wide range of topics including Czech literature, Esperanto, geography, grammar, Hebrew, Latin, literature, math, physics, poetry, Russian, Sanskrit, and Sinhalese (Shostak, 2017). At in the Netherlands, a transit camp where some forms of stealth altruism were openly practiced, former teachers welcomed students to informal schools, piecing together schoolbooks and notepads for the students. Before students were sent to other concentration camps, they would be given a report card and instructed to give it to the teacher in the next camp (Müller et al., 2014). Furthermore, in Auschwitz, Carers coordinated daily routines of secret classes. This form of resistance encouraged the will to live and hope for the future while also maintaining Jewish cultural values even in the most challenging of conditions. As Shostak reflects, Jews “drew on major cultural tools [including education] to help one another, and they left behind a legacy of instructive and inspiring merit” (Shostak, 2017).
Safe Barracks and Entertainment
In need of locations for connection and communication away from the dangerous gaze of the SS guards, Jews used hidden places in barracks and camp latrines to carry out activities that would place them at mortal risk (Shostak, 2017). SS guards, fearing contact with contagious diseases, rarely entered the camp barracks. These spaces became a relatively safe space for Jews to provide medical support for one another, carry out religious and spiritual practices including Yahrzeits —the anniversary of a death—and Jewish High Holidays, share the latest radio news about Allied gains, and even carry out indictment and punishment of fellow prisoners found guilty of informing, stealing, or in other ways betraying peers (Shostak, 2017).
In some situations, Jewish prisoners also participated in artistic endeavors, which were at times required and also expressions of spiritual resistance (as in the Defiant Requiem of Terezin). Ranging from poetry readings to songfests to full length plays, entertainment in the safe barracks reminded Jews of and reaffirmed their humanity. In creating and maintaining the privacy of these spaces, and by bringing entertainment to their communities, Carers counteracted the unrelenting efforts Nazis made to dehumanize prisoners, providing a fundamental gift of humanity.
While many concentration camp prisoners were impacted by these Carers, few of these Jews survived the Holocaust. Even so, the opportunity to live with a small amount of dignity, to continue traditions so valued by the Jewish community, and even to be in a safe space where it was possible to laugh, is in and of itself saving a life for as long as that life lasts.
This chapter provides only a few examples of the range of actions upstanders took during the Holocaust. By broadening understandings of these acts of resistance from the narrowly defined “rescuers” to the broadly defined “upstanders,” we better understand the roles each of us has the potential to play in positively impacting lives during mass atrocities. Yad Vashem asserts that the Righteous Among the Nations were “ordinary human beings, and it is precisely their humanity that touches us and should serve as a model” (About the Righteous, Yad Vashem). This too can be said of all upstanders. A prominent reason for rescuing is that people had role models who had rescued before them (Rothbart et, al, 2016). The upstanders discussed in this chapter serve as an important model for all of us; they show us the bravery and strength that allows for positive change, even in the direst of circumstances. Most people reading this chapter will not be living in an active conflict zone or in a place where one could directly save a targeted person from being killed in a genocide. However, we can honor the legacy of these upstanders by acting through community organizing, through political resistance, and through revealing the humanity in each and every person. In doing so, we can all become upstanders.
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- The “Names of Righteous by Country” is a searchable database created by Yad Vashem with entries on all those honored with the title “the Righteous Among the Nations.” ↵
- Freisler’s reign of the court saw a significant increase in the use of the death penalty; between 1942-1944 about half of those indicted by Freisler received the death penalty (Lippman, 2000). ↵
A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. Lexico This term was coined by Samantha Power; a campaign by students helped get ‘upstander’ into English dictionaries. The "upstander” campaign’s definition of upstander: “a person who chooses to take positive action in situations where individuals are being harmed or in the face of injustice in society.”
Instances of “large-scale, systematic violence against civilian populations.” While the term has no formal legal definition, it usually refers to genocide (as defined above), crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
"Someone who does something that is morally wrong or criminal." Echoes and Reflections Glossary
A witness to events; one who is present but not taking part in what is occurring. USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia
The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
One that saves one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation to death camps. Wikipedia
Active involvement of the rescuer in saving one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation to death camps. Wikipedia
... any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. United Nations
People who practiced caring or compassionate behavior (sometimes secretly) for Jews and other people persecuted during the Holocaust, often offering "humane acts on behalf of others." Such acts were part of spiritual resistance and "stealth altruism." Nechama Tec and Arthur Shostak.
“…Any actions taken with the intent of thwarting Nazi German goals in the war, actions that carried with them risk of punishment.” Types of resistance include armed resistance, spiritual resistance, organized resistance movements, and other types of resistance. Rowman and Littlefield / Jewish Partisans / Tec 2013
Ghetto: Ghettos were often enclosed districts that isolated Jews from the non-Jewish population and from other Jewish communities. Living conditions were miserable. During the Holocaust, the creation of ghettos was a key step in the Nazi process of brutally separating, persecuting, and ultimately destroying Europe's Jews. Ghettoization: the process of creating these ghettos. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Located in German-occupied Poland, Auschwitz consisted of three camps including a killing center. The camps were opened over the course of nearly two years, 1940-1942. Auschwitz closed in January 1945 with its liberation by the Soviet army. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
A branch of the larger organization the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Danske Kvinders Fredskæde is the original name of the Danish branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Wikipedia
Judenräte, or Jewish councils, were administrative agencies imposed by Nazi Germany on Jewish communities across occupied Europe, principally within the Nazi ghettos. These councils provided basic community services for ghettoized Jewish populations while also implementing Nazi policies, including providing lists of names for deportation. Wikipedia
Discrimination, prejudice, hostility, or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish). Jerusalem Declaration, 2021. Antisemitism is a human rights issue; Antisemitism is not a ‘Jewish Problem’ or simply a problem for Jews. Another definition: prejudice or discrimination against (or hatred of) Jews. Echoes and Reflections 2020. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, IHRA, created a more elaborate working definition of antisemitism. Note that Nazi antisemitism was a form of racism because Nazi law and ideologies treated Jews as a race.
A resistance group of German students including Hans and Sophie Scholl. The “..group expanded into an organization of students in Hamburg, Freiburg, Berlin, and Vienna. At great risk, White Rose members transported and mailed mimeographed leaflets that denounced the regime. In their attempt to stop the war effort, they advocated the sabotage of the armaments industry.” Weisse Rose
The official secret police of Nazi Germany and in German-occupied Europe. Wikipedia
Originally a refugee camp for German Jews, located in the Netherlands; it became a transit camp to deport Jews to death camps. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum