issue 25 > nonfiction > shostak
Stealth Altruism in Nazi Camps: Reaching Out in the Darkby Art Shostak
Late at night something outside that sounded like children's cries and moans could barely be heard inside the woman's barracks, so loud was the wind of the winter storm. But the persistent sound caught the attention of a new arrival, Luba Tryszynska, a Jewish prisoner just transferred into the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. To the consternation of many other bone weary women she decided to investigate, and to her astonishment found a short distance away 54 Dutch Jewish youngsters, some of whom were just babies, half frozen to death. They had been dumped there an hour or so earlier by German guards disinclined to follow orders to take them into the woods and shoot them.
Against all reason and logic, Luba persuaded her astonished 100 or so starving barrack mates to now join her in an utterly implausible effort to hide, feed, and keep alive the brood. A camp nurse who spoke fluent German and Russian, Luba daily hid under her nurses' cloak extra food given her at risk of life by many sympathizers in the camp bakery, kitchen, and meat store. She also gathered scraps of wood from abandoned camp buildings, and burned them to help warm the barrack (but only after dark when the smoke would not be seen). She actually convinced wives of the German guards themselves to give her spare clothing for children, and "if they knew about Luba's children, they didn't say a word." (1)
A Jewish doctor, although equipped only with aspirin and bandages, helped, as did also the women in the barrack itself. They dressed the youngest ones, and "used one wet cloth to keep 54 children as clean as they could." (2) Even the 54 children, although starving and weak, helped out by doing chores, telling each other stories, acting out their own plays, and never ever crying or doing anything that would call attention to their very secret place.
Toward the end, getting an adequate amount of food became impossible for Luba, and many of the children fell deadly ill with typhus. When the British troops liberated the camp five months later in April of 1945, they were astonished to find 52 of the 54 children were still alive. Forty years later, at a reunion in Amsterdam of the children, now in their fifties and sixties, Holland's Queen Beatrix presented Luba with the Silver Medal of Honor for Humanitarian Services. The courage of the children was thought to show that "strength, dignity, and hope can take root in even the darkest of places." Ibid. 42).
At Buchenwald, another of the 10,000 or more camps the Third Reich operated between 1933 and 1945, twelve young Jewish men, all previously unknown to one another, bonded together under the informal leadership of a slightly older prisoner, Peter Strum, a man with much longer experience in surviving in a camp.
SS rules expressly forbade such alliances, fearing they fomented insurrection. Caution was necessary, though not secrecy as the activities of the Strum group deliberately occurred inside their barrack where the guards never ventured, fearing they might contract diphtheria, typhus, and other deadly contagious diseases.
Peter set out four rules: You had to try to keep clean. You had to help hold one another up when necessary during the daily forced march to and from work (slackers and laggards were often shot). You had to share your food ration, especially with any ill member of the group (one-fourth of everyone's daily ration would go to a sick comrade). And you had to watch each other's back for unexpected danger from guards, informers, or thieves.
In a taped interview made in 1997 for the Shoah Foundation, the last living member of Peter's group recalled getting extra food when he was deadly ill: "I am not sure if the supplementary food helped us survive. I think it was more the psychological aspect that, if we are down and out and are ready to croak, somebody will come and help. And the proof of the pudding is that most of us survived."
Before the 5am assembly, Peter would set an example - regardless of the weather - by stripping and washing himself from head to toe at the outdoor pump. At 5am, he would cheerfully whistle a wake-up bugle call and give the group a slightly upbeat start to the day rather than allow it to arrive as just another grey and depressing one.
Throughout the workday Peter urged his comrades to keep up the quality of their conversation, and avoid any references to G-d, family, or food, all very distant matters. Instead, he had them focus discretely on literature, music, the shape of the world after the Nazis were defeated, and so on.
In the evenings in their freezing barrack the group might enjoy a round of a song Peter had composed for them: "The world is more beautiful than anything in the world, you just have to take a good look; it's living that I like most about life, you just have to understand it; open your eyes up wide and you will understand it …" Afterwards, some of them would talk more about all the good things that could be coming after the war. (3)
Much like Luba and Peter, Dr. Janusz Korczak provided leadership of an exceptional kind. (4) On his last day in the Warsaw Ghetto he led a parade of 192 small, frail, undernourished, children from an orphanage he directed to transport trains waiting to nearly 4,000 orphans and many adult caretakers to "the East" (actually to be gassed within the day at KZ Treblinka). (5)
Hailed widely in Europe and elsewhere, Dr. Korczak was a pediatrician who devoted his life to the care of orphans, and also served as a pioneer in "moral education" and children's rights. The previous day he had turned down an offer of personal safety so that he could accompany and comfort his wards and ten other staff administrators, nurses, and aides on the train: "His children gave him the courage to confront, defy, and bewilder the Nazis who could not understand why he rejected their offer of freedom for himself at the price of betrayal of his children." (6)
An onlooker maintains the parade was"not the usual walk to the train by beaten people. It was an organized silent protect against the brutality." (7) The example ""served as a beacon of dignity amid the appalling darkness of barbarity and slaughter." (8). Likewise a Ghetto uprising participant later wrote in 1942 - "The self-sacrifice of the people involved [in providing care] should be recorded as one of the brightest pages in the annals of the [Warsaw] ghetto. Almost all of them - and there were several thousand - died during the first Aktion [roundup], since they always thought of others before themselves. They deserve to be remembered with the deepest respect. " (9)
Taken all in all, the high-risk stealth altruism of the European Jews above - along with thousands of counterparts in genocides before and since - would seem to set us a remarkable challenge: if and when we hear the distant sound of children in distress, or are asked to defy persecutors by mentoring ill-prepared others, or can assuage the dread of any heading towards their annihilation, we ought take a deep breath, gather up our courage, and try ourselves to do as did Luba, Peter, and Janusz.
1. McCann, Michelle R. 2003. Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press. p. 25.
2. Ibid., 27.
3. Tape #29790, Baum, Kurt; as recorded in 1997 by the Shoah Foundation.
4. Hailed as something of a cross between Mr. Rogers and Dr. Benjamin Spock in his native land, Korczak's ghetto orphanage was a pedocracy, a "government by children," the first such progressive institution in Europe. An unprecedented refuge, it was a children's republic designed as a Just Community based on a child's sense of justice: young residents ran their own Parliament of 22 elected representatives, wrote a weekly newspaper, and conducted a Court of Peers that taught a grammar of ethics and mutual care. A secret school included the study of Hebrew so as to help prepare children who might someday get to Palestine. (Korczak also wrote books for parents entitled How to Love a Child and The Child's Right to Respect). Little wonder Israelis now regard him as one of the 36 Just Men whose pure souls make possible the world's salvation, and honor him with a large statue at Yad Vashem. Stamps have been issued by Israel and Poland in his honor. In 1971, the Russians named a newly discovered asteroid for Korczak. UNESCO named 1978-9 as the Year of the Child and of Janusz Korczak, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his birth. Korczak Societies around the world continue to hold international conferences to help promote his educational ideas and pro-child views.
5. Gutman, Israel. 1994. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. P. 47.
6. Bloch, Harry. 1978, July-August. "Janusz Korczak: Martyred Educator." Jewish Currents. Pp. 12-16.
7. Remba, as cited in Ibid., p. 16.
8. Remba, as cited in Lifton, Betty Jean. 2003. "Introduction: Who Was Janusz Korczak?" In Korczak, Janusz. Ghetto Diary. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press. Pp.vii-xxx.
9. Ernest, Stefen, as cited in Grynberg, Michal, ed. 2000 ed. Words to Outlive Us: Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto (trans. by Philip Bochm). New York: Henry Holt.