The Banality of Good

Why individuals who rescued Jews during World War II found it so difficult to explain their motives.

Black Earth.
The Warsaw Ghetto in May 1943.

Photo curtesy of United States Holocaust Museum/Wikimedia

Excerpted from Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Josel Lewin was from near Bielsk Podlaski, on the western edge of marshy Polesia. His family had been killed, and he was wandering alone, undecided about what to do, whether he should try to survive, and how. He finally decided to take shelter in the barn of a peasant he knew, in a settlement called Janowo. When the peasant found Josel in the barn, the peasant was surprised and frightened, as almost everyone was in these circumstances. It is always a shock to find an unexpected person on one’s property, and Poles in the countryside knew that Jews were no longer sup­posed to exist. However they felt about that matter personally, Poles knew that they were in violation of the German order, and likely the norms of local society, the moment a Jew set foot on their land.

Seeing the peasant’s reaction, Josel stopped him from speaking and asked him for a small favor: not to do anything for 30 minutes, sim­ply to wait for that half an hour, and then come back to the barn. Then Josel would have something to tell him. When the peasant returned, this is what he heard from Josel: “I don’t want to live any longer; I’ll commit suicide and you bury me.” The peasant responded: “The earth is frozen two meters down; it will be hard to dig.” It was November 1943. What were these two men, who had known each other for years, actually saying to each other at that moment? “The earth is frozen two meters down; it will be hard to dig.” Perhaps, just perhaps, what the peasant meant was something like this: “I will not dig your grave; perhaps you too should wait a while and think it over.” If Josel had not given the peasant time to calm down, perhaps the peasant would have reacted differently. If the peasant had not remarked upon the hard weather, Josel might have killed himself. The peasant gave Josel food and shelter for the next eight months. Josel lived.

Like Josel Lewin, Cypa and Rywa Szpanberg thought that they had had enough of life amid death. They were in Aleksandra, a small set­tlement not far from the city of Rowno, in Volhynia. When Jews were ordered to the ghetto in July 1942, the two women decided to spare them­selves the intermediate steps, and simply act in such a way that the Ger­mans would kill them. So before the

transfer to the ghetto, Cypa and Rywa found a place that was unknown to them, sat down together, cried, and waited for death.

The Pole who owned the land was a stranger to them. When he heard their sobbing, he took the two women to his farm in Trzeslaniec. After­ward he took in eight more Jews. Would he have taken in any Jews at all if not for that chance encounter with two tearful women who had found their way to his property and were at his mercy? To be sure, most people in his situation did not behave nearly so honorably, and many behaved much worse. And yet without the decision of Cypa and Rywa to control the timing of their own deaths, the landowner would never have met them, and perhaps would never have undertaken to rescue Jews at all. His efforts were all the more difficult in 1943, when the UPA began to ethnically cleanse Poles from Volhynia. And yet nine of the 10 Jews he sheltered on his farm survived.

There were indeed people, although precious few of them, who felt compelled by the simple need for help. Other rescuers exhibited a mysterious steadfastness, a silently under­stood need to remake a corner of the world, to transform the overwhelm­ing difficulty of the task into a kind of normalcy, where the labor and its presentation become something like the preoccupation of an entire per­sonality. A private choreography of warmth and safety defied the exterior social world of cold and doom.

Wanting to help was not enough. To rescue a Jew in these conditions, where no structure supported the effort and where the penalty was death, required something stronger than character, something greater than a worldview. Generous people took humane decisions, yet still failed. Proba­bly most men and women of goodwill who were able to take the initial risk failed after a month, a week, a day. It was an era when to be good meant not only the avoidance of evil but a total determination to act on behalf of a stranger, on a planet where hell, not heaven, was the reward for goodness.

Good people broke. Mina Grycak found a peasant who sheltered her family for months and then finally yielded to the pressure. He first tried to kill the family in a clownish way that was bound to fail, and then threat­ened to kill himself. Had the war lasted for months rather than for years, his behavior would have been exemplary.

The nature of an encounter could end a rescue, just as it could begin

one. Abraham Sniadowicz and his son stayed with a peasant for two months, and then began to share their place of shelter with two more Jews. They did not tell their host. When the peasant learned of the unan­nounced arrivals, he told all four Jews to leave. “I must emphasize,” said Abraham, “that this Christian was a very good person.”

It is very hard to speak of the motivations of the men and women who risked their lives to rescue Jews without any anchor in earthly politics and without any hope of a gainful future with those whom they rescued. To be motivated means to be moved by something. To explain a motiva­tion usually means the delineation of a connection between a person and something beyond that person—something that beckons from the world of today, or at least from an imagined future. None of that seems pertinent here. Accounts of rescue recorded by Jews rarely include evaluations of their rescuers’ motivations.

What Jewish survivors tend to provide is a description of disinterested virtue. They tend to say, in one way or another, that their rescuers were guided by a sense of humanity that transcended or defied the circum­stances. As Janina Bauman put it, “that we lived with them strengthened what was noble in them, or what was base.”

Agnieszka Wrobel, who herself survived a German concentration camp, rescued several Jews from the Warsaw ghetto, at great risk to her­self. Two of the Jews who lived with her wrote long and detailed accounts of her actions, but neither tried to explain how she was capable of such choices and actions. Instead, Bronislawa Znider reflected that “the role of people such as Agnieszka Wrobel was not so much that they rescued people from death, but that in the hearts of people who were chased like animals, in the spirits of Jews who were doomed to die, she aroused a bit

of hope that not everything good was lost, that there were still a handful of human beings worthy of the name.” Joseph C., who escaped from the death facility at Treblinka, wept in his testimony when he tried to describe the one Pole who helped him in his distress. The word that he finally found to describe Szymon Calka was “humanity.”

If Jews had little to say about the reasons why they were rescued, the rescuers themselves were even less forthcoming. They generally preferred not to speak about what they did. Olha Roshchenko, a Ukrainian in Kyiv, helped two of her friends escape after the mass shooting at Babyi Iar. “I did not save them,” she said. What she meant was that other people also helped her friends, and that in the end her friends saved themselves. This was of course true, and indeed was almost always true. Jews them­selves had to take the most exceptional actions if they were to survive, and those who helped them were almost always a large group of people. Olha’s friends reply in the same conversation: “There were a number of people who helped Jews, and don’t always speak of it.” And this was also true. People who did not rescue Jews claim to have done so, and people who did rescue Jews often keep their peace. There is an unmistakable tendency of rescuers, when they speak at all, toward a certain specific modesty, a diffidence that verges on a general attempt not to answer questions about motivation. When rescuers do say anything at all it is almost always un­interesting: a banality of good that is so consistent across gender, class, language, nation, and generation as to give pause.

Helena Chorazynska, an uneducated peasant woman, provided this ex­planation of why she took in Jews and kept them alive: “I always said that when I grew up I would never let anyone leave my house naked or hungry.” Thus the idea of hospitality was extended to the furthest, darkest reaches of human experience. Was this imagination or a lack of imagination? The German (Austrian) soldier Anton Schmid was kind to people, including Jews. Kindness required ever greater personal risk as circumstances grew ever worse; Schmid did not change as the world changed, and was one of the few Germans to be executed for saving Jews. In the letter that he wrote to his family just before his death, he did not provide grand explanations for what he had done; he said he had simply “acted as a human being” and regretted the grief he would cause by not returning home to his loved ones. Feliks Cywinski, who helped 26 Jews, spoke of a sense of “obliga­tion.” Kazimiera Zulawska recalled a “purely human sense of outrage.” Adam Zboromiski said that he needed to “feel like a human being.”

Karolina Kobylec: “That is just the way I am.”

In the darkest of times and places, a few people rescued Jews for what seems like no earthly reason. These tended to be people who in normal times might seem to take ethical and social norms a bit too literally, and whose fidelity to their expressed principles survived the end of a world that supported and defended them. If these rescuers had anything in common beyond that, it was self-knowledge. When you know yourself there is little to say.

Reprinted from Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning Copyright © 2015 by Timothy Snyder. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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