The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998


To Save a Life: Stories of Jewish Rescue. Ellen Land-Weber. Produced by Ellen Land-Weber, 1998. CD-ROM, based on the Web site of the same name: http://www.humboldt.edu/~rescuers.

Star of David badge, which Jews were compelled to wear.
Star of David badge which
Jews were forced to wear.
From To Save a Life.
The tremendous continuing interest in the Holocaust or Shoah has spawned the separate field of Holocaust studies. Among Holocaust scholars there is an increasing research on the role ordinary people played during this horrific episode. The controversy surrounding Daniel Goldhagen’s work reflects this trend. Through a CD-ROM format, Ellen Land-Weber offers an engrossing collection of stories by rescuers and the Jews they helped to save from the Nazi genocide. Accompanied by visual aids and unique photographs, these visceral stories convey the horror and heroism of participants. The photographs offer a particularly rich level of detail to the stories. Their quality reflects the skills of the author, a highly successful photographer and a professor of photography at Humboldt State University. The CD-ROM also includes Web site links for updated information on the rescuers and rescued as well as helpful sites on Holocaust studies.

The Jewish quarters at Sandomierz, Poland, 1938.
The Jewish quarters at Sandomierz, Poland, 1938.
From To Save a Life.
The beauty of this CD-ROM is the deceptively simple stories told by the rescuers and rescued. Barbara Szymanska (later Makuch) lost her father who was shot for underground activity early in the war. Afterwards she became a schoolteacher, living with her mother and quietly working in the village of Tarnobrzeg, near the Ukraine. Then, almost casually, her life changed: "It was late in the afternoon, one day in [July] 1942, when a woman named Rachel Litowicz and her child came to our door, saying she came because somebody had told her I was a good person. I had never seen her before. She had nowhere else to go—she was desperate. She wanted me to take her child. I knew that in [nearby] Sandomierz that day the Germans were "cleaning" the town. . . . We all felt very scared. By law, the penalty was death if you offered so much as one glass of water to a Jewish person. . . . My mother and I knew that, but how could we refuse this woman’s plea? We didn’t even talk it over, we just invited her inside."

Szymanska moved into the kitchen of their small home, and the girl, Rebecca or Marysia as she was now called, stayed with the family until they could make the dangerous journey to Lvov and place her in a convent school. Other Jews followed as word spread of the family’s kindness. Later Szymanska became involved with the Zegota resistance group, eventually suffering torture and then imprisonment at Ravensbruck.

Graffiti in Czechoslovakia c. 1940: 'The Jew is Our Enemy'
Graffiti in Czechoslovakia c. 1940: "The Jew is
Our Enemy." From To Save a Life.

Land-Weber’s inclusion of multiple and overlapping stories offers a subtle understanding of the ambiguous relationships between rescuers and rescued. After surviving the Nazi genocide as a cook in a school, Olga Lilien stayed in the village of Tarnobrzeg, working as a pediatrician until her death at age 92 in 1996. She remembered the villagers’ refusal—despite their own hardship—to betray her to the Germans. On the other hand, Rachel Litowicz recalled the residents of Sandomierz and other Poles were hostile to Jews. Litowicz also recounted her brief and unhappy return to Sandomierz after the war when she encountered continued antisemitism. The Szymanskas, she concluded, were "angels" and "aristocrats," but "the rest are [emphasis added] not like that."

Some rescuers and rescued Jews never developed cordial relationships. Bert Bochove hid a wealthy German Jewish banker, but "the big, self-confident man" irritated others and had to be moved to another hiding place over a grocery store. Here he would have suffered starvation at the hands of his Christian keepers if not for the sandwiches he received from Bochove. One teenaged boy rescued by Tina Strobos irritated his hosts with his rebelliousness and foot odor! Barbara Szymanska once harbored a girl named Sophie. After the war she later learned Sophie was living near her in Canada. She sent a letter, but Sophie wrote back dismissing the rescue work and refusing to pay any (unrequested) reward money!

Bert Bochove's store and home, Huizen, 1942.
Bert Bochove's store and home, Huizen, 1942.
From To Save a Life.

Unfortunately the absence of narrative or analytical structure in the CD-ROM leaves the user without a clear interpretation of rescuers and their efforts. In a rare instance of analysis by a rescuer, Bochove, who operated a pharmacy in Huizen, Holland, noted that dozens of Jews were hidden by several families in his town. Why? Bochove believed that his neighbors were close to Amsterdam and consequentially had long had "a kind of relationship" with Jews. In addition, "there was the quality of the people—the most stubborn in their hate against the Nazis—and their orthodox beliefs that the Jews were God’s chosen people. They took the Bible literally." On the other hand, Bochove was not motivated by religion but a largely unexamined moral imperative to help one friend. Afterward he could not reject others, even strangers, who asked for help. His stressful and demanding work cost him his health and accelerated his wife’s demise. Bochove’s unusually reflective story echoes the findings of historians working on Le Chambon, France and other communities which rescued Jews.

The memorial at Sandomierz, constructed of vandalized Jewish headstones, 1987.
The memorial at Sandomierz,
constructed of vandalized
Jewish headstones, 1987.
From To Save a Life.

Ellen Land-Weber credits her colleagues Professors Samuel and Pearl Oliner with inspiring To Save a Life. Working as an interviewer with the Oliners on The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (1988), Land-Weber became interested in the psyche of individual rescuers. She states that her motivation for the project was to provide "an example for others, for they prove that it is possible for ordinary people to make a difference, to act for social justice in an imperfect world." Unfortunately historians and other scholars may find the work has shortcomings. It presents the interviews largely without comment and does not consider the problematic nature of oral history. In addition, it rarely provides narrative or interpretative guidance. Consequently, there is little sense of the conflicted nature of Holocaust interpretations (as evidenced by the Goldhagen controversy) or the highly ambiguous nature of human virtue. Moreover, the material is only minimally contextualized with links to brief descriptions of the countries, sites, and conditions where rescuers worked. To Save a Life offers engrossing stories and powerful visuals that commemorate the heroism of rescuers and rescued but it should not be substituted for equally accessible but more interpretative works such as Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men or the films Hotel Terminus and Weapons of the Spirit.


Neal R. McGrillis
Columbus State University (Columbus, GA)

 

~ End ~

CD-ROM Review of To Save a Life: Stories of Jewish Rescue
Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History


Comments to: jmmh@csc.albany.edu

Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 Fall 1998