This story was updated on Nov. 8, 2019 to correct some factual errors.
Heroes can have different faces. They can be teachers, diplomats, families that live routine lives until extreme circumstances force them to make significant choices.
This is the main takeaway from "Rescuers," an exhibition that just opened at the JCC Levis Sandler Center in Boca Raton. It explores the stories of individuals who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Through hundreds of interviews and poignant intimate photographs, photographer Gay Block and writer Malka Drucker shine a light on people from across Europe who risked their lives to save thousands of Jews over the course of the 1930s and 40s.
“There was a fear that the stories might “whitewash” the Holocaust so to speak. So no one had told their stories,” said Gay Block.
The project became a book and traveling exhibition. It debuted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1992 and traveled to 50 cities across the U.S. over the next 11 years. Block spoke with Luis Hernandez on Sundial about why they decided to bring the exhibition back nearly 30 years after it first opened.
WLRN: The origin story for this project is fascinating. Your partner and writer on the project, Malka Drucker, was connected with several rescuers in Los Angeles. Were there other stories of rescuers at the time even being discussed in the mainstream media? Was anybody talking about these people?
BLOCK: They weren't. Our rabbi, Harold Schulweiss, asked us to do something about it because for 25 years he had tried to get people to pay attention to those who had tried to help the Jews during that time. And I said, 'Are they still alive? Can I meet them?' And he said, 'Yes, there are some right here in Los Angeles,' which is where we all were.
And so we began with a Polish woman who was visiting someone she had saved in Warsaw. And we did the first interview and I just thought, 'These are amazing people. I could be privileged enough to sit in front of them and talk to them about what in the world made them realize they could do such a thing, rescue Jews at the risk of their own lives.'
There are so many stories, so I picked out a few. There was one about a secondary school teacher in Belgium, Andre Herskovichi. She rescued Jewish children. First of all, how did she start doing that? How did that story unfold?
She noticed as a teacher that there were children disappearing from her class. There were half gone in many of her classes. And she asked, 'Where are they going? Who are they?' And she found out they were Jewish children who could no longer safely go to school. And so she began placing these Jewish children in Christian homes because they were in danger. And she placed over a thousand Jewish children in Brussels.
Were there ever moments when she was at risk because maybe a student saw what she was doing or somebody saw what she was doing that could have turned out wrong?
We asked her about that and it's in the video that I made about them. She said, 'You're doing something, you know you have to do. And that's right. Fear is in the background. '
Jan Karski was another fascinating story. He was a Polish spy. He skied across Slovakia into Hungary for a mission. He was captured by German soldiers, then rescued by the Polish resistance. How did Karski get involved in the effort to save Jews?
He was a representative of the Polish Underground. He just looked around for what could he do. He knew that what was happening was a terrible thing. And so he was asked by some Jews to go into the Warsaw Ghetto and see what was happening. And so that he could then take the news, because he was an emisary of the Polish underground and could do this, to England and to the United States. And he subsequently met with Anthony Eden who was then foriegn minister and then he met with President Roosevelt. And Roosevelt said to him, 'We're going to win the war Karski.' But he was non-commital about saving the Jews. That was his answer.
And so because Karski was so discouraged by the answers he got, he was asking for help. He stayed in this country and traveled all around writing a book called "Story of a Secret State" and giving lectures all over the country about what was happening in Europe. Because people didn't really know.
Note: We received an email from Bozena U Zaremba, project manager for the Jan Karski Educational Foundation after the publication of the story. She provided updated information about Mr. Karski's life to correct mis-statements from Mrs. Block. After fact checking, WLRN made the corrections that were necessary, including mentioning the country was Slovakia not Slovenia and Anthony Eden was Minister of Foreign Affairs and then became Prime Minister.