Guest Post by Meaghan Good.
Anyone who knows anything about World War II and the Holocaust knows helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe was a big no-no and had serious consequences. Hiding Jews was theoretically punishable by death.
In practice, however, many of the would-be rescuers were simply sent to prison or a concentration camp.
Corrie Ten Boom and her family were hiding ten Jewish people when they were arrested in February 1944. The family was sent to prison where her father died, but most of her relatives were released within a short time period. Corrie and her sister Betsie were ultimately sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. Betsie died as a result of the harsh camp conditions, but Corrie survived and was released in December 1944. She spent less than a year in confinement for her “crime” of helping Jews.
Several people helped Anne Frank‘s family and others hide for more than two years. Most of those who helped her group did time in concentration camps as a result. None of them were executed; in fact, one of them wasn’t even arrested.
The further east one went, however, the worse the punishments became. In Russia and the Ukraine, execution was virtually certain for anyone caught hiding Jews.
Poland was another story altogether.
In Poland, helping Jews in any fashion, no matter how small, was a death penalty offense. Even tossing a crust of bread over the ghetto fence could get you shot, never mind actively trying to save someone. Nowhere else in Nazi Europe were the punishments so draconian.
Furthermore, often it was not only your life but the lives of your family and very possibly your entire village or apartment building, depending on the whim of the executioners. The executions were usually public and victims were often tortured and killed in horrific ways.
Take the example of the Ulma family in Markowa, Poland:
In the night of 23-24 March 1944 German police came to Markowa… They found the Jews on the Ulma farm and shot them to death. Afterwards they murdered the entire Ulma family – Jozef, Wiktoria, who was seven month pregnant, and their six small children – Stanislawa, Barbara, Wladyslawa, Franciszka, Maria, and Antoni. The eldest of the Ulma’s children had just begun to attend classes in primary school.
The villagers in Markowa got off lightly; the Nazis could have decided to exact reprisals against the Ulmas’ neighbors.
In Bialka in east central Poland, near the border of Belarus, some person or persons was hiding a Jewish woman and assisting Jewish partisans. Nothing further is known about these individuals. What we do know is that the Nazis found out in the winter of 1942. They came to the village on December 7 and decided that, in addition to the actual offender(s) and the Jewish woman they were sheltering, 100 men from the village had to die.
To put that number in perspective, Bialka’s current population is 280.
The shooting occurred near the local school in town. According to the book Martyrs of Charity, a study of Righteous Gentiles from Poland, there were six survivors. Once the gunfire ceased, they crawled out from under the bodies of the dead. Dozens of families had been devastated and, by the looks of it, some were nearly wiped out.
Collective responsibility, everyone.
In spite of this brutal policy and the blood spilled because of it, Yad Vashem lists more Righteous Gentiles from Poland than from any other country. Given the situation, the question one has to ask is not why the Polish rescuers were so few in number, but why there were so many.
No one was ever brought to justice for the carnage that occurred in Bialka on this day.
[Image at the top of this page: the Google Earth view of the forest near where the Bialka massacre took place. Special thanks to Meaghan Good for contributing this article.]