Silent Heroes: Resistance to Persecution of the Jews, 1933–1945

The Nazis’ assumption of power on January 30, 1933, marked the beginning of the ostracism, defamation, and disenfranchisement of the roughly 500,000 German Jews. The boycott of stores with Jewish proprietors, which began on April 1, 1933; the Nuremberg Race Laws of September 1935; and the pogroms of November 9, 1938: these were key stages in the persecution of Jews in Germany. More than 30,000 Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration camps following the pogroms in 1938. Laws and regulations further intensified this economic and social discrimination.

Many Jews, recognizing how dangerous life in Germany was becoming, prepared for emigration with language courses and vocational retraining. More than 300,000 Jews were able to flee Germany before the war began in the fall of 1939.

Around six million people were murdered in the course of the Nazi genocide of European Jewry that began in 1941. Most were shot or gassed to death. Among them were more than 160,000 German Jews. From October 1941 on, they were largely deported to extermination camps and other killing sites in German-occupied regions of Poland and the Soviet Union and murdered there

About 10,000 to 12,000 German Jews tried to escape this deadly threat. Because emigration was prohibited and virtually impossible even through illegal means, the only alternative was to flee underground—with a most uncertain outcome. Those who went “underground” or “into hiding” were resisting the dictatorship. Hiding places had to be found and frequently changed. There was always the danger of being denounced or discovered. Of those who evaded deportation, presumably more than half did so in Berlin. Many did not go into hiding until 1943, when all the remaining Jews—who had largely been performing forced labor in the armaments industry—were supposed to be deported. About 5,000 of those who went into hiding survived, more than 1,700 of them in Berlin.

The survival of Jews in hiding was usually only possible with the help of people willing to offer support. Putting themselves at risk, these “silent heroes” provided food, obtained forged identity cards, helped people escape, arranged lodgings, or hid people in their own homes. Some of the helpers offered life-saving support of their own accord. They urged Jewish friends not to let themselves be deported and promised to help them survive if they went into hiding. Others became rescuers when they were directly asked for support by Jews or other helpers. Ideological and political motives played as much a role as did spontaneous feelings of sympathy. These helpers were able to overcome fear for their own and their families’ safety, in particular their justified fear of the Gestapo.

In the course of attempts to save Jews, networks of helpers often developed. For every Jew who went into hiding, up to ten—and sometimes many more—non-Jewish supporters were involved, though many rescue operations nevertheless failed. Present estimates assume a total of several tens of thousands of people who helped Jews facing persecution in Germany. There were also individual Germans in the occupied countries of Europe who took advantage of their position as soldiers or in war industries to support Jews threatened with death. In view of the mass murder of European Jewry, saving individual Jews must be seen as part of the resistance to the Nazi dictatorship.

Throughout all of Europe there were people who opposed Nazi genocide by participating in rescue actions. Most of them remained silent after the war about the help they provided, which many of them saw as a matter of course. Their efforts were acknowledged only later. Up to 2015, the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem honored as Righteous Among the Nations more than 26,000 women and men for such aid efforts.

In Germany, the Silent Heroes Memorial Center is dedicated to commemorating those who escaped the mortal threat and those who helped them.