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Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland

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Judenjagd, hunt for the Jews, was the German term for the organized searches for Jews who, having survived ghetto liquidations and deportations to death camps in Poland in 1942, attempted to hide "on the Aryan side." Jan Grabowski's penetrating microhistory tells the story of the Judenjagd in Dabrowa Tarnowska, a rural county in southeastern Poland, where the majority of the Jews in hiding perished as a consequence of betrayal by their Polish neighbors. Drawing on materials from Polish, Jewish, and German sources created during and after the war, Grabowski documents the involvement of the local Polish population in the process of detecting and killing the Jews who sought their aid. Through detailed reconstruction of events, this close-up account of the fates of individual Jews casts a bright light on a little-known aspect of the Holocaust in Poland.

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1 Dąbrowa Tarnowska

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Writing about the extermination of Jews in the small Galician town of Buczacz, Omer Bartov raised an important question: “Genocide would have been much harder to accomplish, and its success much less complete, had the Germans not found so many collaborators willing, even eager, to do the killing, the hunting down, the brutalizing, and the plundering. Conversely, hardly any of the handful of Jews who lived to tell the tale would have survived had it not been for those Ukrainians and Poles who gave them food or shelter, even if at times they charged them for the service and not infrequently drove them out or denounced them once the Jews’ resources ran out.”1 In order to understand the genocide, Bartov argued, we need to reconstruct the events from bottom up, from the local level, from the level of single murders, all the way to the planners of the Endlösung. An analysis of the situation in one chosen area, such as a single county in occupied Poland can, it is hoped, bring us closer to this goal.2

 

2 Jews and Poles in Dąbrowa Tarnowska before 1939

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Seen through the lens of its ethnic composition, there was little to distinguish Dąbrowa Tarnowska County from other rural areas of Poland. Shortly before the war, local Jews made up 8 percent of the total population, or slightly less than the national average of 10 percent. The majority of Jews in the county lived in Dąbrowa, but nearly two thousand others dwelled in nearby villages, and their lifestyle differed little from that of the Polish peasants. In Galicia—the southern part of Poland that for more than a century found itself under Austrian rule—Jews could buy land and farm. This, in turn, resulted in the existence of a large group of Jewish farmers, a phenomenon unknown in other areas of Poland, which until 1918 were part of the Russian Empire.1 In the rest of Poland, even though the percentage of the Jewish population was significantly higher, Jews were concentrated heavily in cities, towns, and shtetls. Consequently, their contacts with non-Jews were limited to commercial dealings and to the exchange of services.

 

3 First Years of Occupation

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Although the fate of Dąbrowa’s Jews during the first years of the war goes beyond the scope of this study, we cannot leave this topic without at least a brief overview.1 The occupation of Dąbrowa County started on Friday, September 8, 1939. At first, the responsibility for the area lay in the hands of the Wehrmacht, but civil administration took over from the army as soon as October 26, 1939. Dąbrowa Tarnowska was incorporated into the Tarnów Region (Kreishauptmannschaft Tarnów).2 Dąbrowa Tarnowska County was abolished and in its place the Germans created the so-called Local Office of the Commissioner (Landkomissariat), responsible to the Tarnów authorities. A Dr. Kern was appointed the first local commissioner of Dąbrowa, and in 1941 he was succeeded by a Dr. Strahler. In the late fall of 1939, most of the regular German troops left the Tarnów region, leaving control over the local population in the hands of the Volksdeutsche and the police. With time, the Special Service (Sonderdienst—a paramilitary organization created in May 1940 by Governor General Hans Frank), made up of ethnic Germans, gained much influence.3 A detachment of Dąbrowa gendarmerie, composed of twelve gendarmes and led by Lieutenant Rudolf Landgraf,4 found a home in the building of a former high school. Landgraf was also in charge of the Polish “blue” police of the Landkomissariat Dąbrowa. The detachments of Polish “blue” police were located in the town of Dąbrowa Tarnowska and in larger villages such as Otfinów, Radgoszcz, Szczucin, Mędrzychów, Bolesław, and Wietrzychowice. Typically, every rural detachment would have a complement of six “blue” policemen, sometimes reinforced by a German gendarme, who would issue orders to his Polish underlings. At the end of 1943, with the growing threat of partisan attacks, smaller police outposts were abandoned and their personnel consolidated in central locations.5 In addition to Polish police and German gendarmes, Dąbrowa County was sometimes raided by Gestapo agents and Polish plainclothes officers (Kripo) from nearby Tarnów.6 In mid-1944, the rapidly advancing Soviet forces halted their offensive east of the Vistula River, at the very borders of Dąbrowa County. While neighboring Mielec County was liberated in July 1944, Dąbrowa remained under German occupation until mid-January 1945. During that time, the entire county became a staging area for frontline troops and a place of massive concentration of German forces, including two divisions of Waffen-SS. This, in turn, had immediate and disastrous consequences for the last remaining Jews, who, until then, had managed to survive in hiding.

 

4 The Destruction of Dąbrowa Tarnowska

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The extermination of Jews of Dąbrowa Tarnowska, Tarnów, and other cities and towns of the Kraków District was directly linked to the opening of the Bełżec extermination camp, in March 1942. Although the Jews of Lublin and of Lwów (Lemberg, Lviv) were among the first victims of Bełżec, the transports from the Kraków District soon followed. During the summer and fall of 1942, when the camp reached its “full capacity,” the gas chambers of Bełżec claimed the lives of up to four thousand people each day. The first Aktion in Kraków took place in March 1942, when more than 1,500 people were selected from the lists requested by the Germans, and prepared in advance by the Ordnungsdienst—the Jewish police.1 The main liquidation action started on May 30th and lasted until June 8, 1942.2 The news about the Aktion in Kraków quickly reached Dąbrowa Tarnowska, although no one was certain about the exact fate of the deportees. Some thought that liquidations were similar to previous sweeps that had been organized from time to time by the Germans, to send Jews to labor camps. A Mr. Fertig, living in Mędrzechów, wrote to the Jewish Self-Help (ŻSS) headquarters in order to find out “what happened to my brother, and which labor camp he might have been sent to.”3 The destruction of the Jews of Tarnów and Rzeszów came at the heels of the liquidation in Kraków. In Rzeszów, on June 10, 1942, the German authorities imposed a 1 million zloty levy on the Jewish community. Similar levies were requested of Jews in Tarnów. On June 19th, the Germans ordered that the Jews immediately pay all due taxes and bills, as well as outstanding bank loans and debts to Aryan creditors.4 On June 25th, Jews living in the city were requested to fill in registration forms and in case of noncompliance offenders were threatened with an automatic penalty of death. The Aktion started on July 6th. A similar scheme was repeated throughout the region, in all other ghettos. Once the liquidations of smaller ghettos of the Kraków District had been completed, the Germans moved on to the next stage and created several so-called “secondary ghettos” (Restghetto) in Kraków, Bochnia, Tarnów, Rzeszów, and Przemyśl.5 The Restghettos had a twofold purpose: first, to defuse the state of panic and to offer a glimmer of hope to Jews still surviving in the ghettos, and second, to persuade the Jews who had fled to leave their hideouts and shelters, and to return to “permanent” ghettos, in order to legalize their existence. For many, especially for those without sufficient financial resources, hiding outside the ghetto was not a long-term option. Some Jews, left with no choice, as they were living in the hideouts in local villages in constant fear of denunciation and death, returned to the secondary ghettos to await their fate.6

 

5 Judenjagd—Hunt for the Jews

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“In the year 1942, in the month of September,
we started hiding from the Germans, because
there was a strong deportation.”1

One should start with the numbers: from among 5,500–6,000 Jews who lived in Dąbrowa County prior to the “liquidation actions,” only 150–200 survived the war. The largest group (less than 100 people) survived in the Soviet Union; some of them returned to Poland after 1945, and registered in the Tarnów or Kraków offices of the Central Committee of Polish Jews. Others came back, stayed for a while, and fled westward, leaving neither a trace in the local documentation nor an imprint in the memory of the local people. Estimates regarding the number of Jews who survived the war hiding in Dąbrowa Tarnowska County vary. According to the most optimistic scenarios, which stress the universality of the “helping-hand” phenomenon among the Poles, more than 100 Jews survived the war in hiding, on the territory of the county. More prudent assessments talk about 50–60 survivors, hidden in more than thirty hideouts spread throughout the area. Shortly after the war, the Dąbrowa Tarnowska chapter of the Central Committee of Polish Jews (CKŻP) created several lists of survivors who arrived in the city. The lists (see table 9 annexed at the end of this book) include 110 names of people who survived the war either in concentration camps, in bunkers and hideouts, or in the Soviet Union. Although useful, these lists also raise several doubts: they include people who came to Dąbrowa after the war, but who originally hailed from other areas; they fail to specify where the Jewish hideouts and bunkers were located; and they seriously underestimate the number of Dąbrowa Jews who survived in the Soviet Union and returned to Poland only after the lists had been drawn up. It is therefore doubtful whether one can simply accept, or reject, any of the scenarios and numbers above (the margin of error and the dearth of sources being simply too great an obstacle), but the evidence gathered for this study will allow us to place the data on a firm footing and to build on previous findings.

 

6 Rural Society and the Jews in Hiding

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The desperate struggle for survival undertaken in 1942 by the Jews of Dąbrowa County collided with a complicated, but deadly efficient, system based in part on old, prewar traditions, and in part on mechanisms, structures, and institutions introduced by the Germans. There is no doubt that the great majority of Jews in hiding perished as a consequence of betrayal. They were denounced, or simply seized, tied up, and delivered by the locals to the nearest station of the Polish police, or to the German gendarmerie. In this context, an important role was performed by the structures of local self-government and rural self-defense, which coordinated the collective activities of these rural communities. At the level of a commune (gmina)1 the authority usually resided in the office of a voit (wójt), an official appointed by the head of the district (starosta). After the September 1939 collapse of the Polish state, some of the voits were removed by the Germans and replaced with people (often local ethnic Germans—the Volksdeutsche) seen as loyal to the new occupation authorities. Nevertheless, as late as January 1944 more than one half of all voits in the Kraków District were Poles.2 From the German standpoint, the voits’ main task was to mobilize Polish agriculture and Polish peasants for the wartime needs of the economy of the Reich. First, each village had its fixed quota of products, grains, and livestock that had to be delivered to the state, or sold at regulated (i.e., derisory) prices. Second, the voits were responsible for finding volunteers to go to work in Germany. After 1940, volunteers became scarce, and people were taken to Germany by force. Thevoits were also required to inform the population about all new German regulations, and regularly held meetings with Kreishauptmänner (chiefs of regions), who communicated directives coming from Kraków, the capital of the Generalgouvernement. There was even a bilingual Polish–German “Bulletin” that carried detailed instructions for the voits. The voits later conveyed these orders to the village elders (sołtysi), who headed the lower level of rural self-government. In prewar Poland, the elders were chosen under public scrutiny and, most often, the elected individuals commanded respect among their peers. In some cases, elders were chosen in general village elections; elsewhere, the commune representatives cast the ballots.3 During the war, elders were told by the Germans to continue their mandates; attempts to quit the job were considered acts of sabotage.4 According to Jan T. Gross, “except when they wanted to promote ambitious new Volksdeutsche, the Germans would usually leave the old sołtys in his post, and he was smart enough to become aware that many candidates were eager to take his place. Therefore, he made sure that his performance satisfied the Germans.”5 At the same time, the elders received new powers, raising concerns among the peasants. A resident of the village of Kozłów noted in his memoir: “Occupation. The worst plague is our degenerated Poles, if one can call them Poles at all. . . . Once the Germans introduced the death penalty for insulting or assaulting an elder, the latter lost contact with their constituents. . . . When this regulation was announced from the church pulpits, the elders became virtual dictators.”6 The elders were thus placed in a very difficult situation, and their loyalties were clearly divided between their own community and the German masters. “First, local government officials were totally visible to the Germans and fully replaceable, as no special skills were needed to run a rural hamlet. They could not disappear and hide, except in the forests, leaving behind family and possessions. They were therefore totally dependent on the mercy of the local German gendarmerie and administration officials. Second, the only tasks assigned to local administrators involved exploiting the local population rather than rendering any service. They were only the last tool in the German system of imposing and collecting quotas of various articles from the Poles”—wrote Gross.7

 

7 In the Dulcza Forest

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On the eastern border of Dąbrowa County, a few miles east of Radgoszcz, there is a large wooded area, called by the locals the Dulcza forest. The name derives from two nearby villages—Little and Large Dulcza. Both hamlets are located on the territory of Mielec County (Radomyśl Wielki commune), so the victims from this area have been excluded from the counts of Jews detected and killed in Dąbrowa County. It stands to reason, however, that we should take a closer look at the situations of Jews who sought shelter in this large forest, immediately adjacent to, and partially extending into, the county of our interest—especially since many of the Jews hidden in the Dulcza forest came from Dąbrowa or from Radgoszcz, and their strategies of survival differed greatly from the experiences of people hiding in villages or in the open. The unique conditions in the forest allowed the Jewish refugees to create something akin to a family camp, known from the territories further east (such as Belorussia or the Ukraine) but practically unknown anywhere else in central Poland. We have eight testimonies that describe the living conditions of Jews hidden in the Dulcza forest. These accounts were filed shortly after the war by survivors (two small children, one fourteen-year-old boy, and three women) with the regional Jewish Historical Commissions in Tarnów and Kraków, and two (given by the same people who testified after the war) were recorded during the 1990s for the Visual History Foundation.

 

8 The German Police

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The Polish and Jewish accounts from Dąbrowa County very frequently refer to the fact that “the Gestapo arrived from Tarnów, and took the Jews away.”1 This “arrival” was associated with arrests, beatings, executions, and other actions of individual and mass terror. It makes sense, therefore, to inquire into the identity of the officers of the Tarnów Gestapo, who visited Dąbrowa, terrorized the local population, and directly contributed to the deaths of many Jews hiding in the area.

The energetic expansion of police and security forces in Tarnów (described by Germans as a “city of many challenges”) started as early as late 1939. The local police forces were made of the Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei; SIPO), which included the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) or the secret state police, which dealt with “political” and Jewish issues (Jewish matters were in the hands of Department IVB4, usually referred to as the Judenreferat), and of the Ordnungspolizei (Orpo) or Order Police. The Tarnów Gestapo was located at 18 Urszulańska Street, in two neighboring houses. The Gestapo investigated Polish underground organizations, espionage, and all other activities that—in the eyes of the Germans—constituted a threat to the “vital interests of the German nation.”2 The investigations, conducted in Germany in the 1960s, allow us to recreate a fairly complete list of the agents of the Tarnów SIPO (Sicherheitspolizeiaussendienststelle) detachment.3 The local Gestapo was headed by SS-Untersturmführer Josef Palten.4 Among the most important agents of the Tarnów Judenreferat one can list SS-Oberscharführer Gerhard Grunow, whose job description was “specialist in Jewish issues” (Judensachbearbeiter), Walter Baach, Hubert Schachner, Karl Oppermann, Ernst Hufer, and Otto von Malottki, the latter known for his cruelty.5 Otto Jeck, Nowak, and Nicolaus Ilkiw worked as translators for the Tarnów Gestapo. Ilkiw was born in Borysław, Nowak came from the former Czechoslovak Republic, and Jeck hailed from nearby Mielec. All three translated and tortured their victims at the same time. Jeck (unsuccessfully sought by the Bochum police until the 1980s) and Nowak were later promoted from simple interpreters to regular Gestapo agents (Kriminalangestellte). Other agents deeply involved in “Jewish matters” included Josef Kastura, SS-Oberscharführer Hermann Blache, and the cruel murderer Wilhelm Rommelman.6 Blache, jokingly referred to by his friends as the “Jewish King” (König der Juden), would bring his seventeen-year-old son, to work, and would teach him how to shoot the Jewish captives.7 And Karl Oppermann (an avid hunter, who served after the war as a tax inspector in Karlsruhe) was often seen strolling the city in hunting attire, shooting Jews with his carbine.8 Later, under investigation in Germany, Oppermann claimed that he had had no time for any anti-Jewish activities because he was very busy fighting the Polish resistance. The court, however, gave little credence to his statements and, in 1969, sentenced him to life in prison. At one point, under investigation, Oppermann insisted that: “As a specialist in the struggle against espionage, which was primarily linked with sabotage, I had nothing to do with the shootings of Jews.” In response to the question: “Mr. Oppermann, and what were you doing in Tarnów, when you had some time on your hands?” he answered, “By and large I had very little free time, but whenever I had a moment, I was happy to go hunting.”9 One might add that the Jews also referred to their German tormentors as hunters. Chaja Rosenblatt described how “sometimes [before the liquidation of Radomyśl] a small group of Gestapo agents descended on the town, caught and executed several Jews, and then rushed back to Mielec, as if returning from a hunting expedition.”10 The Jewish witness described here the actions of the Mielec Gestapo, but the methods employed by the police authorities in these two bordering counties were very much alike.

 

9 The Polish “Blue” Police

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“So he told me to get him a glass of vodka,
because they had a Jew who needed to be shot,
and shooting without vodka is no good.”1

The table of murders (table 5.2) indicates that an important and, as it seems, largely unknown role in the hunting down and killing of Jewish refugees between 1942 and 1945 was performed by the Polish “blue” police. The only book that takes up the topic of the history of the “blue” police, surprising as it may seem, fails even to mention this problem.2 Nevertheless, the deadly efficiency of the Polish “blue” police operating in Dąbrowa Tarnowska County at least matched that of their colleagues, the German gendarmes. Although our analysis concerns only one county, there is no reason to think that the activities of Polish policemen from Dąbrowa differed from the working habits of their counterparts from other rural areas of occupied Poland with similar ethnic composition. Detachments of Polish and German police were spread throughout the county. Some of them were closed after 1942 (when the security situation deteriorated considerably) but other, reinforced, stations lasted until the end of the occupation. As noted, police stations were located in all larger villages, and definitely in the administrative centers of the communes (gminy) of the county.

 

10 The Baudienst

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German police, the “eastern allies” in German service, Polish “blue” police, and voluntary firefighters—all were involved in the liquidation of the Tarnów-area ghettos. Another organization that took part in this stage of the Judenjagd was the Construction Service (Baudienst). The Baudienst, a paramilitary organization for Polish youth, was created by the Germans in May 1940 and initially covered only the Kraków District. On December 1, 1940, their activities were extended to other districts of occupied Poland. From the very beginning, however, the Baudienst was most active in the Kraków District. Elsewhere it showed few signs of life, and in the Warsaw District the Baudienst was never formed at all. Specialists paid little attention to this organization and, consequently, references to the Baudienst are practically absent from the historical writing.1 Before we move on to describe the role of the Baudienst youths (the “yunaki”) in the implementation of the “Final Solution,” at least some information about the Tarnów section of this organization is called for.

 

11 The Last Months of War

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In July 1944, the units of Marshall Koniev’s 1st Ukrainian Front reached the borders of Dąbrowa Tarnowska County. And here they halted their advance—until the winter offensive that began on the night of January 12/13, 1945. The front stabilized on the Baranów–Radgoszcz–Jastrząbka line. Radomyśl Wielki was captured by the Red Army, but the Germans still held the Dulcza forest. The trench lines ran no further than a few hundred yards from the bunkers and hideouts of the last Jewish survivors. The 15th Soviet army corps dug in on one side of the Vistula, while the German units belonging to the 59th and 11th SS corps faced them from across the river.1 For the few remaining Jews who had survived through two-and-a-half years of despair, these last months of war proved to be the final test of endurance. On the one hand, many wanted to leave the bunkers. Last reserves were gone or running out, the front was so close, and visible signs of panic among the Germans indicated the imminent end of the Nazi occupation. On the other hand, the Polish rescuers, who until now had sheltered Jews, were more and more afraid of the ever-increasing risks, and wanted their charges gone. Some of them, even the most courageous ones, decided that the every-day risk was simply more than they, and their families, could bear.

 

12 Different Kinds of Help

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“And a man knocked on my door and said,
‘Well grandma, give us your Jews.’”1

The available archival evidence suggests that there were at least fifty-one Jews who managed to survive the war in hiding on the territory of Dąbrowa Tarnowska County (see tables 8 and 9 in the appendix), while 286 others died in various circumstances described in earlier chapters. One striking observation, beyond noting the shocking proportion of those who lived compared to those who perished, is that until a certain moment most of the victims had received some form of help from Poles. This phenomenon is related to the largely unexplored, underreported, and numerically significant phenomenon of those who saved Jews for money.2

It is also worth noting that the studies about gentiles helping Jews have been dominated by sociologists and psychologists. Historians, scared away by the apparent lack of archival data, have given wide berth to this line of investigation.3 This, in turn, has had important methodological repercussions. While historians base their conclusions mostly on written evidence, sociologists and psychologists in the majority of cases have relied on interviews with gentile rescuers, or with Jewish survivors who had been saved by the Righteous. Naturally, this particular research method has helped to shed light on altruistic, selfless help. Consequently, people who helped for financial reasons were largely left out of these accounts. According to Nechama Tec, author of one of the first and most interesting studies devoted to the wartime rescue of Jews, this profit-oriented help could account for no more than 16 percent of all registered cases.4 To stress further the uniqueness of this “help-for-profit” phenomenon, Tec placed these “unusual” cases in a separate chapter aptly titled “Exceptions: Paid and Anti-Semitic Helpers.” Other specialists and students of the subject either followed Tec’s lead, or arrived at similar conclusions in the course of their own research.5 Bob Moore, studying the issue of help in Western Europe, became aware of this methodological problem and wrote: “Instructive in their own right, these are nonetheless essentially individual narratives and inevitably reflect the testimonies of survivors rather than those who fell victim to Nazi persecution.”6 In the light of historical studies based on postwar court records, the estimates of rescue patterns have to be thoroughly reconsidered and revised. Rather than being a marginal phenomenon, paid help looms as an issue of fundamental importance for our understanding of the tragedy of Jews seeking help at the time of the Shoah. At the same time, altruistic motivations, so strongly stressed by the rescued and by their Righteous helpers, took a back seat to the most frequently offered and financially motivated assistance, the mainstay of the “help industry.”

 

13 The Righteous

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The most optimistic scenarios of help and rescue were, for the most part, inspired by the antisemitic campaign that swept through Poland in 1968. The Communist Party, eager to deflect the worldwide condemnation that followed the expulsion from Poland of the last Jewish survivors and their families, encouraged studies that painted a rosy picture of wartime Polish–Jewish relations and stressed the universality of the “helping phenomenon” in Polish society. What these studies and articles have in common (other than their obvious propaganda value) is an absence of credible historical evidence and a basic lack of intellectual rigor. However, the archival evidence used in this book as well as the oral testimonies of survivors allow us to verify and correct such assumptions. It is time to discuss specific people and to track down as many names as the evidence allows.

Table 7 (in the appendix to this book) lists the names of fifty-one survivors whose fates are reported in the archival evidence selected for this study. The total number of victims (and of survivors) of the Judenjagd is, most certainly, much higher than it would appear from the data included in the table. Not that this changes anything for the meaning of the presented evidence. Out of the fifty-one Jews who survived the war hidden on the territory of Dąbrowa Tarnowska County, twenty-seven owed their lives to selfless, altruistic help offered by their gentile hosts. In fourteen cases we lack precise information about the nature of received assistance, and ten people survived by paying their hosts throughout the war, or survived due to their own efforts and entrepreneurship, without any significant outside help. In other words, more than half of all survivors from the studied area made it through the war thanks to the altruistic assistance provided by their gentile hosts. This number is more or less in line with the conclusions of Nechama Tec and other authors, who inquired into the issue of gentiles helping the Jews during the war and whose studies were based on interviews with survivors and with their righteous rescuers.1

 

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