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Ninety minutes was all it took to condemn millions of innocent men, women and children to death at the infamous Wannsee Conference 70 years ago on Jan. 20, 1942. The meeting of high ranking Nazi thugs took place in Reinhard Heydrich’s elegant Berlin suburb villa. Their purpose was to discuss how to exterminate Jews in conquered territories and eventually all of European Jewry.
Adolf Eichmann, from the Reich Main Security Office, took the minutes. The others represented important Ministries needed to carry out Hitler’s ‘Final Solution”. Participants included Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller, Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart of the Ministry of the Interior, Dr. Roland Freisler of the Ministry of Justice, Wilhelm Kritzinger of the Reich Chancery, Drs. Meyer, and Georg Leibrandt of the Ministry of the Occupied Eastern territories, Erich Neumann from the Office of the Four Year Plan, Governor General Dr. Buhler, Gerhard Klopfer, Party Chancellery, and Dr. Martin Luther of the Foreign Ministry.
The Nazis at the Wannsee Conference were hardened anti-Semites. Concentration camps and gas vans were already in place. However, the people who guarded the camps, ran the trains, expelled Jews from their homes, and watched with indifference at people being marched away were citizens who had previously led normal lives. Was it the combination of an evil system and diabolical leadership that somehow elicited uncivilized behavior from civilized people?
Then there’s this. What led ordinary individuals to save whomever they could from Nazi barbarism in a socity gone mad? When we think about heroes, we think of people like Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler. Yet, they held a distinct advantage. The Nazis respected Wallenberg because he was a diplomat and they cooperated with Schindler because of his Nazi credentials.
Ordinary examples of goodness are harder to pinpoint because goodness is no less banal than evil. Incidents of evil are easier to identify than courageous examples of goodness. Thankfully, Rabbi Malka Drucker interviewed hundreds of the thousands of acknowledged rescuers throughout Europe. They gave testimony to the Holocaust’s reality and of ordinary people who did extraordinary things.
Consider Gitta Bauer who lived in Berlin. In her own words, “My aunt’s Jewish friend had a twin sister who came to me in 1944 and said that her daughter was in danger. What else could I say but ‘I’ll take her into my house’. We knew that it was dangerous, and we were careful.”
Sixteen-year-old Malka Csizmadia risked certain death for regularly sneaking food into the Hungarian town’s well-guarded ghetto.
Polish born Stefania Burzminski hid a Jewish man in her home while seeking safe houses for others despite signs all over the city which read, “Whoever helps Jews will be punished to death.”
John Weidner, a Dutch Seventh-day Adventist living in occupied France, didn’t wait to be asked. He organized an underground movement of some 300 Catholics and Protestants who managed to move a thousand Jews from house to house until they could be guided over the Alps to safety in Switzerland or Spain. Over time, the Gestapo penetrated Weidner’s resistance group. Some rescuers were killed on the spot, but the others carried on with greater determination. Weidner’s own sister was arrested and perished in a concentration camp.
In Marseilles, Father Marie Benoit, a Franciscan Capuchin priest, helped some 4,000 Jews escape to safe countries by providing them with false documents.
Presbyterian minister Peter Miedema and his wife Joyce, even under Gestapo surveillance, rescued Jewish children living in Holland and then found safe homes for them.
The anniversary of the Wannsee Conference provides a good reason to shiver at the memory of millions of innocent people murdered by Nazis. It’s also a good time to recall the courage of thousands of ordinary people who risked everything to do the right thing.
There is something particularly heroic about those ordinary people who thought more of righteousness and of opposing evil than they did of life itself!
Dr. Frank Mazzaglia
Weidner Foundation Board member
This article appeared in the MetroWest Daily News on January 15, 2012