For the past three years, Temple Beth Shalom has invited area high school students to compose an essay or poem as part of the community observance of the Holocaust.
This year’s theme is “Honoring the Rescuers: People Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust.” Students wrote about the qualities of a rescuer, imagining what they would do if they lived next door to a Jewish family during the Holocaust and what it would take to persuade them to be a rescuer.
Here is the winning essay, by Camille Byrd, a sophomore at Gonzaga Preparatory School. To read the three runners-up, go online to www.spokesman.com/tags/holocaust-essays.
Staring out the window, Nelly saw two choices ahead of her – do nothing and live, or she could save the lives of her Jewish neighbors. The family living next to Nelly consisted of two parents and one child. The child, barely 12, sat at his bedroom window, glum face pressed against the cold glass. Nelly’s heart beat faster.
Hitler’s invasion into Holland had forced poor living conditions upon the Jews. Decrees were sent out segregating Jews from other citizens. Nelly watched as the Jewish family living next door began to struggle as they were constantly mistreated. There is nothing I can do to help them, she assured herself, Hitler is too strong. I can’t make a difference.
Or maybe I can. Rumors had begun to spread about Jews being hidden in other non-Jewish homes. The Jewish family next door was desperate to flee, yet the new policies against Jews made it more than difficult to escape Holland.
Nelly tried to believe that these persecutions were for a better cause and that the Jews would not be seriously harmed. Her heart, however, saw the lies and screamed at her to save the family. Her mind told her to leave them. They were not her problem anyway; let others risk their lives for the sake of the Jews.
The sun began to set, creating dark shadows across the lawns between Nelly’s house and the Jewish home next door. Silently, Nelly made her way upstairs and to the attic. The attic was dark and stuffy. She flashed a light inside and saw several boxes full of old blankets, antiques, and other paraphernalia – just enough space for a family of three.
However, the attic was bare of simple luxuries other than an old sofa and mattress that had been worn through the years. Providing sufficient means of survival for her Jewish neighbors would be difficult. Nelly would have to sacrifice generous amounts of her own time and needs. Her meals would have to be smaller to help feed the family; she would need to find warmer clothes for them in the winter.
With her mind made up, Nelly dashed downstairs, crept out her back door and into her neighbor’s yard. I am Nelly, she reminded herself, and I am not one of Hitler’s blind followers.
The shadows of night concealed Nelly, making her nearly invisible. Stealing away to her neighbor’s back door, Nelly quietly knocked. What if I’m too late? What if the soldiers got here before I did? Her heart pounded and she became worried, and yet Nelly could not help feeling a small sense of relief; Nelly shook her head from guilt. A rustling sounded inside, and a large man with dark hair peeked through the door. Nelly sighed; they were still alive.
Heart pounding, Nelly whispered, “I want to help you. I have a place for you to hide in my house.” With suspicion etched on the man’s face, he opened the door wider and allowed her to slip inside. The man, Charley, was nervous about letting Nelly inside. If she worked for one of the soldiers, she may turn them in, but he did not have any time for doubt.
The house was dark inside, and three small bags already lay by the door. Charley had been planning to leave Holland that night, though he knew that getting past the soldiers would be near impossible. Nelly glanced at the small bags and the family’s dark faces. They would never make it away, Hitler’s army would find them if they tried to run.
Nelly noticed the pale mother and small boy sitting in the corner, their dark eyes pleading for her help. Nelly whispered, “I have enough room for three of you in my attic; it’s dark and not the most pleasant place, but it’s better than those camps the Nazis would send you to.”
Silence. The family stared at her in disbelief. “You’ll have to hurry though, and come before it gets light outside.” The mother smiled as a tear rolled down her cheek. Charley thanked her and told his family to grab their packed bags and to follow Nelly.
Nelly’s heart trembled. If she were caught hiding Jews in her attic the consequences would be horrible – possibly resulting in death. But she saw so much young life in the little boy, she couldn’t let him suffer.
For the next three years, Nelly worked hard to protect the Jewish family and keep them in hiding. She smuggled food, clothes, and small items to her attic as often as she could. Nelly risked much and was faced with the possibility of death for hiding Jews. Without Nelly, the family would have been taken away to one of the concentration camps. Diseases spread quickly through those camps, and many people sent there did not witness the end of the war.
How many of us today could say that we would be brave like Nelly and put the lives of others before our own? How often do we stand aside and watch others be ridiculed, not contributing directly, but not speaking up against it?
At school, work, home, and within the general public, we witness these situations more often than we tend to think. When we see someone being harassed or abused, we have the tendency to silently walk away – setting aside the burden of justice, and hoping that another passerby will have the courage to save him.
We let ourselves stand aside and listen, or even join in, as our own friends, or others, mock those seemingly different than ourselves. Finding the courage to fight for justice is difficult, but it is the ever-present challenge that we must choose to either overcome or succumb to.
The everyday heroes of the Holocaust were those brave enough to defy Hitler’s orders and save the lives of those being persecuted. They were able to put aside their own fears of persecution and sacrifice their own comfort for the sake of justice.
By hiding one family or young child from Hitler’s Nazis, these ordinary citizens offered hope to many others. Their bravery and courage will be remembered forever.
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