Wanted: Guardian Angels. Unlikely heroes. Dangerous rescues. No experience necessary.
In 1933, the world desperately needed an army of guardian angels to rescue the nine million Jewish people and other so-called “undesirables” that Nazi Germany had deemed “life unworthy of life.” Though there was never an ad recruiting rescuers, thousands of people responded to individual calls for help from their Jewish neighbors. These guardian angels were ordinary citizens; they were shopkeepers, janitors, married couples, widows, children, clergy and factory owners. The phenomenon is that these 22,211 men and women did not set out to rescue anyone. They just did. They did not see themselves as heroes. They just were. They did not necessarily seek out the people whose lives depended on them; they found each other. These people reached beyond themselves in what was for them a natural extension of their lives. They were not only saving another life; they were saving their own. Raised in a Christian family, I grew up singing one particular hymn in church: “One bread, one body. We are one body in this one Lord,” which reflects the mindset of the holocaust rescuers. What is extraordinary about these ordinary people is that they chose to rescue their Jewish neighbors despite the perils of the unwritten job description of guardian angel / rescuer.
Job Description: Must be willing to risk life and limb. Look beyond self preservation. High risk of arrest, death penalty for self and family, denunciation by neighbors and friends. No guaranteed pay.
No one would have applied for this job, and yet thousands of rescuers assumed these life-threatening risks to do what they believed to be the right thing. A factory owner bought the freedom of hundreds of Jewish people by getting Nazis to agree to let him purchase Jewish workers from concentration camps. A janitor saved the lives of ten Jewish people by hiding them in his cellar. A Japanese diplomat secretly created travel visas for Jewish people so that they could safely cross the Soviet Union. A monk forged false papers that helped Jews flee ghettos. A Polish woman rescued babies abandoned by a fence of a Jewish convent, adopting them as her own.
Why would these rescuers risk their own lives and the lives of their family members for people they may not have even known? It might be that saving someone else’s life was a natural extension of their own lives. Maybe it did not require any thought it all; in their minds it might have been the only acceptable choice. Maybe these people had a personal understanding of what it was like to desperately need rescue. Eva Fogelman, psychotherapist and daughter of a holocaust survivor explains that this extraordinary psyche stems from a childhood where many rescuers experienced separation, illness and loss, all combined with a nurturing caregiver. This combination, Fogelman explains, would make the individual more empathetic to the suffering of others. At some point in their lives, these people had been rescued by guardian angels, and so, in turn, they became rescuers.
It is unlikely we will ever see a want ad for a guardian angel or read a job description for a rescuer, but we will inevitably be aware of the need for rescuing people from injustices. Whether it is across the world in Darfur or in Afghanistan, or in our own communities among the homeless, the need for rescuers will always be present. We can only hope that we would answer this call as a natural response; to see others lives as an extension of our own. We can also hope that extraordinary rescues may be seen just as something ordinary people do. Would any of us be willing to become rescuers despite the risks? The answer is in the hope and inspiration that guardian angels before us and guardian angels among us have given us.
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