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I Survived by Pretending to be Polish Catholic

Nechama Tec, a survivor, shown in top photo, with her son, Roland. Both are the producers of the hit movie
Nechama Tec, a survivor, shown in top photo, with her son, Roland. Both are the producers of the hit movie "Defiance".
Photo: Gloria Starr Kins

Speech by Prof. Nechama Tec, Keynote Speaker, UN Holocaust Memorial Ceremony and Concert at the General Assembly Hall

I welcome this opportunity to reconnect my personal Holocaust experiences to my Holocaust research which concentrates on the less known aspects of the Holocaust such as compassion, altruism, self-preservation, rescue, resistance, cooperation and gender.

I was born in Poland in a city called Lublin that in 1939 had a Jewish population of 40,000. In 1945 only 150 Jews returned. Among these returnees there were only three intact families. My family was one of them.

How did I survive?

Initially, I survived by staying in the newly created Lublin ghetto. I survived because others helped me to elude capture during the periodic German "aktions" or raids. My parents, in particular, devoted much energy to my survival, preparing me for what they expected to be more horrendous circumstances.

I was told that we would eventually have to temporarily give up our Jewish identity and learn how to pretend to be Polish Catholic. These preparations were extensive and complicated but they promised survival and I tried to learn as much as I could. I tried, as well as I could, to memorize prayers, to absorb the meanings of different holidays, and to follow instructions on how to behave in a church.

And so, in the fall of 1942, when Lublin was declared "Judenrein" or "free of Jews" any Jews found by the authorities were either murdered on the spot or arrested and deported to concentration camps. Simply put, at that point, no Jew had a right to live in Lublin.

This created a somewhat chaotic and unpredictable environment. The city was filled with Nazi collaborators who were eagerly aiding the Germans in their efforts to uncover every single Jew. It is at this time toward the evening that a Polish friend paid us a visit with a generous proposition inviting to come to his home. He suggested we stay with him and his family for two to three days until the unrest would subside.

We were all aware that this offer, if discovered by the authorities, would lead to the murder of him and his entire family. Indeed, we took advantage of this offer which facilitated our transfer. Inevitably, other Jews who shared our fate had similar ideas and the authorities in Warsaw were eagerly looking for Jews who had recently changed their identities.

Life in the forbidden Christian world was filled with dangers and unexpected discoveries. I was fortunate to have blue eyes and blond hair and my speech did not reveal my Jewish background. I remember being very lonely and upset. I never knew if I would ever meet my parents again. The explanations for my family's moves did not alleviate my sadness and my fears that we would never reconnect again. In addition, as a child who passed for a Catholic I was exposed to many anti-Semitic comments to which I knew I could not respond. Such comments only added to my pain. And yet we made it because Poles were willing to risk their lives to protect us.

However, not surprisingly, when the war came to an end I wanted to forget anything that had to do with that time. And so, I refused to talk about it, to read about it, to view movies about it. I concentrated on catching up with my education. Eventually Columbia University became my intellectual home.

Thirty years later my memories began to stir. The result was my book, Dry Tears, first published in 1979. I had learned from my writing but I also wanted to know more. Indeed, I was now curious to find out what happened to other Jews who tried to survive by taking on new identities. Who were the Christians that helped them? And what kind of experiences did the Jewish survivor have and their Christian rescuers?

And so, I decided to engage in research which compared a group of Jews who survived by passing and hiding in the forbidden Christian world and rescuers who risked their lives to protect them. This research gave rise to new projects. Indeed, my study of the Holocaust has a great deal of continuity. As I take an overall view of my publications, they deal with the intricate relationships between compassion, altruism, self-preservation, rescue, resistance, cooperation and gender. During the Holocaust, these forces were rare. Not only were they rare but they were overshadowed by the enormity of wartime crimes.

Indeed, my Holocaust research has led me to some important broader principles. First, I recognize that of the many survivors that I have been interviewing for over 30 years not one of them survived without receiving some form of help from other people. The Holocaust teaches us that no matter how oppressive life is, some people are able to rise above the cruelty of their times by extending helping hands to one another. It is this ability to risk one's life on behalf of others which ought to give us hope. Hope for a better present and a better future.

I have often been quoted as saying: "It is possible to live without pleasure, but not without hope."

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