Milford teacher: Many people had choices during Holocaust

MILFORD – It was the murderers, the rapists, the thieves – the perpetrators of the Holocaust – who had the most freedom to choose how they would behave during the years Nazi Germany occupied most of Europe. The victims? Not so much.

But aside from the perpetrators of mass genocide and their more than six million victims, primarily Jews, there were countless others who had to decide whether to be on the side of good or evil.

Last week was Holocaust Remembrance Week, and on April 14, as part of the Milford First Congregational Church’s Lyceum series, Judy Zaino gave a presentation called “The Choices We Make: Reflections on the Holocaust.”

‘Enemies of the state’

Ordinary people made vital choices that sometimes helped decide the fate of “enemies of the state,” who, along with Jews, included communists, the handicapped, homosexuals, Gypsies and Jehovah Witnesses – as Nazis tried to torture and exterminate every one of them.

Zaino grouped the choices into categories: victims, perpetrators, bystanders, collaborators, resisters and rescuers. Only about 1 percent of the population became resisters or rescuers during the Nazi era, she said.

“We would all want to believe we would be rescuers,” said Zaino, who teaches history at Milford High School, but few people made that choice, “a motley crew” who took heroic action after recognizing the “terrible, terrible” wrongs that were being committed and took responsibility.

More than Schindler

Everyone knows about Oscar Schindler, but there was also Irena Sembler who was able to enter the Warsaw ghetto freely because she was a social worker. She and her helpers created false documents to save 2,500 children. Sendler was arrested and severely tortured by the Gestapo, but she escaped execution by bribing her guards.

And then there was a French Catholic priest, Father Patrick DesBois, who spent years tracking down the people who went from town to town shooting Jews in Ukraine, what is called the “Holocaust by bullets,” About 1.5 million Jews died this way.

The priest uncovered 700 mass graves, Zaino said. And because it was Nazi policy not to waste more than one bullet per Jew, “it took three days for a mass grave to die,”

Those in the resister category provided food and medicine to victims, gave them news of the outside world and boosted their morale, especially by telling jokes about Hitler and the Nazis.

“Jews did not go gently into camps and ghettos,” Zaino said, and some took part in armed resistance, including the Bielski brothers who moved into the forest after Nazis killed their parents and other family members. They went from fighting the Nazis to rescuing other Jews until they had save more than 1,000.

Sometimes small gestures became big resistance.

One stood alone

Zaino displayed a photo of hundreds of people saluting Der Fuhrer with “Sieg Heil” at the launch of a naval vessel in 1936. Only one man, August Landmesser, a shipyard worker, stands with his arms folded in protest.

The idea of being a Holocaust bystander can be difficult to deal with, Zaino said, especially for the many Europeans who fell into that category, and the term was recently changed to he more benign-sounding “witnesses.”

But among the witnesses were people who did good – who chose not to call the police, for example, when they noticed there was a light on in a neighbor’s attic or noticed a neighbor was bringing home twice as much food as usual.

“Seventy-five years later it is hard to tease out who’s who,” said Zaino, who has been teaching classes on the Holocaust at Milford High School for decades.

About 50 people watched the presentation and during the question and answer session that followed, Zaino was asked how she responds to people who deny or minimize the Holocaust.

“The Nazis were really good record-keepers,” is one reply, she said.

Student reactions

How do high school students react to their lessons?

Some of them say they didn’t know there is so much to know, Zaino said, and some say they are not going to walk away when they see bullying or other unfairness.

A better understanding of how people behaved during the Holocaust should “help us be people who choose better,” she said.

For inspiration

The church’s Lyceum series started two years ago as a way to bring “adult education and inspiration” to the community, said the Rev. Alex Gondola, the church’s interim pastor.

They are held on the second Tuesday of each month. The next Lyceum on May 12 features David and Permilia Sears presenting “The Flow of Hymnody Through the Ages.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or