World War II will always be remembered in human history as one of the darkest times for humanity during which about six million Jews were systematically murdered and also thousands of homosexuals, persons of color, followers of Jehovah’s Witness, etc. But, it was also a time when a number of individuals across the world came forward and displayed extraordinary courage and became the rescuers of Jews trying to flee from the Nazis. Doing so, they had everything to lose and nothing to gain except a sense of comfort. A few of these brave individuals have today become household names like Oskar Schindler. But there are still many who are not widely famous, but this doesn’t diminish their enormous contributions. Here are 10 such lesser-known, daring people and their inspiring tales.
1. Playing on German phobia about hygiene, two Polish doctors created a fake epidemic in their Jewish neighborhood and saved the lives of about 8,000 Jews from certain death.
When the Nazis took over Poland, Dr. Eugene Lazowski was a part of the Polish Red Cross and had recently completed medical school. Though it was a risky affair to help the Jews under the Nazi occupation, Dr. Lazowski and the Jews in the town of Rozwadow devised a method to reach out to each other. Whenever anyone needed the assistance of the doctor, a rag would be hung on Dr. Lazowski’s fence. He then would visit the sick at night secretly.
This went on, and meanwhile, the Nazis continued to send Jews to concentration camps from that area until Dr. Lazowski, with the help of fellow medical professional Stanislav Matulewicz Lazowski, discovered after much experimenting a way to fake an epidemic that would eventually compel the Nazis to leave the Jews there alone. The pair found that if dead Epidemic Typhus bacteria are injected into someone’s body, that person would show the symptoms of the disease but it would not have any adverse effect on their health. Soon, they injected the bacteria into the bodies of thousands of Jews and non-Jews.
The health-conscious Nazis who knew how deadly typhus was decided to not send any more Jews from there and quarantined the zone fearing a widespread epidemic. In this way, the duo saved about 8,000 Jews from being sent to concentration camps. (source)
2. Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, a ranking US officer, saved 200 Jews when at a Nazi POW camp he was asked to separate the Jews from the non-Jews. He assembled all his men and declared that they were all Jews.
The Battle of Bulge happened towards the end of the 2nd World War and was the last German offensive campaign on the Western Front. It all started when the 106th Infantry Division of the Allied forces landed in France three months after D-Day. It consisted of three regiments: the 422nd Regiment, the 423rd Regiment, and the 424th Regiment. The division was led by the 422nd Regiment which consisted of American soldiers.
On December 16, 1944, the 422nd Regiment was attacked by Germany in Eastern Belgium and was completely cut off from the other two regiments. On December 19, Colonel Deacheneaux, commander of the regiment, surrendered. A fragment of the regiment of which Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds was a part, however, continued to fight but eventually surrendered on December 21. The Germans captured about 1,000 soldiers and took them to Gerolstein, Germany.
In Gerolstein, the soldiers were divided into three groups: officers, non-commissioned officers (NCOs), and enlisted men. The NCOs were then taken to Stalag IXA in Ziegenhain. There, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, who was the highest ranking NCO, was asked by the Commandant of Stalag IXA Major Siegmann to separate the Jews from the non-Jews among his men and report back the next day. Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, however, ordered all his men to stand together the next morning. When the commandant came, he found 1,000 men standing in line. He was furious and told Edmonds that not everyone there could be a Jew to which Edmonds answered that they indeed were. Siegmann drew his pistol and aimed at Edmonds. Sgt. Edmonds didn’t back down and reminded him of the Geneva Convention which allowed them to keep their religious identity a secret. He also told him that if he shot him, he would have to shoot everyone, and at the end of the war, he would be convicted of war crimes.
Hearing this, Siegmann put his pistol down and left. There were about 200 Jews among the 1,000 men who were saved that day by the bravery of the soldiers and the presence of mind of Sgt. Edmonds. (source)
3. Twenty-nine-year-old stockbroker Nicholas Winton saved 669 Jewish children from advancing Nazis instead of his original plan to take a vacation. He kept this a secret for 50 years, even from his wife.
In December 1938, 29-year-old stockbroker Nicholas Winton was planning a ski vacation when his friend Martin Blake asked him to instead come to Prague where Jew refugees were gathering in large numbers as Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia, was annexed by Germany. Blake was in Prague already working with another friend, Doreen Warriner, in the rescue works. When he traveled to Prague, Czechoslovakia, he was moved by the situation of the people in the refugee camps and decided to do whatever he could do as he was aware that the Nazis would not stop after securing Sudetenland.
After the infamous Kristallnacht, a violent program against Jews by the Nazis that was carried out during November 9 and 10, 1938, in which 91 Jews were killed, about 30,000 were arrested. and 267 synagogues were demolished, the British government relaxed its immigration laws to allow a limited number of Jewish children from Germany and Austria into the country. Encouraged by the move, Winton, with the help of a few others, set up an office in his hotel at Prague and started taking applications from parents. Meanwhile, he reached out to the British government and asked to relax laws for Czech children too. The government agreed with the conditions that a host family for each child was to be found first, and for each child, the parents should pay £50 as a guarantee.
After getting permission, he continued working as a stockbroker but at the same time gathered volunteers, raised money, and searched for foster homes. On 14 March 1939, after months of tireless efforts, Winton was able to transport the first batch of children, and on August 2, 1939, the last batch of children left for Britain. Soon after that, the rescue activities were stopped as Britain declared war on Germany. But between the first and last batches, he was able to save 669 children, a feat for which later he was awarded many honors including Czech Republic’s highest honor, the Order of the White Lion and the Knighthood. He died on July 1, 2015, in his sleep. (source)
4. Three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, cyclist Gino Bartali used his fame to smuggle counterfeit documents while pretending to be training and helped about 800 Jews to escape death.
After the fall of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1943, the Germans had occupied the parts of Italy and started to identify Jews and send them to concentration camps as they were doing in other parts of the German-occupied lands. It was during this time that the Italian families and sympathizers took up the task of saving as many Jews as possible from the reach of the Nazis due to which about 80% of the Jews in Italy survived.
Gino Bartali was at the peak of his career during the 2nd World War. He had won the Giro d’Italia three times already and had enormous fame. It was because of his popularity that the Cardinal of Florence, Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, reached out to him with the proposal of joining a secret network to safeguard the Jews. Bartali, a devout Catholic, agreed immediately and became a courier. His job was to carry counterfeit documents and photographs hidden in his cycle’s frame from one point of the country to another pretending to be training, passing right under the nose of the Nazi guards who would kill him if they found out the secret. He was taking an enormous risk. Not only this, but he was also hiding a Jewish family in his home. Many a time he was stopped and questioned, but he would get away saying that his cycle must not be touched as it was calibrated perfectly to reach maximum speed.
He traveled thousands of kilometers on his cycle and the lives of as many as 800 Jews, but he never disclosed this to anyone. He wanted people to remember him for cycling and never considered himself a hero for saving those lives. His achievements came into light only after his death in 2000. (source)
5. Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese official, kept writing transit visas and throwing them at desperate Jews from train windows. He spent up to 20 hours a day writing them which saved 6,000 Jews.
Chiune Sugihara was posted in Lithuania as the vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate between 1939 and 1940, but it was enough for him to save about 10,000 Jews from ultimate death. His work was to keep an eye on the Soviet and German troops and their movements. During his short stint, he went directly against the clear instructions of his superiors and the government of Japan to not issue visas to anyone who hadn’t completed the proper immigration procedure. In later life, he admitted that he did that because he felt compassion for the hapless Jews.
During his term, the Jews were looking for an exit from Europe, and to do that they needed visas which no consulate was willing to give. Sugihara was so overwhelmed by the situation of the people that he started to issue visas to thousands of people to transit through Japan to the Dutch island of Curacao or Surinam which didn’t require visas to enter. The Japanese government reminded him over and over to not issue visas without proper procedure, but he did anyway until the day left Lithuania. It is said that he spent up to 20 hours a day writing visas to people, issuing a month’s worth of visas per day. Before he left, he gave a consulate stamp to a refugee so that more visas could be written in his absence. Even as he sat in the train, he kept writing visas and threw them from the window to desperate refugees. Finally, he just threw blank papers with the consulate stamp on them. As he was leaving he said, “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best.”
Sugihara was later asked to resign in the year 1947, and many, including his wife, believed that it was because of his disobedience. After his resignation, he did some menial jobs and even sold light bulbs door to door. He died in July 1986. (source)