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Heroic Stories About People Who Aided Jews During WWII

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Vote up the inspirational stories that give you the most hope for humanity.

The Holocaust was one of the darkest moments in human history. But it also included tales of heroism, as evidenced by inspiring stories about helping during WWII.

Ordinary people went above and beyond to help Jewish friends, neighbors, and strangers. Some people used their official positions in government to get Jewish families out of Nazi-occupied countries. Others risked their lives to hide Jews in their homes, and these stories about hiding Jews demonstrate courage, selflessness, and resolve.

Whether an individual helped rescue hundreds of Jews or offered a hiding place to only a few, these moving stories show that, even in the darkest moments, people can be a beacon of light and hope for one another. Like tales about people who escaped concentration camps or people who survived the Holocaust, these stories showcase the best of humanity during one of its bleakest times.

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  • Dutch Teacher Johan Van Hulst And Henriëtte Pimentel Transported Jewish Children Out In Baskets
    Photo: Joost Evers / Anefo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    Dutch Teacher Johan Van Hulst And Henriëtte Pimentel Transported Jewish Children Out In Baskets

    Johan van Hulst taught at a college in Amsterdam during the German incursion of the Netherlands. German officials set up a deportation center and holding area for Jewish children at a daycare center near van Hulst's school.

    The official in charge of the center was Henriëtte Pimentel. Sensing opportunity, she recruited van Hulst for a daring plan: They would secretly transport the children out of the center and into van Hulst's neighboring school, where they could escape the clutches of the Germans.

    To get the children to safety, van Hulst concealed them in baskets and sacks and handed them off. From there, they could be delivered to households connected to the resistance who agreed to care for them. 

    Pimentel and van Hulst's actions saved around 600 children.

    Unfortunately, Pimentel didn't survive WWII; she was ultimately deported to Auschwitz. Van Hulst continued teaching after WWII and also served in the Dutch Senate and European Parliament.

  • American Journalist Varian Fry Created A Relief Program To Transport Jews Out Of Occupied France
    Photo: Unknown / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    Antisemitism pushed many German Jews from their homeland, and some of them settled in France. But even there, they were not safe. In 1940, Germany's invasion of France put their lives again at risk.

    Varian Fry was an American journalist. Moved to help anyone at risk under the Vichy regime - France's government that collaborated with Germany - Fry helped establish the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). With the help of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Fry and the ERC managed to get special visas for a number of people in France.

    Fry also deployed fake documents and guided refugees on secret escape routes to help around 2,000 people escape Vichy France. 

  • Social Worker Irena Sendler Transported Children Out Of The Warsaw Ghetto And Gave Them New Identities
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Germany occupied Poland throughout WWII, a reality that put the lives of Polish Jews at extreme risk. Many were forced to live under horrific conditions in the so-called Warsaw ghetto, a cramped corner of Warsaw.

    An underground rescue group known as Żegota saved thousands of Polish Jews, especially children, by helping them to safety and giving them new identities.

    Social worker Irena Sendler was responsible for saving many of them. Under claims of inspecting the ghetto, she spirited children out and delivered them to safe houses. Though she initially helped orphans, she expanded her work to help parents who wanted their children to escape the ghetto.

    Thanks to her work, she was connected with Polish orphanages. She took advantage of these connections and sent Jewish children to the orphanages, often giving them new identities. Her efforts directly saved the lives of 400 of the 2,500 children the Zegota helped.

    Sendler did all this at risk to her own life, because Polish authorities didn't hesitate to terminate people who aided Polish Jews. She was detained and tormented by the Germans in 1943, but Zegota used bribery to get Sendler out of prison.

    Sendler brushed aside the risk

    It was a need of my heart. I only did what any decent person would do... The heroes were the babies - they were the heroes of their mothers' hearts... It was the parents and the grandparents who gave up their children, they were the true heroes.

  • In 1942, Switzerland sent diplomat Carl Lutz to Budapest. Two years after his arrival, Germany occupied Hungary. German officials and their collaborators wasted little time rounding up and deporting Hungarian Jews.

    Desperate to do something, Lutz used his authority for good. He began issuing Swiss documents that protected Jews from deportation. To ensure their safety, he leased 76 buildings to serve as homes for them. Because the buildings technically became Swiss property, Germans couldn't touch anyone living there.

    It's estimated that Lutz saved 62,000 people.

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    Helmut Kleinicke, A Member Of The Nazi Party, Declared Hundreds Of Jews As His Workers

    Helmut Kleinicke, a member of the Nazi Party, used his connections to save the lives of likely hundreds of Jews at risk during the Holocaust.

    As the head of construction projects in Poland, he had the discretion to hire whomever he wanted. So he often declared Jews as his workers in order to protect them from deportation. As one worker later remembered, "Those of us who worked for Kleinicke were like VIPs. We had a certificate that we worked for him, and that was our insurance policy."

    Kleinicke didn't just use employment status to shield Jews. By many accounts, he also brought some into his home to protect them from deportation.

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    The Pilku Family Hid A Jewish Family In Plain Sight With SS Officers Coming In And Out Of Their House

    Like many Jewish families in Germany, the Gerechters fled their home in the wake of Kristallnacht, when officials and ordinary Germans alike broke into and burned down Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues, killing dozens of Jews.

    The Gerechters ended up in Albania. Even there, they weren't safe from Germans. Germany occupied Albania from 1943 and put in place the state's antisemitic policies.

    But the Gerechters were spared a bleak fate when they met the Pilkus, a Muslim family. Liza Pilku had been born in Germany, so when the Gerechters's safety was at risk, she invited them to live in the Pilkus's home and pretend to be her relatives from Germany.

    Given Liza Pilku's German connections, officials often stopped by the house. As Johanna Neumann, née Gerechter, recalled decades later:

    Since Mrs. Pilku was known to be a German and her father obviously was a known individual in Germany [as a supporter of the SS], German soldiers... walked in and out of the house. And we were introduced at all times as her family from Germany who were visiting with them in Albania wanting to get away from the bombardments, wanting to have some vacation. Whatever excuse she used.

    Some officials began to see through the Pilkus's ruse, but when they turned up at the Pilkus's door to question them, Liza Pilku doubled down. As her son later shared, she was indignant during one such interrogation and leaned into her German accent:

    My mother got mad that day, she became nervous and said, "It is the second time. Are you suspicious to not believe a German woman that she hasn't shelter here? I don't know Jews. You're wasting your time here and if you come again, I'll complain. It's a shame for you to come here!"

    The Pilkus's kindness helped the Gerechter family, who survived and ultimately immigrated to the United States.