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Survivors: Jewish Self-Help and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied Western Europe, by Bob Moore. Oxford University Press, 2010. 432 pp. $45.00.
During the Holocaust, a majority of the non-Jewish population turned their backs on the European Jews as they were systematically identified, segregated, plundered, and in time brutally murdered. Most stood by silently as the Jews were annihilated. Many actively willed and participated in their destruction. And still fewer chose another path, risking their lives in order to help Jews survive. Motivations for assistance to and rescue of Jews varied widely, and the circumstances in which rescuers acted were as diverse as the individuals themselves. Moreover, Jews survived across Europe for myriad reasons, including pure luck. In Survivors: Jewish Self-Help and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied Western Europe, Bob Moore embarks on an ambitious comparative analysis of the conditions in which Jewish survivors benefited from the assistance of others, a small but significant portion of those who survived.
With Survivors, Moore has made an important contribution to the field by presenting rescue as an historical problem, rather than primarily a philosophical, ethical, or sociological one. As of January 2010, Israel’s Yad Vashem recognized more than 23,000 “Righteous Among the Nations,” rescuers who have met particular criteria, including performing rescue actions at risk to their lives and for no monetary compensation. These numbers do not include those who may have helped Jews to turn a profit at a time of war, nor does it include Jews who rescued. Moore’s Survivors widens the lens on rescue, situating rescue within its political, historical, and geographic context—an important contextualization that he argues is underplayed by an overwhelming focus on altruistic motivations, including by Yad Vashem. To that end, Moore considers a variety of motivations for rescue, including the more exploitative, and examines how assistance contributed to the varying survival rates of Jews in Western and Northern Europe. Perhaps most importantly, his study analyzes the ways Jews—marked for death and hunted— became rescuers themselves, overturning simplistic perceptions of them as “passive” victims. While not downplaying the heroism of rescuers recognized by Yad Vashem, he treats rescue by Jews and gentiles as a complex and interrelated issue, rejecting oversimplification in favor of nuance. He even includes cases of “Nazi rescuers” and examines the plight of Jewish children, who were particularly vulnerable to exploitation and maltreatment at the hands of potential benefactors.
Moore’s study provides another facet to the oft-examined (though not conclusively answered) question: how do we account for the varying survival rates of Jews in different parts of Europe during the Holocaust? Comparing conditions for rescue and survival in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Norway, and Denmark, the author limits his scope of study based on similarities in the political circumstances as well as the chances Jews had for survival in each country. Moore emphasizes justifiably that the experiences of Jews elsewhere, such as Poland and the Soviet Union, were “materially different from their counterparts in the West” (p. 2). For the most part, Jews had a greater chance of survival in the countries Moore has selected because of the level of intensity of prevailing antisemitism, the integration of Jews in society, the nature of the German occupation, and a host of other factors. He considers the conditions that made it possible for assistance and rescue—both by Jews and gentiles—to flourish.
Moore’s comparative approach follows a relatively recent trend in Holocaust studies. It not only draws conclusions based on broader thematic comparisons but also focuses on the variations in each situation to bring to the fore a deeper understanding of local particularities. First taking on escape routes from Europe in the first months and years of the war, he focuses on the political and social circumstances for rescue and survival in each country in turn. He describes individual cases of rescue, uncovers complex lines of hidden networks, and describes risks and punishments ultimately faced by rescuers within these contexts, as well as their perceptions of risk. While at times the comparisons he draws for each geography might have been further elaborated, the author indicates that the “main comparative conclusions to be drawn from this study are evident in the body of the text” (p. 356). Yet the strongest and most original contributions of this study can be found in these comparisons. He demonstrates, for instance, how a variety of factors “lulled [Jews in the Netherlands] into a false sense of security” when compared to Jews in Belgium and France. The existence of a Jewish Council quelled more acts of overt resistance, and Jewish organizations remained more likely to keep their actions in the legal realm than did rescue organizations elsewhere, which often had legal entities that served as a front for their illegal work. Jews in the Netherlands had less opportunity to call upon the assistance of non-Jews. These and other factors contributed to the much lower survival rate of Jews in the Netherlands compared to Jews in France or Belgium.
Moore’s study also highlights the links between Jewish self help, rescue operations, and resistance against the Nazis. He shows how the activity of Jewish and gentile rescuers often overlapped with resistance networks. Many clandestine organizations did not limit their assistance to Jews and helped other groups persecuted by the Nazis and their allies. Individuals and clandestine groups helping Jews often had links to resistance networks, for example, through false paper providers and couriers. Moore also carefully reveals the influence of the foundations and history of many aid networks, which began their activities long before World War II—the connections and experience these networks had amassed improved their efficacy during the Holocaust, especially as they dove into illegality.
While Moore examines national contexts for rescue, he also delves into the importance of local history and social and political conditions in determining the outcome for Jewish survival. For France in particular, he builds upon the recent work of historians such as Limore Yagil and Shannon Fogg, who examined local politics and relationships in France and their effects on Jewish survival and ideological support for collaboration among gentiles. However, the section devoted to the communal rescue activities in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (Haute Loire) rests predominantly on the well-known work of Phillip Hallie. While perhaps the most widely published work on the subject, in recent years historians, such as Patrick Henry, have undertaken studies dealing with various aspects of the history of rescue there, which may have indicated further similarities between what Moore treats as collective rescue (Denmark, for instance) and what occurred in Le Chambon.
This small criticism aside, overall Moore’s study accomplishes its aim. Based upon an impressive array of archival and secondary sources, the author has succeeded in dealing with complex national circumstances as well as regional and local conditions to determine how they contributed to rescue efforts and ultimately Jewish survival. Perhaps most important, Moore’s study furthers our increasing understanding of Jewish agency during the Holocaust.
Christine Schmidt (van der Zanden)
University of Maryland University College