Friday, February 05, 2010

They Were Just People by Tammeus & Cukierkorn

They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust by Bill Tammeus and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn
Copyright 2009
University of Missouri Press - History/Biography
236 pages

They Were Just People includes extensive additional information including a chronology of events related to rescuing Jews in Poland, bibliography, reader's guide and index

Before I describe this book, I want to give you a tiny bit of background regarding my interest in WWII. When I was roughly 9 or 10 years old, I read a "Drama in Real Life" in Reader's Digest. That particular true story took place in London during the Blitz. I was thoroughly impressed by the casual, everyday courage of the two Londoners in the story, how they continued to go to work and get on with their lives knowing that any minute they could be blown to smithereens. Since I read that story, I've continued to read about WWII, eventually branching out to fiction, although the true stories are still the ones that really capture my interest. When my friend Cindi told me about They Were Just People, I jumped at the chance to review it. I love history in general, but WWII is by far my favorite time period.

They Were Just People tells all sides of the Polish Jew's story -- the experience of living in hiding and how survivors ended up surviving, the experience of hiding the Jewish and why those who hid people chose to do so, how those who were hidden played a major role in their own safety and what the lives of those involved were like after the war.

The authors don't shrink from the reality that there were both courageous and greedy and/or cowardly people involved in hiding Polish Jews. Some sheltered Jews merely because they were fellow humans or because they had been friends before the war. Others hid people in exchange for money, valuables or property. Even those who were able to pay for shelter had no way of knowing whether they would eventually get sent packing in spite of their payment or, worse, end up being turned over to the Nazis.

Bill Tammeus and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn sought out and interviewed survivors and those who sheltered them (or their immediate relatives) specifically in Poland, the first country invaded by the Nazis and the nation where the greatest number of Jews were killed. There were shockingly few survivors in Poland and that makes the stories of its few Jewish survivors even more remarkable than most.

I learned an awful lot from They Were Just People. For example, most of the survivors interviewed didn't stay in a single location for the duration of their time in hiding. In fact, they seemed to move and move and move to the point that I wondered how on earth they could remember the details. Some even returned to their ghetto homes for a time. Most of them had numerous close calls; one escaped naked after being forced to strip and line up next to an open grave in preparation for execution by machine gun.

Those who did manage to stay in one place were not spared the horror of filthy, rancid living spaces; they experienced just as much hardship and horror -- even, in one case, the mutual decision to poison a baby to spare the lives of the adults who were sharing hiding space with the child.

The stories in They Were Just People lead to a lot of questions. I found myself wondering What would I do if I were the person in hiding, if I were asked to hide someone, if I were faced with the choice of poisoning a child to spare myself and others? Would it make a difference if I was not only putting my own life in danger but that of my family? Hard, hard questions. I was really quite surprised to find that the authors had incorporated those questions and more into the book. They Were Just People is probably the most thorough, well-rounded book I've ever read about Holocaust survival. Here's part of the intro to the Reader's Guide:

This book raises profound questions about how people make excruciatingly difficult decisions, choices that can result in life or death. We think that the stories we tell in this book can be useful tools for asking such questions of ourselves, our families, our students, our congregants and our friends. There is no way to know specifically how we might act in traumatic times, of course, but perhaps we might not be caught completely off-guard by trouble and by our reaction to it if we have thought through various options before disaster strikes.

There is no doubt in my mind that this book would serve as an excellent resource for teachers who want to really dig into the reality of the Holocaust. Besides the Reader's Guide, there are extensive notes, some of which are every bit as interesting as the text. If you buy this book, definitely take the time to put a post-it or some kind of marker in the back of the book and flip to the notes as you go. A few examples:

30. Roman told us that there is a drawing of the room in which he was hidden in Srodula in Art Spiegleman, Maus: A Survivor's Tale (New York: Random House, 1986), the Pulitzer Prize-winning illustrated narrative of Holocaust survival.

57. In Polish, a wife's last name will end in -ska when her husband's last name ends in -ski.

59. Hitlerites was a common Polish term for Germany's troops and Nazi authorities.

I could go on all day about this book, but I'll just stop with a few more words that impressed me. As I was reading the accounts of those who hid people, it occurred to me that at least a few of them were really icky people. The authors clearly got some strong vibes from those who told their stories. Some, they said, were genuinely kind people and some they found "insufferable". Insufferable is a much better descriptor than "icky". I think I need to work on my vocabulary.

It's also notable that the authors are of two different faiths: one a Christian and one a Jewish rabbi. While in some accounts of Jewish Holocaust experience, you get a little bit of a "We're the most tormented people ever," vibe, there's none of that in They Were Just People. The authors acknowledge that religious persecution has never been limited to Jews, although the Jewish religion has certainly been around longer than most. As a Christian who is descended from persecuted French Protestants, I appreciated such comments.

5/5 - Clearly written, thoroughly researched, gut-wrenching, amazing stories of survival. Absolutely one of the best Holocaust books I've ever read. This cannot have been an easy book to research and write; all the stories were based on personal interviews with Jewish survivors and their protectors or living relatives. I was so impressed with this book that I feel inadequate describing it. Highly recommended.

All royalties and part of the authors' speaking fees go to Holocaust-related charities, such as the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

My thanks to Bill Tammeus and the University of Missouri Press for the review copy.


  1. Rabbi Jacques and I are deeply grateful for your review, which somehow makes all the hard work seem worth it. Many thanks. Bill Tammeus

  2. Wow this one sounds incredible!!! I've put it right onto ye ole Amazon wishlist and added it onto the bookmooch wishlist too. And I would've put it on PBS wishlist too but unfortunately they seem to have never heard of it before! Weird! I love books like this though :) Thanks for telling us about it!

  3. I "enjoy" books like this and like you, always wonder if I would be strong enough to fight or if I would just accept my fate. This sounds excellent!

  4. Bill,

    You are very welcome. Your book is stunning and I'm grateful to have had the chance to read it.


    PBS is tricky, since books often don't show up until they're listed (unless they have a big publisher -- I don't quite get how that works). But, I can tell you it's definitely worth buying.


    I always feel obligated to put the word "enjoy" in quotations, too. It's definitely a book that makes you question yourself and how you'd react in similar situations.

  5. Well, that's two books you've caused me to add to my wishlist today! I think I would absolutely love this one. I'm with you on the WW2 literature and this one sounds superb. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  6. Tammy,

    Just call me Troublemaker. :)

  7. This sounds like an incredibly powerful book, Nancy. I think I'll have to get a copy. I know my hubby would want to read it, too.

    BTW, have you ever watched the movie Defiance? Here's the blurb from Netflix:

    Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, one of four Jewish brothers who escape from Poland into the forests of Belarus during World War II to lead a band of resistance fighters and create a safe haven for Jewish refugees. The real-life sanctuary established by the Bielski brothers saved more than 1,000 Jews from persecution and death. Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay also star in this moving historical drama based on actual events.

    We watched it a month or so ago. Very good!!

  8. I'm so glad to hear this is so good. I have a review copy as well, and I'm hoping to get to it soon. Sounds like they cover all the basis, which is important to me with these kinds of stories.

    I hope it's okay for me to link to your review on War Through the Generations. I'll do that soon.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  9. This one sounds fascinating. Little behind blog hopping with having my wee one sick with a cold. I'll have to add this one to my wish list on Amazon.

  10. Les,

    I haven't seen the movie Defiance, but I've seen the previews and hope to watch it, someday. I'll have to check my library.

    I think you'd like this book (They Were Just People). It's really good. The notes and other material really round it out. It's an incredible read, IMHO.


    Yes, I know you got a copy. I recommended that the author contact you. :) I hope you "enjoy" it as much as I did. It's very thorough, yes. I appreciated the depth of the research; it's a very well-thought out and crafted book.


    I'm still having trouble getting from point A to point B with Google reader, so I wasn't able to comment at your blog, but I noticed that your little one is sick. I hope he feels better quickly. Hugs to both of you.

  11. Sorry, Anna - missed an important comment. Yes, of course it's fine if you link up to my review. :)

  12. Awesome review Nancy. Must add it to the holocaust collection I have here at the library. Thanks for always adding books to my never ending list. ;)

  13. Paula,

    Thanks. Always happy to be of service. LOL

  14. You might also wish to consider Jacob's Courage, This historical novel presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It explores the dazzling beauty of passionate love, powerful faith and enduring bravery in a lurid world where the innocent are brutally murdered. From desperate despair, to unforgettable moments of chaste beauty, Jacob’s Courage examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality.

  15. Charles,

    I've chosen to go ahead and accept your post because it contains a URL rather than a direct link and your site looks great, although my first thought was that it smacked of advertising. I think it would be nice if you were a little more honest about the fact that your comment is, in fact, an advertisement for a book you wrote. It took me quite a while to decide where or not to post it.

    Everyone else . . .

    I have not read the book mentioned by Charles and am not endorsing it by publishing his comment, although it looks quite interesting.

  16. Nancy,

    I am so happy that I was able to introduce this book to you. It only takes a minute when you talk to Bill Tammeus to feel his passion. Your passion in this review is equal and without question - contagious.

    I had no idea the power within the pages of this book. You ignite the reader to want more with this outstanding review. You invite us to hide in the shadows, to cry, to rejoice, to walk in their shoes, to understand.

    I'm humbled reading this review. Thank you so much.

    Cynthia AKA Cindi

  17. Cindi,

    Thank you. I'm a Little Speechless. They Were Just People is a powerful book and I'm thrilled to know that you think I did a decent job of describing it. :)


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