University of Missouri Press - History/Biography
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.