In the Face of Nazi Persecution

            On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party gained power.   Between 1933 and 1945 millions of people, including six million European Jews, would perish in direct correlation to their hateful ideology.  In the sixty-seven years since the fall of the Nazis, a myriad of research and published works have focused on the horrific details surrounding these unthinkable horrors.  Although there is no shortage of accounts of horrific tragedy, there were many instances of citizens, from all parts of German life, whose self-sacrifice saved countless lives of complete strangers.

            During the years Germany was under the Nazis’ rule, the police were used as implements of persecution towards political dissention and racial inferiority.  As Nazi anti-Semitism began to increase, the average police officers were transformed into murderers.  Whether following orders, or swept up in anti-semantic propaganda, the fact is that the majority of police officers conducted their duty proficiently.   A good example of a police officer following orders, against personal questions of morality, occurred in Poland.  In July 1942 Major Trapp of the 101st Reserve Battalion was ordered to have his men murder a large group of Jewish citizens.  Upon ordering his men, “…according to victims testimony, Major Trapp was in tears when he ordered the shooting of 1,500 women, children and elderly Jews…”[1].  In the throes of a moral dilemma, loyalty to his country won over, and at the end of the night, not one Jew was left alive.

            While instances of police murders were common during the Nazi reign, not all members of the police force were willing to compromise their ethics by following immoral orders.  In the Adriatic seaport of Fuhme (present day Croatia), the officer in charge of the police, Giovanni Palatucci, was a prime example of a self-sacrificing hero.  Palatucci was just twenty eight years old when he was made head of police in Fuhme.  With the Nazis determination to eradicate the Jews prevailing through Europe, Palatucci was order to deport all Jews to the death camps.  Instead of following his superior’s orders, “…Palatucci made sure that they were sent to the large internment camp in Campania, southern Italy”[2].  To accomplish this, he provided forged documents, successfully rescuing hundreds of Jews from certain death.  Although successful in saving many from death, he was unable to save himself, and found himself dying at the concentration camp Dachau, in 1944.

            At the same time as police officers were fighting the moral implications of mass murder, the German government, including its allies, continued to pass laws that doomed millions of innocent people to death.   Once the Nazi government had restricted all aspects of life for the Jews, they began a program of continuous deportation to concentration camps.  It was during this time that the German diplomat Raoul Wallenberg became First Secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest.  Showing the character of a true hero, he sacrificed his own security by securing forged documents for Jewish refugees.  Along with the forged documents, he also established a series of housing units for thousands to wait out the war[3].  Although he was able to save around 100,000 Jews from being executed, he was unable to save himself.   When the Soviet Union reestablished control in Budapest, Wallenberg was taken prisoner, and died in 1947 while still imprisoned.

            With the air of violence always looming during the reign of the Nazis, many attempted to turn to religion for help.  Upon gaining control of the government, Hitler feared the church’s influence would undermine his power.  In a preemptive strike against the church, he capitalized on the churchs’ views that the Nazis were creating a barrier against communist power.  In 1933 Hitler signed an agreement with the Catholic Church.  This pact stated, “…that he [Hitler] would not interfere with the Catholic Church while the Church would not comment on politics”[4].   With no intentions of abiding by the pact, Hitler began to systematically remove the peoples’ reliance on religion.  Although Hitler quickly learned that the bond between the citizens of Germany and the church was too strong to eradicate, he was able to put the church into a very difficult predicament.  When forced to make a decision of whether or not to speak out against the atrocities implemented by the Nazis, the church made the decision to turn a blind eye.  As millions were being brutally murdered, the church took very little initiative to end the suffering.

            Fortunately for many, there were several courageous spiritual leaders that could not sit back and watch as innocent people were being persecuted.  Two religious men stand out for having the moral fortitude to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of justice.  The first man, Andrei Trocme, was the head of the church in the French town, Le Chembon-sur-Lignon.  As millions of people were being sent to concentration camps, between three and five thousand Jews would be saved from deportation in Vichy, France, as a result of actions taken by this heroic man.  When confronted about why he was willing to sacrifice everything, he stated that he had decided he should “obey God rather than man when there [was] a conflict between the commandments of the government and the commandments of the Bible”[5].   Unlike so many heroes of this time period, he would live to see the end of the war, and witness good triumph over evil.

            The second heroic spiritual leader that stood out in contrast to the official stance of the church was Dietrich Bonheoffer.  Born in 1906, Bonheoffer proved himself to be one of the few courageous members of the church to stand against the repressive Nazi regime.  When the Nazis and the Catholic Church made the agreement to separate, Bonheoffer stood by his principles and took the moral high ground.  In his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” Bonheoffer argued that all Christians needed to stand against the totalitarian Nazi regime.  As one of the first to speak out against Nazi persecution, he proceeded to travel around and attempt to rally people against the immoral treatment of the Jews. 

            In October, 1938, after five years of putting pressure on the church, Bonheoffer made an emotional plea during a church meeting.  In this speech, he argued that, “…instead of talking of the same old questions again and again, we can finally speak of that which truly is pressing on us: what the Confessing Church has to say to the question of church and synagogue”[6].  The time had come to end the idle discussion, and begin to take decisive action against Jewish persecution.  In the face of evil, Bonheoffer proved that with the sacrifice of one’s own security, one heroic person can make an enormous difference.

            For the past sixty-seven years, historians have accused German citizens of turning a blind eye to the horrific violence conducted by members of the Nazi party.   There are innumerable accounts of citizens standing by as innocent people were being marched off to their death.  In Robert Gellately’s detailed survey on the German citizen’s response to the Holocaust, he concluded, “there was ‘substantial consent and active participation of large numbers of ordinary Germans’ in aspects of the holocaust…”[7].  As millions of Jews were being humiliated and killed by the thousands, the average German stood back and let it happen.

            Although the majority of citizens stood by as the Nazis persecuted millions, there were a few heroes that were willing to give up their personal security in order to save strangers desperately in need.  One such heroic citizen was Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker.  In the face of danger, Sendler stood by her principles, and successfully smuggled twenty-five hundred children from the Warsaw Ghettos[8].  In a letter to the Polish parliament, Sendler justifies her actions by stating, “Every child saved with my help is the Justification of my existence on this earth and not a title of glory”[9].   She gave little forethought to her own safety, and in return asked for nothing.  Sendler would become the epitome of a hero.

            During the years that the Nazis controlled Germany, fear rampaged through the world.  While many were content to go along with the atrocities, a select group of heroes sacrificed everything in order to stand up for what was right.  The actions of people like Raoul Wallenberg, Giovanni Palatucci, Irene Sendler, and Dietrich Bonheoffer, prove that humans, faced with human suffering, will stand up and fight evil.





“AJC Mourns Passing of Irena Sendler, Polish Catholic Rescuer of Jewish Children”, AJC:     Global Jewish Advocacy,  

The Shalom Show on TV,

“The Church in Nazi Germany”, History Learning Site,

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer”, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

Frost, Martin “The Holocaust”, Martin Frost,

Ser, Sam, “Yad Vashem to Honor Giovanii Palatuccii, Unlikely Italian Hero”, Jeruseleum Post, 2005,

Sultan, Christopher, “Nazi Atrocities, Committed by Ordinary People”, Spiegel Online International, 2008,

Theriault, Anne“Andre Trocme and Le Chambon”, Catholic Peace Fellowship,

[1]Christopher Sultan, “Nazi Atrocoties, Commited by Ordinary People”, Spiegal Online International, 2008,

[2] Sam Ser, “Yad Vashem to Honor Giovanii Palatuccii, Unlikely Italian Hero”, Jeruseleum Post, 2005,

[4] “The Church in Nazi Germany”, History Learning Site,

[5] Anne Theriault, “Andre Trocme and Le Chambon”, Catholic Peace Fellowship,

[6]“Dietrich Bonhoeffer”, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

[7]Martin Frost, “The Holocaust”, Martin Frost,

[9] “AJC Mourns Passing of Irena Sendler, Polish Catholic Rescuer of Jewish Children”, AJC: Global Jewish Advocacy,


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