While visiting the site of Belzec death camp, I was able to read some excerpts about those who made heroic decisions during the Holocaust, and put their lives in danger in order to save others. The one known survivor from Belzec death camp is Rudolf Reder. Since he was able to escape the death camp, he shared his story of what went on in the camp. I think sharing your story and educating others on what was going on during that time is considered a very heroic act. During WWII, it was not easy for someone to share what was going on in the death camps since they could face imprisonment or death by the Nazis. Reder was initially selected to work in the Jewish labor detachment where he dug mass graves via excavator. He then worked as a mason. This job is what led to his escape. He went with two SS officers to buy materials in a nearby town, and was able to escape the two soldiers. A woman by the name of Joanna Borkowska helped hide him after his escape. Rudolf and Joanna ended up falling in love and getting married. It is unknown when and where he died, since he emigrated to Israel and then Canada following the war. Another man who escaped Belzec was not as fortunate as Reder. Chaim Hirszman also escaped from Belzec and started sharing his story of his time in the camp. On the day that he started giving his testimony, he was killed in Lublin. This man died a hero because he was able to escape from the Nazi power and wanted to share his story to others. He took the risk to help people understand what went on in the camp, and he was killed for it.
One aspect of heroism during the holocaust that isn’t talked about as much is those among the Nazi party who tried to go against the views of the party. Kurt Gerstein was a member of the SS as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Technical Disinfections Department of the Hygienic Institute where he worked directly with Zyklon B. Gerstein was arrested twice for actions that strayed from those of the Nazi party prior to the war. In 1942 he released information about the plans of the Nazis after he witnessed the sights of Belzec and Treblinka. He informed diplomats of Sweden, the Vatican, and a bishop of the anti-Nazi German Confessing Church. He later surrendered to French authorities and made two statements regarding the aims of the Nazi party. He later committed suicide in July 1945 under French custody. I assume he felt that the things he saw were so horrific that he could no longer live. The sights that he saw were unimaginable, and he felt the need to commit suicide. This man is a hero in my opinion for understanding that the plot of Nazi Germany was immoral and that the world needed to know about what was happening so that they could try to stop it. He, along with others who shared their testament put himself at risk in order to bring an end to the reign of the Nazis.
Although any assistance to Jews was punishable by death, some Poles found the means to help Jews. In Belzec, a woman named Julia Pepiak hid a Jewish girl in the shadows of the camp.
Szlomo Halbersztadt was born in Lublin in 1893. From 1928 on, he was a member of the Jewish Religious Community Council in Lublin, and he was elected its chairman in 1936. After 1930, he was the secretary of the Yeshivat Hochmei Lublin, the “Wise Men of Lublin” – a world renowned rabbinical school. He was known for his religious conviction and tireless work for the Jewish community. After the German occupation, as a member of the Lublin Judenrat, he was responsible for welfare and medical services in the ghetto. On March 31, 1942, he and the other members and employees of the Lublin Judenrat were rounded up and deported to the Belzec death camp. Despite his privileged positon and the access to information it provided, Halbersztadt believed until the last moment that deportation was merely relocation to a work detachment in Ukraine, not death. This man is heroic because he was an important figure for the Jewish community, and worked tirelessly to improve Jewish life. Although he may have not hid or directly assisted Jews during the Holocaust, he was still an important figure for Jews during a troubling time in history, and he cared very much for the Jewish community. He was killed for the work that he did, and I believe that anyone who dies for a cause is to be considered a hero.
During the war, a man found a cave where a Jew was hiding and began helping him. For many months, the stranger would come to their home, where he was sewing clothes and repairing shoes he asked to be called Biedny Swiat (miserable world). Then someone discovered his hiding place and he had to flee. He was not heard from again. The son of the man who helped the Jew later heard of Biedny Swiat and learned that he did not survive the war, he was shot by the Germans near the village. The man who helped hide the Jew did not care about his life being in danger when he helped that man. He cared about the well-being of a complete stranger more than he worried about the safety of himself and his family. His entire family could have been killed because of his actions, yet he decided to try and save a life, and those type of actions cannot be forgotten.