Bill Tammeus and
Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn
They Were Just People:
Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust
1. What was it like for you (emotionally, spiritually) to leave Kansas City early in the 21st Century and go to sites in Poland and elsewhere in search of what happened in a time few people remember? Did it get easier or harder as you collected the stories?
I was overcome in Poland by a sense of absence because it is a land of strangled memory. What broke my heart was not just the lives cut short, but also the lives never lived because of the murder of 6 million Jews.
Curiously, I had
always been fascinated by Poland since that is the land of birth of my
grandparents and generations back going as far as the expulsion from Spain
(1492) and possibly before. In Krakow is buried Nathan Nate Shapira
(died 1633) a kabbalist, chief rabbi of Prague and Krakow and one of my
earliest relatives I know of his place of burial.
2. How would you like the book to affect its readers? What would you like it to accomplish?
I hope readers understand that they need not be perfect people to make moral choices. Even small acts of kindness can have tremendous -- and often unexpected -- consequences for good. Jacques grasped this as a lesson before I did. But he's right.
I hope people will
gather that the choices that we make can have profound and lasting effect
3. How did the interests you each had as you began your research differ (from your partner's)? Do you perceive a convergence or further divergence or both?
I found it intriguing that I, the Christian, was most engaged by the stories of the Jewish survivors while Jacques, the Jew, seemed more touched by the non-Jewish rescuers and their reasons for risking their lives. I think that's still true, though I think both of us now better understand each other's attraction to the opposite side of the stories.
Bill was fascinated
by survivors, I am by rescuers. Perhaps it is because I grew up with
survivors, so they were not novelty (so to speak . . . ).
4. How has writing the book changed you? How has writing the book affected your assessment about the causes of human cruelty and compassion? How has writing the book affected your hopes that peoples of all faiths can be assured of their safety? You both are men of faith. How do you confront the mystery of how a presumably caring Deity could have permitted such suffering even among those who escaped from death? (Cf. your "attempts to infuse it with redemptive meaning inevitably fail.") In the stories you tell, do you see a divine hand at work or lucky human intervention?
Doing this work has made me more aware of both human failure and human grandeur. As one who claims Calvin as a theological father, I'm well aware of the human capacity for evil. I have no full explanation for that capacity but recognize it in myself. I do not and cannot blame God for, as you put it, permitting such suffering. Rather, I recognize that God suffered with the sufferers and was present to those who sought and sensed God's presence.
5. What made ordinary people -- not saints -- Christians, Muslims, apparently non-religious people, and even anti-Semites, save Jews from the Nazis? Do these stories suggest that building friendships may be more important to secure a humane future than intellectual understanding of one another's faiths? (Sorry for this leading question -- do what you want with it!)
In many cases, the people who saved Jews knew them as friends or business associates or both before the war. What mattered was their common humanity, not their attachment to a different faith tradition. An intellectual understanding of such different traditions can and should come but it must necessarily follow an understanding of one's shared human condition.
The motives that
lead people to choose to rescue someone else were as diverse as there are
individuals. The common factor were values and a belief in the inherent
worth of every human being.
6. The Nazis went after Gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents as well as Jews. Can you offer any speculations about their being protected during the period when they were to be rounded up and sent to camps? Does your research suggest anything about human nature to you that someone researching their fates, as you have done about Polish Jews, might possibly discover?
I find it difficult to draw broad conclusions about the rescuers, whether of Jews or others. Each had unique reasons for risking life. But I think it can be helpful to study such cases and to talk about our own possible responses so that we might, in the end, do the right thing when confronted with such choices.
I would say that
if such research was done, it probably will yield the same results.
Rescuing was not about Gentiles, Jews, Gypsies, etc. It was about people.
7. What would you like readers to know about your web site?
Where it is: www.theywerejustpeople.com. And that we now have a Facebook page about the book, which FB members can find by searching on the title of the book. There, we hope, some good discussions about the questions the book raises will happen.
See Bill's answer.
8. Do you have any additional short statement you'd like to offer my readers?
I think this book lends itself to use by all kinds of study groups, young and old, especially with the Readers' Guide at the end.
BUY MANY OF THEM! All royalties will go to Holocaust Education and related charities. Bill and I will not make a cent out of book sales.