A research project of the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin.
When, on November 30, 1942 the Foss family, living at Pestalozzistrasse in Berlin, was threatened with deportation, the acquaintanceship with the salesperson, Helene von Schell, proved to be a lifeline. She offered the married couple and their two sons a hiding place in her small apartment on Waldstrasse in the Moabit district, where the family was able to hide until liberation in April 1945.
This courageous act is commemorated on a memorial plaque which since March 1996 hangs on the apartment building where Helene von Schell lived until her death in 1956. Although by now hundreds of examples have become known, in which non-Jewish Germans at high personal risk offered help to Jews who were persecuted and threatened with deportation, a comprehensive presentation befittingly honoring these courageous acts of solidarity is still lacking.
For this reason, in April 1997, a research group began to investigate the ”rescue of Jews in National Socialist Germany”. During a two year project phase, a differentiated database was developed in order to register as many as possible different kinds of rescue efforts, both successful and failed, that occurred between 1933 and 1945 in Germany. The project concentrates on the period from 1941 to 1945. Until now, data entries of approximately 2,000 women and men who helped persecuted Jews and of almost 1,000 Jews who lived in hiding have been inputted. In each ”case”, whenever possible, the length of time, type and degree of help offered, as well as statements pertaining to the motivation of the rescuers is noted. Whether the rescuer or rescued person knew each other beforehand or whether they were complete strangers is also of importance. Moreover, information on the profession, education level, religion and political affiliation of each person is entered into the database. Whether or not the act has received official recognition since 1945 is also recorded. Not only the successful cases, also the unsuccessful rescue attempts, are researched in order to gather information on how help given to Jews was punished under the National Socialist dictatorship and on the conditions of the war.
The relevant files throughout various regions were analyzed including files of the Nazi judiciary, court proceedings from the postwar period, police reports and files of restitution offices. Requests were sent to all the Jewish communities asking for information and to the state archives and many other relevant institutions. Even cases that have already been published were recorded and interviews were conducted with rescuers, rescued persons and other witnesses who are still living.
The project focuses on the region of Berlin, since this is where the largest Jewish community existed before World War II. About half of the attempts to escape deportation by hiding took place in Berlin and its environs. The Berlin senator for internal affairs Joachim Lipschitz’s initiative in 1958 to honor as ”unsung heroes” Berlin citizens who during the Nazi regime provided help to people persecuted resulted in an extensive collection of files on 1500 processed requests for this honor at the restitution authorities, which was analyzed by the project. This makes it possible to document for Berlin a large number of helpers and survivors and their respective stories and will serve as the basis for a later sociological analysis.
There is also information available on rescue cases in other regions of the Germany based on its 1937 borders. The second and final project phase (March 2000 to March 2002) will focus on research in other German cities which once had relatively large Jewish communities. Just how many names and stories will be documented in total cannot be estimated yet. This has partially to do with the fact that often many people were involved in one single rescue case: Informed persons, family members, or perhaps a doctor who helped a persecuted person. In addition, many of those who were in hiding did not remain in one place, but instead were forced often to change their place of shelter. Another aspect that makes giving an answer more difficult is the question of at what point help actually begins: usually acts of help are documented when the person offering assistance is also endangered.
Given the millions of Germans who looked away with indifference or who approved of the genocide and actively supported it, the number of rescuers is shockingly low – but still larger as is generally known. The documented examples show that even under the conditions of the Nazi dictatorship a considerable number of non-Jewish Germans were willing and in a position to show solidarity with persecuted Jews and save them from extermination.
Moreover, the aim of the project is to provide the resistance research with new stimulus. Most of the helpers did not regard their behavior as resistance, but rather as a matter of course. Nonetheless, from today’s perspective, we should understand the lifesaving efforts of these women and men as a form of resistance. This view brings with it a new definition of the term resistance which no longer solely applies to military action directed at eliminating the regime, as was the case for so long in the Federal Republic of Germany. Given the impossibility of overthrowing Hitler, for many Germans, helping Jews was the only way to express their resistance to National Socialism.
The following are responsible for the research project:
Dr. Beate Kosmala and Dr. Claudia Schoppmann with assistance from Isabel Enzenbach, Frank Görlich, Markus Pfeiffer and Dennis Riffel.
We ask anyone who has information regarding a (successful or failed) rescue or who knows of someone involved in such an act to please contact us at