Hostility by an individual or an institution, including a government, to Jews as individuals, to Judaism as a religion, to the Jewish people as a group. Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jewish people fed on a long history of anti-Semitism. For centuries, this intolerance was based on religion and the differing interpretations of the role of Jesus Christ. In the fourth century, when Christianity was the official state religion, Jews who did not convert were denied citizenship and all rights. As religious outcasts, Jews were seen as being cursed by God, and the church and state took legal steps to support this view. Intermittently, Jews were not permitted to farm or engage in the crafts. During the Crusades, Jews were given the choice of baptism or death.
Religious, social, cultural and national arguments kept the Jewish people from the mainstream life of the communities in which they lived. When blood and racial origin became the basis of anti-Semitism in the early nineteenth century, the dream of acceptance and equality was seriously threatened. Now, Jews who had fully assimilated into their countries' culture, and even those Jews who had converted to Christianity, could not escape the classification of Jew. Nor could they escape the dangers that this classification presented. This racial theory about the Jews would support the anti-Semitic interpretation of Jewish attempts at assimilation as an effort to contaminate the Aryan race.
The Yiddish word for little town. Originally small privately owned Polish towns, their size varied from less than 1,000 to 20,000 residents. They were begun in somewhat favorable conditions, although, anti-Jewish persecutions, economic restrictions, and outbreaks of violence did occur, rocking the social and economic foundations of the community. While some Jews preferred to live apart from the rest of the community, hostilities from the larger population and restrictions limiting the rights of Jews created shtetl, bound communities and isolated the Jews from the outside, non-Jewish population. Therefore, even though the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of Poland overlapped in commerce and business, they quite often lived very separate lives.
Rescuers are defined as the non-Jewish people who risked their lives to assist and/or save Jews from their Nazi persecutors. "Righteous Among the Nations" is the English translation of the Hebrew term used to describe rescuers. ( The term "Righteous Gentile" is also used.) The amount of help offered to Jews varied, as did the motivations, values, and attitudes of the helpers. There are some common characteristics, suggested by Nechama Tec, a Holocaust survivor who has studied rescuers, that seem to hold true for all rescuers. These include:
While this is not a conclusive list, and there are other theories and other factors to be considered, these characteristics give a sense of the critical elements of an altruistic personality and suggest a profile noteworthy of attention.
- Strong religious convictions;
- A perception of Jews as economic noncompetitors;
- Independent mind-set to act on their beliefs;
- A strong commitment and moral imperative to defend the needy and helpless;
- An unpremeditated plan for helping or rescuing Jews;
- A matter of fact, unassuming attitude towards their acts of rescue.
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