When we think of Holocaust heroes, most of us think of Oskar Schindler and his famous list. Yet Schindler was just one of many men and women who took a stand against Hitler’s Final Solution. Here are ten little known heroes who risked everything they had for their fellow human beings.
10. Anton Sukhinski
Everyone knows an Anton Sukhinski. He was the nutty guy who lived outside town in a small, wobbly shack. Sukhinski was considered the local weirdo, and people constantly made fun of this “village idiot.” But when the Nazis rolled into Poland, Sukhinski was the only man in the town of Zborow who would help runaway Jews.
Sukhinski immediately took in a sixteen-year-old girl, keeping her hidden in his cellar. Next, he offered protection to the Zeigers, a family he knew from before the war. When the Zeigers accepted sanctuary, they brought along a family friend and a young orphan girl, raising Sukhinski’s refugee count to seven. Eventually, his neighbors discovered he was harboring Jews, and they started blackmailing the group in exchange for silence. While Sukhinski didn’t have a violent bone in his body, one of the Zeigers eventually pulled a pistol and started firing at the neighbors, a decision that resulted in the death of the Zeiger family friend.
Terrified the sounds of gunfire would attract the Nazis, the Zeigers took off into the woods. But when they couldn’t find another hiding place, they were forced to return to Sukhinski’s home. Never one to fear for his own safety, Sukhinski dug a hole in his cellar for the family to hide in. They spent the next nine months in that little hole, unable to move, while Sukhinski brought them what little food he could scavenge. When the Nazis were finally driven out of Poland, Sukhinski’s survivors could barely walk, but they were alive. The six Jews went their separate ways, but they never forgot Sukhinski’s sacrifice. In 1974, the eccentric old man was honored by Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust museum in Israel, and recognized as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
9. The Hardaga Family
There are quite a few Muslims and Jews in the world who don’t get along. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case back in 1941 when Nazis invaded Yugoslavia. After the Luftwaffe bombed their home, the Jewish Kavilio family didn’t know where to go. Josef Kavilio, his wife, and their children were hiding in the mountains and decided to make a run for their family factory. Fortunately, they bumped into a Muslim man named Mustafa Hardaga who owned the factory building.
When Mustafa learned of their plight, he insisted the family stay in his home — which posed a slight problem, religiously speaking. Mustafa lived with his wife, Zejneba, as well as his brother and sister-in-law. The Hardagas had strict beliefs about modesty, and the women were required to cover their faces in the presence of strange men. But Mustafa wasn’t going to let a veil stand in the way of his friends’ safety. The Hardagas declared the Kavilios were part of their family, and the women had no need to cover up.
The Hardagas lived right by the newly established Gestapo headquarters, and everywhere you went there were signs threatening citizens with death if they were caught helping Jews. The Hardagas didn’t care, but the Kavilios didn’t want to put their friends in more danger. Eventually, Josef’s wife and the children fled to a city governed by the Italians, which was slightly safer than hiding in a Nazi-controlled zone. Only Josef stayed behind to close down the family business, and that’s when he was caught.
Fortunately, Josef wasn’t executed. Instead, he was sentenced to serve in a chain gang, shoveling snow off the roads. As he worked, Zejneba Hardaga brought food to the prisoners. Josef would escape and make it back to his family, and after the war the Kavilios moved to Jerusalem. There they would convince Yad Vashem to declare the Hardagas the first Muslim “Righteous Among the Nations.”
The story took a truly amazing turn in 1994 when Serbs attacked Sarajevo. Zejneba Hardaga and her family were forced to take shelter in a basement. When Yad Vashem learned of their situation, they worked with the Bosnian government to get the Hardagas out of the country and safely to Israel. The situation had come full circle, and when Zejneba arrived in the Holy Land she was greeted by one of Josef Kavilio’s daughters.
8. Maximilian Kolbe
Maximilian Kolbe kept himself pretty busy before the Nazis showed up. A Franciscan priest, Kolbe established the Militia Immaculata, a missionary group that spread the Catholic faith across the world. Kolbe set up monasteries in Poland and Japan, created a magazine, opened a seminary, and even established his own radio station.
Everything changed in 1939 when the Third Reich invaded Poland. Kolbe opened the doors of his monastery and hid 2,000 Jewish refugees. Eventually, the Germans grew wise to Kolbe’s activities and arrested him in 1941. The brave priest was shipped to Auschwitz, where the story takes a truly amazing turn.
A prisoner escaped from the notorious camp during Kolbe’s first year. The Nazis weren’t happy and decided to punish ten random men by sending them to the notorious Block 13, where they would be stripped and starved to death in total darkness. One of the men in line that day was Francis Gajowniczek, and when the deputy camp commander picked him for death he began begging for his life. When he mentioned his wife and children, Father Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take Gajowniczek’s place. Surprisingly, the commander agreed.
Kolbe was sent to the torture block, but despite his circumstances the priest didn’t despair. Instead, he led the other men in prayer and song. Three weeks later, Kolbe was the only man left alive. Wanting to finish things up, an executioner injected Father Kolbe with a syringe full of carbolic acid. While his body was burned, Kolbe’s story of self-sacrifice lived on — Gajowniczek lived until 1995 and spread Kolbe’s story far and wide. The Franciscan was canonized in 1982 and was described by Pope John Paul II as “the Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century.”
7. Albert Goering
When most people hear the name “Goering,” they think of the infamous Hermann Goering, second-in-command of Nazi Germany. However, Hermann wasn’t the only member of his family involved in the Holocaust. His younger brother, Albert, was heavily involved as well, only Albert saved lives instead of destroying them.
Despite his family ties, Albert hated the Nazi party with every fiber of his being. As an export director of a weapons manufacturing plant, he turned a blind eye when his workers stole guns to fight the Nazis. In fact, he donated large chunks of money to the resistance movement, aiding their war against Hitler’s regime. But Albert’s contributions were far more than just financial — he was responsible for sneaking Jews and non-Jews alike out of the Third Reich’s reach. On one occasion, he tricked the commandant of Dachau into releasing a resistance fighter by sending him an order on letterhead bearing the Goering name. He also personally drove an Austrian film producer to freedom, helping him escape in the nick of time.
Goering helped numerous others find freedom by getting exit permits and setting up Swiss bank accounts so they could survive away from home. What’s even more amazing is the Gestapo knew exactly what Albert was up to. They kept a file on the younger Goering and had him arrested on several occasions. But each time, big brother Hermann ordered Albert’s release. He was quite literally Albert’s get-out-of-jail-free card.
After the war ended the Allies didn’t believe Albert’s story. Hoping to prove his innocence, Albert made a list of thirty-four famous figures he’d saved during Hitler’s rule. He was released, only to be arrested again, this time by the Czechs. He was finally cleared of any wrong doing and released for good in 1947, but thanks to his brother’s legacy Albert was unable to start a new life. He died poor and miserable in 1966, but William Burke’s 2009 biography brought Albert back into the historical spotlight.
6. Janusz Korczak
Janusz Korczak was a man who loved children. Born into a family of non-practicing Jews, Korczak dedicated his life to caring for the poor youth of Warsaw. Ironically, he swore he’d never marry or have children of his own — he’d spend his whole life helping others. In making this decision, Korczak turned his back on a promising literary career. The good doctor was an accomplished writer, but instead of becoming a prominent author he opened two orphanages and divided his time between helping kids and asking for much-needed donations.
If running an orphanage was difficult, it became nearly impossible after the Nazis invaded. Korczak’s first orphanage, Dom Sierot, was an all-Jewish orphanage, and the children were required to wear the Star of David. Janusz refused to obey the new rule, and instead made his own special blue flag bearing the Jewish symbol. Whenever he and his children left the orphanage, they’d march parade style down the street, proudly waving Korczak’s new banner.
In 1940, Korczak and the nearly two hundred children of Dom Sierot were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. What’s truly incredible is that on numerous occasions, wealthy benefactors and resistance leaders offered the doctor a chance to flee the country. But each time, Korczak said no. If he left, who would take care of the children? Eventually, Korczak and the remaining orphans were sent to Treblinka. Survivors of that horrible day never forgot how Korczak led the children to the train station. The boys and girls all marched behind him, holding hands, all following a father who promised to never leave them.