5. Nicholas Winton
Englishman Nicholas Winton was twenty-nine when the Nazis annexed Czechoslovakia’s western region, the Sudetenland. Winton knew the Nazis were planning on spreading their borders even further, and he was disturbed by their anti-Semitic policies. Wanting to help the refugees, Winton started working on a scheme to rescue as many children as possible.
Winton flew to Prauge and opened an office, and soon thousands of parents were lined up outside his door, all hoping to find safety for their children. Unfortunately, many could barely afford food, let alone tickets to Great Britain. Determined to save the youth, Winton returned to Britain and started posting photographs of the children all across the country, hoping the pictures would inspire donations. He asked, begged, and pleaded for cash for transportation, money for foster parents and a government mandated fifty pounds per child to pay for their eventual departure from Great Britain.
Another snag in Winton’s plan was obtaining entry visas. Since the British government didn’t expect war, they were agonizingly slow in handing out permits. Knowing Europe was about to plunge into conflict, Winton started forging his own visas. Armed with papers and cash, between March and August 1939 Winton rescued at least 669 kids from the Holocaust. Winton was no glory hound and kept his operation a secret — very few knew of Winton’s story until 1988, when his wife discovered a scrapbook filled with photos of the children he’d saved. Thanks to her discovery, Winton received a thank you note from an Israeli ex-president, was made an honorary citizen of Prague, and was knighted by the Queen in 2002. However, his greatest reward came in 1988 when he was introduced to dozens of people he’d saved.
4. Eugene Lazowski
Some of the worst horrors of the Holocaust were perpetrated by doctors like Josef Mengele. But some of the Holocaust’s greatest heroes were doctors who stuck by their Hippocratic Oath in the face of persecution. One such man was Eugene Lazowski. Ironically, he didn’t just care for the sick — he saved lives by creating a fake epidemic.
Stationed with his family in Rozwadow, Poland, Dr. Lazowski was a member of the Polish Red Cross. His backyard was literally next to a Jewish ghetto, and he would occasionally sneak over the fence at night to help the ill and wounded. However, his most impressive feat was fooling the Nazis into thinking Rozwadow was a hotspot for disease. His friend and colleague, Stanislaw Matulewicz, found that if he injected a healthy patient with dead typhus bacteria, the patient would test positive for the disease even though he was perfectly healthy. Seizing the opportunity, Lazowski conspired with Matulewicz to” infect” the citizens of Rozwadow, fooling the Germans into thinking the town was crawling with typhus.
After injecting their patients, Lazowski and Matulewicz sent the blood to Germany. When Nazi doctors learned of the fake epidemic, they freaked out and started quarantining the area. The doctors kept their plan a complete secret the whole time, refusing to even tell their wives. Lazowski’s scheme saved 8,000 townsfolk from death and labor camps, but eventually the Germans figured out Lazowski’s game and the doctor made a run for it. He escaped the Nazis and immigrated to Chicago in the late ‘50s, where he became a pediatrician and was later honored by the AMA Senior Physicians Group. Like all true heroes, Lazowski downplays his own bravery. In his words, “I just found an opportunity to do something good.”
3. Roza Robota
One of the most famous instances of Jewish resistance is the 1944 Auschwitz revolt. On October 7, several sonderkommando units (the prisoners in charge of body disposal) armed themselves with axes, small arms and homemade bombs. The men fought a brief battle with the SS, and while they were ultimately defeated their rebellion was a triumph of the human spirit, a triumph that wouldn’t have been possible without Roza Robota and the women of Auschwitz.
Robota worked in the clothing unit, where she sorted through the belongings of the dead. However, Robota wasn’t content to slave away for the Nazis. She quickly made contact with the Jewish Underground and became instrumental in their plans for insurrection. She was assigned the task of smuggling gunpowder out of the explosives factory, and to do this she worked with over twenty women. This band of young rebels hid gunpowder in matchboxes and passed them along to the sonderkommando, who hid the explosives in carts used to dispose corpses.
Robota and her crew carried on their smuggling work for one and a half years until the sonderkommando launched an attack on the German guards. The revolution was short-lived, and due to a double agent and a few men who cracked under pressure, Robota and three allies were found out. The women were beaten, raped, and electrocuted but never revealed their accomplices. Finally, on January 6, 1945, the women were led to the gallows and hanged. As the Nazis slipped the nooses around their necks, the women sang patriotic songs and promised the Germans would come to justice. Right before Roza Robota plunged to death, she inspired the crowd with her famous last words — “Be strong and be brave!”
2. Alexander Pechersky
The Sobibor extermination camp claimed 250,000 lives before it was shut down in 1943. But shortly before that Sobibor was the site of a rebellion led by Soviet soldier Alekander Pechersky. Pechersky was the commander of the camp resistance movement and started working on an escape attempt.
After deciding tunneling wouldn’t work, Pechersky started planning an armed revolution. He planned to lure the German officers into workshops with the promise of gifts like boots and jackets. Once the Nazis stepped inside, they would be attacked by men bearing axes and knives. When enough officers were picked off, the Jews would arm themselves and attack the front gate.
On October 14, 1943, the conspirators started taking out the guards one by one. After Pechersky eliminated most of the Nazis one of his men cut the camp’s electricity, preventing anyone from radioing for help. But suddenly one of the guards spotted a dead officer, and after sounding the alarm the remaining Germans started firing on the prisoners. Knowing it was now or never, Pechersky jumped up on a table and shouted, “Our day has come. Most of the Germans are dead. Let’s die with honor. Remember, if anyone survives, he must tell the world what has happened here. Comrades forward! Death to the Fascists!”
Over the next few minutes the camp erupted with gunfire. While some prisoners went on the attack, most climbed the camp’s barbed wire fences. Numerous prisoners died while rushing through the surrounding minefields, and of the 300 escapees, only fifty survived World War II. Pechersky made it home alive, but sadly the Soviet Union wasn’t much better than Sobibor. He was imprisoned in a gulag until Stalin’s death, and spent the rest of his life behind the Iron Curtain until passing away in 1990.
1. Witold Pilecki
While most people were thrown into Auschwitz against their will, Captain Witold Pilecki volunteered to go. Far from suicidal, this Polish officer was a secret agent sent to organize resistance and document the horrors behind those barbed fences. Operating under the alias Tomasz Serafinski, Pilecki let himself get arrested in 1940 and was shipped off to the concentration camp, where he was put to work carting rocks. When he wasn’t working, he was building an elaborate network of five-man sleeper cells. He provided his agents with food and clothing and prepared them for an uprising if the underground’s commanders gave the go ahead. Over the span of two and a half years Pilecki’s resistance movement gained 1,000 members, all ready to fight at his word.
Pilecki’s second job was to let the world know what was going on inside Auschwitz. At that point most believed the camp was just a detention center. By smuggling information to members of the Polish government in London, Pilecki alerted the world to the gas chambers and growing piles of corpses. At first using workers who were sent outside the camp, the captain soon started organizing elaborate escape attempts to sneak out messages. Even more amazing was the time he built his own radio transmitter from scraps lying around the camp. Kept in the hospital where guards were afraid to go, Pilecki used the radio to deliver his accounts of the horrors he witnessed every day.
When he wasn’t delivering messages, Pilecki was also planning ways to dispose of SS agents. One insane scheme involved breeding disease-carrying lice which he used to successfully kill several Nazis. Eventually Pilecki was forced to escape himself, both because the Nazis were onto his game and because he wanted to personally convince the Allies to support his plans for an uprising. He successfully broke out in April 1943 but failed to convince the Allies or Polish Underground to liberate the death camp. Still, Pilecki never gave up and played a key role in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Sadly, after Hitler was defeated, Pilecki was arrested for espionage by the new communist government. He was tortured and executed in 1948, and his name was suppressed for years by the totalitarian state. Fortunately, people are finally starting to learn about the man who volunteered for Auschwitz.