But their accomplishments were little known.
“I met Malka in 1985,” Ms. Block said in a recent interview, “and in 1986 she said to me: ‘My rabbi, Harold Schulweis, from Encino, is a great, great man. He has been wanting someone to write a book about the rescuers for 25 years.’ Nobody had wanted to pay attention to their stories because Holocaust survivors said that it whitewashed the Holocaust, and he had never gotten anyone to do it.”
The writer and photographer began interviewing some of the rescuers who had relocated to Southern California, but they eventually traveled to Canada and Europe for 100 interviews. They worked on the project from 1986 to 1988, and in 1992 Ms. Block had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A separate traveling show was produced by Curatorial Assistance, and traveled to 50 venues over 11 years.
Ms. Drucker wrote the original text, Ms. Block made the portraits and edited the interviews, and Cynthia Ozick contributed an introduction to the resulting book, “Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.”
“Each rescuer was so different; was their own person,” she said. “There wasn’t any kind of formula. But by the time we met them so many years later, they didn’t always have such an easy life. It was the biggest privilege of my life to be able to meet these people.”
Familial rebelliousness first drove her to become a member of the underground in Berlin during the war. “It was easy for me to resist Nazi authority because I had always resisted my mother’s authority,” she said.
The countess hid Jews in a secret compartment in her sofa (among other places) and once dared an SS officer to shoot at it while her future husband, Hans, was still was inside. (He failed to call her bluff, thankfully.)
“I was a queen on the black market all during the war,” she recalled, “but I had to be good at it because I had so many extra people to feed. I always said, no matter what came along, ‘I prefer to be in a tough situation than to go to bed with a bad conscience.’
Gustav Mikulai was raised in a Social Democrat family in Budapest and grew up with Jewish friends and neighbors. As a budding musician, he was impressed by the Jewish students he encountered in school.
“The Jews were capable and everyone was envious,” he said. “I understood that from the beginning. I couldn’t be anti-Semitic, first because I thought it would be immoral, and second because I thought well enough of myself that I didn’t need to be envious of them.”
Being a resistance fighter required huge sacrifice, because, as he said, “I found during this time of the Holocaust that I could kill anyone who was suspicious of me. It was a terrible time for humanity.”
Mr. Mikulai was able to look back knowing that he was no bystander, watching while the world was subsumed by chaos. Reflecting from his perch in Bonn, Germany, he knew he had made a difference.
“I think in all I was able to save at least 50 people, and maybe 80 or a hundred,” he said. “I’m happy about the times I was able to rescue children who, now married and with children of their own, who’ll not have had such a life without my help.”
Jan Karski was a Polish spy who eventually became a professor at Georgetown University in Washington. Like a real-life James Bond, he once skied across Slovakia into Hungary on a mission and was eventually caught by the Germans before being rescued by the Polish resistance.
“The ghetto was macabre,” he said in his interview. “It was not a world. It was not a part of humanity. I did not belong there. I vomited blood that night. I saw horrible, horrible things I will never forget. So I agreed to do what they asked of me.”
Mr. Karski managed to meet with both leaders, but was disappointed to hear they were unwilling to put resources directly to stopping the Holocaust, as their focus was on the war. (“Helping Jews was no advantage to the Allied war strategy,” he said.)
When he asked the president what message he should take back to Poland, Roosevelt replied: “‘You will tell them we shall win the war and the enemy will be punished for their crimes. Justice will prevail. Tell your nation that they have a friend in this house. This is what you will tell them.’”
Zofia Baniecka, from Warsaw, was visiting her friend Ruth in Staten Island when she was interviewed for the “Rescuers” project. She and her mother had been integral to the Polish resistance after her father was killed by a Russian bomb in 1941.
Unlike some other rescuers, she and her mother evaded detection the entire time they fought the Nazis. “I was never interrogated or nearly caught, though I don’t know why,” she said. “I was just lucky. Luck, it was only luck, because I kept people and guns in my house from the winter of 1941 until the Polish uprising in August 1944.”
She was consistent with many of her fellow rescuers, however, in stating her desire that these stories be shared well into the future.
“There are many people who have saved my belief in humanity, and that is why it is important for people to know about this time, of Poland during the war, and that there were those of us who did try to save Jews,” she said. “It is necessary for the children to know that there were such people.
Aart and Johtje Vos lived in an artist colony called Laren, near Amsterdam, and their home became a reliable stop on the underground. (So much so that they once had 36 people hiding there.)
“More and more people came to hide in our house,” Johtje said. “We had mattresses all over the floor, and they had to be camouflaged in case the Germans came.”
“Holland was like a family and part of that family was in danger,” Aart said. “In this case, the Jewish part. The Germans were threatening our family. We weren’t thinking, ‘What shall we do?’ We just did.
Helene Jacobs, who was born in Berlin, worked with a group called Confessing Church to provide false papers and identification to German Jews. Eventually, her counterfeit ring was tracked down by the Gestapo, and she was arrested in 1943.
In her interview, she said: “From childhood I believed that each of us who is given the gift of life is responsible for our own life and for what and whom we decide to surround ourselves. This is why I fought Nazism.”
Ms. Jacobs spent 20 months in prison for her “crimes,” and when she was released, discovered that her home had been burned. As a German who battled the Nazis, she felt it was her duty to fight.
Agnieszka Budna-Widerschal was interviewed in Israel, where she lived with her second Jewish husband, Shimon. She sheltered her first Jewish husband, Motl, in Poland during the war and also saved his brothers.
She described her brazen plan to sneak her brothers-in-law through the ghetto to safety: “I pretended to be drunk while the two brothers walked on either side of me, each of them holding me under my arm. There were Nazis all over the street. I knew we would surely run into one of them, and when we did he just took one look at me and said with disgust, ‘Ach, that’s just like a Pole!’ And he walked his way and we went ours!”
Though her family came through World War II intact, Motl died soon after from diabetes. Worse yet, in 1954, during a period of rising anti-Semitism, Agnieszka’s daughter Bella was murdered by a gang of Polish teenagers.
Pieter and Joyce Miedema were interviewed in their home in Canada, where they emigrated in 1952. He had been a Presbyterian minister in Holland and was an early proponent of helping Jews in the face of the Nazi onslaught.
He had a stroke late in life, and his wife spoke on his behalf. They had worked together to shelter and support Jews during the war.
“He thought he should practice what he preached,” she said. “He was always one step ahead,” and told his congregants, “‘If you opt against opening your home and heart to an innocent fugitive, you have no place in the community of the just.’”
Semmy Riekerk worked with her husband, Joop Woortman, to save Jews for the Dutch resistance. “My sister helped, too, but I didn’t know it at the time,” she said in her interview. “You never told anyone anything they didn’t have to know. My husband used anyone he could trust.”
When Joop Woortman was captured, and later killed in Bergen Belsen in 1944, Ms. Riekerk took up his mantle and did the work herself.
“I had to carry on his work until the end of the war,” she said. “They gave me the book that listed 300 names and said: ‘These are the people who are hiding children. You have to take them ration cards and money every month.’ The banks provided money from the Dutch government-in-exile, and our organization provided the ration cards.”
Johannes de Vries, a coal miner, and his wife, Janke, took two Jewish children — a brother and sister named Salomon and Eva Haringman — into their home in southern Holland in 1942. They raised them alongside their own two children, and were also foster parents for other refugees, short term, as a part of an underground railroad.
Eventually, the Jewish children were reunited with their mother in Amsterdam after the war and then moved to Israel when she died in 1947.
Recalling Mrs. Haringman’s original predicament, he said, “What it must have been like for that mother to give up her children to someone she didn’t know.”
Stefania Podgorska Burzminski, born in a small village in Poland, was interviewed above her husband Joe’s dentist office in Massachusetts. She had saved him, and two of his brothers, by hiding a cohort of 13 Jews in a cottage she procured during the war.
Joe’s parents and two of his other brothers had been taken by the Nazis, but he escaped by jumping from a train and soon showed up at Stefania’s house.
“Poor Joe, he was filthy and his clothes were rags,” she recounted. “I gave him my nightgown to wear. Joe cried all night, and my sister laughed at him in my nightgown. I explained to my sister who Joe was, that he was a Jew, that Germans wanted to kill him, and that we had to help him.”
“I work hard all day now, helping Joe in his dentist’s practice,” she told her. “Every time I have to do an interview like this, it brings back all the memories and I can’t sleep for some nights.”
Alex and Mela Roslan were living in Clearwater, Fla., when “Rescuers” was shot. They were originally from Poland and lived near Bialystok during the war.
Alex had a textile business and noticed his Jewish clientele were disappearing, so he put on a star and entered the ghetto. “I saw so many children, hungry and starving,” he said. “They were so skinny. The parents had been taken to ‘farms,’ but we knew what that meant. I came home and told Mela we had to do something. We decided to go to Warsaw.”
The young couple took an apartment and eventually hid three young, wealthy brothers: Jacob, Sholom and David Gutgelt. Though they were never discovered, tragedy struck regardless, as Sholom died of illness, and the Roslans’ son Yurek was killed by a Nazi sniper.
In 1980, though, David moved to America to study at the University of California, Berkeley, and was reunited with the family that saved his life. “At first I didn’t recognize him,” Alex said. “I hadn’t seen him in so long, and he had a beard. But then he threw his arms around me. David is a mathematician, and Jacob is a nuclear scientist.”