By Erin Zenger, 2016 ASAP Alum
When countless individuals agree that inhumane actions are justified and work to extinguish an entire population, do the actions of a single member of society matter? When an entire society, and seemingly the whole world, has turned their back on and shunned a “minority” population, can one person who stands in the name of justice change anything at all?
In grade school, many students come to believe that Adolf Hitler, a single man, was the sole cause of the Holocaust and that his charisma and ability to incite fear in the German constituency led to the unjustified deaths of millions. Unfortunately, this misperception permeates Holocaust education well beyond a student’s formative years and deviates only when one focuses their studies on the centuries of persecution and discrimination that fostered, supported, and helped to develop and enrich Nazi ideology in the twentieth century. However, if society has come to believe in the ability of a single man to act as the main catalyst for the Holocaust, shouldn’t society then also believe in the power of individual resistance and agency—the power of one person to stand against the norm and fight for humanity and justice?
During ASAP, cadets and midshipmen had the unique opportunity to speak with survivors of the Holocaust as well as Righteous Gentiles—selfless individuals who stood against the Nazi party to save the lives of strangers. Although all of their stories were very different, every story was the same in the fact that these speakers were able to highlight the power of individual decisions and choices. They spoke about either decisions that they themselves made or decisions that were made by strangers and have allowed them to share their stories. In taking a stand against Nazi ideology, standing up for themselves and their right to life and freedom of religion, or standing up for innocent victims, they practiced their rights to make an individual decision and stand up for what they thought was just—what they knew was moral and ethical. They did not fall prey to the ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. They did not allow fear and unsettling threats directed at them or their families to disorient their moral compass. Instead, the following individuals survived due to the selfless actions of others or they themselves exercised their agency to stand against the Nazi regime and stand in the name of justice.
Without the help of neighbors, friends, and strangers, Sally Frishberg, a survivor of the Holocaust who spoke with cadets and midshipmen during ASAP, may not have the same stories to tell. In fact, she may not have a story to tell at all. Only five years old when World War II and the institutionalized hatred against the Jewish community began, Ms. Frishberg survived the Holocaust largely in part to the selfless actions of strangers; “good people” who quietly stood against the Nazi regime and risked their lives on behalf of justice. With food, clothing and other life sustaining supplies already rationed, the strangers like those who hid and protected the Frishberg family from the Nazi party sacrificed even more, as they provided for Jewish refugees who were hidden in attics, spare rooms, basements, and sometimes even out in the open, disguised as a distant relative.
Mirosława Gruszczynska, a Righteous Gentile, defined as a non-Jew who risked his or her live to save Jew(s) during the Holocaust, honored by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, is one of the silent many who stood in the name of justice and joined her family as they risked their lives to save Miri, a stranger, a Jew. Though only a school-aged girl during the Holocaust, she, her sister, and her mother hid Miri in occupied Poland for over twenty months. When Miri first came to the Przebindowska (Mirosława’s maiden name) family, the understanding was that they would only hide Miri in their shed for a few days, a week at most, until Mirosława’s uncle was able to secure a different location for her. However, when Miri became sick, just a few days after coming to the Przebindowska home, they brought her into their home and cared for her, telling friends, neighbors, and Nazi soldiers that Miri was a distant relative who came to live with them as a consequence of the war. When the war was over, the Przebindowska family continued to support Miri and helped her find her brother and father, reuniting a family that thought they would never see each other again.
MAJ Andrzej Wiczynski, a veteran of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, also made large sacrifices on behalf of the millions of innocent victims persecuted by the Nazi Party. At the age of thirteen, MAJ Wiczynski volunteered for the Polish Underground as a scout. By the time he was seventeen, he was the platoon leader of sixty-five boys, aged fourteen to sixteen, and rebelled against the Nazi party in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Through the American Service Academy Program (ASAP), cadets and midshipmen witness first and second hand accounts that illuminate the power, impact, and consequences of one person standing in the name of justice to protect their family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers. Individuals selflessly risked their lives and sacrificed during times of extreme hardship simply because it was the right thing to do. In focusing on the power that individuals have, not only in the catalyst effect of individual actions but also in the long term consequences, bystanders in today’s mass atrocities may find motivation to take a stand against inhumanity.
In 2009, Erin enlisted in the Army National Guard. After graduating from Alden High School in 2010, she attended Basic Combat Training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. As a Military Intelligence Specialist, her Advanced Individual Training took her to Fort Huachuca, Arizona. As a member of the New York National Guard, Erin was assigned to the Intelligence Section of the 27th BSTB, which was deployed to Kuwait in 2012. During her time in Kuwait, Erin decided to transition to the Officer Corps and applied to West Point. As a cadet, Erin was the President of the Academy’s Phi Alpha Theta Chapter and also participated on the West Point Obstacle Course Team and the Gold Sandhurst Squad. Erin commissioned as an Engineer in May 2017 and is now at the Basic Officer Leader’s Course in Fort Leonard Wood.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit: https://mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Summer 2017 newsletter articles are found here.