|© Gay Block, Zofia Baniecka, Poland, from the series Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, 1986|
When researching for what became the book, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, Malka Drucker and I interviewed and I photographed over 100 Christians in eight countries who risked their lives to rescue Jews. Zofia Baniecka (b. 1917) was one of these amazing people. She worked with the Resistance, hiding guns in one part of her Warsaw flat, and Jews in another.
“We weren’t heroes!” Zofia told us. “We did what everyone should have done.” This is a sentence we heard repeatedly as we interviewed rescuers - they refused see themselves as heroes. They were, in fact, ordinary people who never considered the ubiquitous role of bystander. “After the war,” Zofia told us, “I never stopped working for a free Poland – my husband and I were imprisoned many times.”
What qualities gave these ordinary people the courage to choose rescue? Scholars have concluded that not only could they tolerate risk but, more importantly, they were non-conformists. They watched, and as others obeyed unacceptable orders they allowed their hearts to guide their actions.
In terms of historical numbers, rescuers were so few that they are historically insignificant - their acts might occupy a paragraph in a volume about the Holocaust. However, their human, psychological significance is so important that there could never be too many books about their heroic deeds
During this interview, Zofia smoked continuously, lighting one cigarette from another - there was no other way to photograph her. For these portraits I chose color, feeling that black and white would separate the rescuers from reality, giving them the elevated image they so vehemently eschewed. They wanted people today to connect, and to know that it’s possible act as they had, in spite of overwhelming odds.
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography through June 2, 2013. Learn more about Photographer Gay Block and his work on her official website.