Treason or Honor
Important Events of World War II
|Parts of this guide are taken wholly or partially from discussion guides prepared by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for The Foundation for Moral Courage. Those parts are in italics.|
Treason or Honor
This film is one of a series that portrays the moral courage and heroism of non-Jewish Europeans who, in defiance of the Nazi terror of the 1930s and 1940s, and at great risk to themselves, helped to save Jewish lives. The other films in this series tell the story as it happened in countries other than Germany but also under Nazi influence or occupation. This film, however, has a special meaning in that it deals with Germany itself, the heartland of the racial theories and the persecution that led to the Holocaust. It was in Germany, then, that the question of "Treason or Honor" was posed in its most chilling form. We are introduced to six German nationals who found it possible in the center of Nazi tyranny to hide and protect German Jewish fugitives. Why they accepted the risk of defying German law is as important to understand as how they rescued these people.
Herbert Schroedter: Soldier on the Russian front; son of rescuers; tells the story.
Mr. and Mrs. Reich, child: Jews rescued by the Schroedters.
Mr. and Mrs. Sachs, mother: Rescued by the Schroedters.
Roswitha Baudisch: Daughter of the Schwersenskys; tells the story.
Ilse and Gerhard Schwersensky: Quakers who rescued Jews.
Lottie Katz: Rescued by the Schwersenskys.
Lorraine Jacoby: Rescued by the Schwersenskys.
Adolf Althoff: Director of the Althoff Circus; rescued the Danners.
Irene Danner, mother, and sister: Hidden in Althoff Circus.
Severin and Anastasia Gerschuetz: Took in Jewish women.
Eva Schmalenbach: Hidden by the Gerschuetzes
Irene Schmalenbach: Mother to Eva, hidden by the Gerschuetzes.
Hilmar Gerschuetz: Youngest son of rescuers; tells the story.
Berthold Beitz: Civilian engineer; hid Jews and saved them as skilled workers.
Dr. Bernd Schmalhausen: Biographer of Beitz; tells the story.
Roman Halter: Polish, Jewish forced laborer; escaped and hid at the Fuchs' farm.
Mr. and Mrs. Fuchs: Farmers who hid Halter.
Professor Yehuda Bauer: Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Israel; honors the rescuers.
(in the order viewed and/or mentioned)
Auschwitz (extermination camp)
Ravensbrueck (concentration camp)
Boryslaw, Poland (now Borislav, Ukraine)
Belzec (extermination camp)
(in the order used in the video)
Deported to the East
Yellow badge for "Jews"
A significant Jewish community existed in Germany as early as the late Middle Ages. The history of that community is part of European history broadly defined. But, throughout the course of the political and economic evolution and upheavals of Western civilization, the Jews were virtually always treated as a separate group. They were frequently persecuted on the one hand, yet on the other hand, some were able to make valuable contributions to the societies in which they lived.
The late 18th and 19th centuries, a time referred to as the Enlightenment, saw the beginning of increased Jewish participation into modern European society. The emancipation of Jews and their integration into the broader community was also part of German history as that region moved toward unification in 1871. But anti-Semitism had by no means disappeared. Elements of German society continued to espouse racist and anti-Jewish philosophies, whether formally through political parties or within social, economic, and cultural organizations. Thus, two conflicting historical strands continued to be played out within German society: the spirit of the Enlightenment against the dark underlying currents of anti-Semitism. The polarization between the integration of Jews throughout German society and the rising tide of politically motivated anti-Semitism became strongly pronounced after World War I, with the establishment of the democratic Weimar Republic. It was during this period, in Bavaria in 1919, that the National Socialist Party was established and, with it, the formal adoption of its pernicious racial doctrines.
Initially a small radical party, the Nazis were largely ignored during the early years of the Weimar Republic. But this changed dramatically as the global economic crisis of the depression hit Germany. Thus, in 1928, the Nazi party won 3 percent of the vote for the Reichstag, the German parliament. This vote rose to 18 percent in 1930 and 37 percent in 1932, enabling the Nazis to become the largest party in the Reichstag. As the Nazi party gained strength, not only did its anti-Jewish violence increase, but the "Jewish question" became one of the central political issues in its thrust for power. The democratic Weimar regime faltered and ultimately collapsed as Germany's constitutional and economic crises intensified.
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor and the paramilitary organizations of the Nazi party quickly moved to remake Germany into a totalitarian state. Their strategy included a campaign of almost unrestrained hostility toward the Jewish population. Within a few months, the so-called "Enabling Law" was passed to give dictatorial power to Hitler and his subordinate leaders of the Third Reich.
Anti-Jewish laws and decrees, as well as acts of terrorism and incitement against Jews, quickly accelerated. This culminated in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which formally defined the racist policies of the German government and gave legal status to the course of events to follow. In 1938, Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," marked a new high point in state-sanctioned terrorism against the Jewish population, with widespread destruction of Jewish synagogues, businesses, and lives. Finally, in 1941, the "Final Solution," the Nazi-inspired program for the murder of the Jewish population in Germany and in all of Europe, began.
"Treason or Honor" opens with a summary of the course of anti-Jewish actions taken by the Nazis as a result of their assumption of power. Archival footage illustrates the increasing drive toward implementation of their declared strategy for the annihilation of European Jewry.
At first, many Jews and others ignored or minimized the growing threat of the Third Reich. But the darkness intensified with the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht and the consolidation of national unity supporting the policies of the regime. By 1939, half of the Jews of Germany had fled. But many others found themselves unable to escape or were turned back at border crossings. In 1941, the trains began transporting German Jews to the death camps in Germany and Poland, and the terror of the Holocaust began to unfold.
While the Jews of Germany found themselves hopelessly trapped by the stranglehold of the German government's policies, there were a few non-Jewish Germans who responded to the tragic circumstances of the time. They reached out to helpto rescue Jewish fugitives where and when they could. All Germans could have been hostile or indifferent to the plight of the Jews, but a few chose instead to do what they could to try to be helpfuleven though their actions were illegal and fraught with great danger to themselves. "Treason or Honor" recounts the experiences of six such individuals and families.
An aging German tells how, as a young soldier returning from the Russian front in 1944, he found out that his parents had hidden two Jewish families for two years. Notwithstanding the warnings they had received and their constant concern over betrayal, this couple persevered in their protection of the two families until the war ended.
A Quaker family, themselves restricted by German policies, unable to find work or to move freely, nevertheless took into their small apartment two young Jewish women. Their Quaker background gave them the moral strength to resist the Nazis as best they could and to offer help to their fellow human beings.
A circus owner, gruff and commanding in personality, put a Jewish woman into a circus act to save her and her family. He somehow managed to get rid of others in his troupe who complained. He says simply that he had to do it, to save these people, although "I still don't know how I could have done it."
The son of another couple, a Bavarian family, tells how his parents took in a Jewish mother and daughter as they moved from place to place ahead of the Nazi authorities. The son explains that it was very difficult for his parents to be inwardly against their own fatherland, but they were convinced anti-Nazis and true to the church.
For a German engineer and business manager, the Nazi regime meant an assignment early in the war to a small city in Poland, where he was placed in charge of a factory and had access to a Jewish labor force. When the deportations of Jews began from this city, he realized what was happening, that they were being sent to their deaths. To save those he could, he claimed to the Nazi officials that he needed many of the Jews who were about to be deported. He also hid Jews in his office and his home as well. He said he was young and didn't worry about the risks.
Finally, an elderly woman from Dresden tells of the destruction from Allied bombing that rained down on that city during the war. In the midst of the difficulty for the local population, a young Jewish man escaped from a forced labor death march and turned to her and her husband. Help was not refused. They hid him, trusting no one, and lived in constant fear and privation.
The woman notes that the persecution of the Jews had weighed heavily on her and her husband. She sadly recalls the harsh treatment given to so many innocents. But a greater sadness and pain emerges. She then explains that her husband, at the end of the war, was killed by the Nazis. The Nazis said he was a traitor and they killed him. The widow still lives in her home near Dresden, close to where her husband is buried.
The Memorial of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem records the deeds of these and other non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. Compared with the need of Jews desperate for help against the finality of the Holocaust, the actual numbers of those providing aid and rescue were small. This was especially true in Germany itself.
But as the film makes clear, those who had a chance to help people in need, in this case Jewish fugitives, faced the choice between evil and good. Something in the conscience of some of these individuals and families led them to risk their own lives to help their people to do the right thing because it was, in fact, the right thing to do. In so doing, it is argued, they lifted themselves to the highest level of true humanity. The good in their lives is thus enshrined in the annals of Yad Vashem, where they are honored as Righteous Among the Nations and, through this film, in our own thoughts as well.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, was established in 1953 by an act of the Israeli Knesset. Its purpose is threefold:
The Avenue and Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations honor those non-Jews who, according to the most noble principles of humanity, risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. Almost 2000 trees, symbolic of the renewal of life, have been planted in and around the avenue. Adjacent to each tree is a plaque listing the names and countries of those being honored. The names of other non-Jews recognized by Yad Vashem as the Righteous Among the Nations are engraved on the walls in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Righteous Among the Nations
Country and Ethnic Origin
Russia + Belarus
Yugoslavia (all countries)
Total Persons ---------------------- 17,433
Yad Vashem, Department
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America and the Holocaust
Courage to Care
Holocaust Hero: A Tree for Sugihara
Memory Of The Camps
Missing Hero: Raoul Wallenberg
Summer Of My German
Survivors of the Holocaust
The Cross and The Star
The Diary of Anne
The Hiding Place
The Longest Hatred
The People Next Door
The Power of Conscience: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews
The White Rose
The Yellow Star
They Risked Their Lives: Rescuers of the Holocaust
We Were So Beloved
Weapons of the Spirit
The Anne Frank Center
The Anne Frank House:
The Candles Holocaust
The Center for Holocaust
and Genocide Studies (University of Minnesota):
Facing History and
Fortunoff Video Archive
for Holocaust Testimonies (Yale University):
Holocaust Guide at
the Mining Company:
Holocaust Museum Houston:
Institute for Global
Life Unworthy of
Peace Abbey Courage
of Conscience Award:
Profile in Courage
Essay Contest/The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation:
Reach and Teach:
Simon Wiesenthal Center:
Story of Oscar SchindlerRake