Nechama Tec, Polish Holocaust Survivor and Scholar, Dies at 92

by Pelican Press
125 views 9 minutes read

Nechama Tec, a Polish Jew who pretended to be Roman Catholic to survive the Holocaust and then became a Holocaust scholar, writing about Jews as heroic resisters and why certain people, even antisemites, became rescuers, died on Aug. 3 at her home in Manhattan. She was 92.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Roland.

In “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” (1993), Dr. Tec’s best-known book, she described the courageous actions of Tuvia Bielski, who commanded a resistance group that fought the Germans and, more important, saved some 1,200 Jews. The partisans entered ghettos under siege and brought Jews back to the Belarusian forest, where Mr. Bielski had built a community for them.

“Defiance” gave Dr. Tec a platform to show that Jews saved other Jews during the war and were more active in resisting the Nazis than some have commonly believed.

When a friend suggested to the filmmaker Edward Zwick that “Defiance” would make a good movie, he was not immediately persuaded.

“Not another movie about victims,” he recalled his response when he wrote in The New York Times about directing the film, released in 2008, which starred Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski and Liev Schreiber as his brother Zus.

“No, this is a story about Jewish heroes,” he said his friend told him. “Like the Maccabees, only better.”

As Mr. Zwick put it, “Rather than victims wearing yellow stars, here were fighters in fur chapkas brandishing submachine guns.”

After “Defiance,” Dr. Tec wrote “When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland” (1986). Her interviews with rescuers for that book yielded a portrait of Christians who hid Jews, despite the likelihood of being imprisoned or killed for providing such aid. They were, she concluded, outsiders who were marginal in their communities; had a history of performing good deeds; did not view their actions as heroic; and did not agonize over being helpful.

The cover of Dr. Tec’s book “Defiance.”

“Many were casually antisemitic, but that wasn’t their prime purpose in life,” said Christopher R. Browning, a Holocaust expert who is a professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina and who edited, with Dr. Tec and Richard S. Hollander, a collection of letters written by Mr. Hollander’s Polish Jewish family from 1939 to 1942. “Using her skills as a sociologist, she was able to portray a more complex spectrum of interactions than the simplistic ones that people who didn’t collect empirical data as she had.”

Nechama Bawnik was born on May 15, 1931, in Lublin, Poland. Her father, Roman, owned a chemical factory. Her mother, Esther (Finkelstein) Bawnik, was a homemaker.

Soon after the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, Mr. Bawnik transferred title of his factory, rather than have the Nazis confiscate it, to his foreman, who also gave him a job and a place for the Bawniks, including Nechama’s older sister, Giza, to live on the top floor of the building. Nechama hid in the living quarters, her only link to the outside a hole in a wall that let her look onto the courtyard of a convent school.

As conditions for Jews worsened and rumors of deportations frightened them, the family considered relocating to Warsaw but found it too perilous. In mid-1942, Nechama’s parents sent her and Giza to live with a family in Otwock, Poland, a half-hour’s train ride from Warsaw. Nechama had false papers that identified her as Krysia Bloch. To help her play the role, she learned Catholic prayers and a family history.

The sisters, who both had blond hair and blue eyes, were able to pass as orphaned nieces of the family they were living with and moved around without hiding. In the summer of 1943, they and their parents moved in with a family in Kielce.

When the Bawniks needed money in Kielce, Nechama’s mother baked rolls and sent Nechama to sell them in a local black market. Nechama also sold bottles of vodka that had been distilled by a local farmer, Roland Tec said. Once, he said in a phone interview, a retailer denounced her and the Gestapo chased her away; when she returned, her father told her to run into nearby fields, while her parents hid under floorboards, until it was safe.

After the war, the family returned briefly to Lublin and then moved to Berlin. In 1949, Nechama immigrated to Israel, where she met Leon Tec, a Polish-born internist who later became a child psychiatrist. They married in 1950 and moved to the United States two years later.

Nechama studied sociology at Columbia University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1954 and a master’s in 1955.

After working at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, she began teaching sociology in 1957 at Columbia. She then taught at Rutgers University, returned to Columbia and moved to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., before joining the sociology faculty of the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus, in 1974. She remained there for 36 years.

She earned a Ph.D., also in sociology, from Columbia, in 1965.

Dr. Tec said that she had been determined to put her Holocaust past behind her, but that in 1975 her childhood experiences demanded her attention.

“When these demands turned into a compelling force,” she wrote in “Defiance,” “I decided to revisit my past by writing an autobiography.”

In that autobiography, “Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood” (1982), she recalled the attitude that Helena, the grandmother in the family of rescuers in Kielce, had toward Jews.

“I would not harm a Jew,” Dr. Tec recalled Helena saying, “but I see no point in going out of my way to help one.” She added: “You and your family are not like Jews. If they wanted to send you away now, I would not let them.”

In another book, “Into the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen” (1990), Dr. Tec explored the life of another Polish Jew, who hid his identity, worked as a translator for the German police and helped save about 200 Jews in the Mir ghetto.

“Especially riveting are the details of his translations for his German superiors,” Susan Shapiro wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “in which his careful change of two words could save an entire Jewish community.”

After his identity was revealed, Mr. Rufeisen took refuge in a monastery, converted to Catholicism and joined partisan fighters, according to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance and research center in Jerusalem. He became a Catholic priest after the war and moved to Israel, where he joined a monastery on Mount Carmel.

In addition to her son, Dr. Tec is survived by her daughter, Leora Tec; two grandsons; one great-grandson; and a half sister, Catharina Knoll. Her husband and her sister, Giza Agmon, both died in 2013.

During the filming of “Defiance,” Dr. Tec was pleased to see that the Bielski partisan camp in the Belarusian forest had been faithfully recreated in Lithuania, with a kitchen and workshops to repair shoes and watches and to tan leather.

“She was in awe of what they had built; it was really incredible,” said her son, who was a co-producer of the film. He added: “As soon as Daniel Craig saw her on the set, he cornered her and spent an hour or an hour and a half asking her questions. It was wonderful.”

Source link

Leave a Comment

You may also like