Book Review of Holocaust Memoir Dry Tears by Nechama Tec

In contrast to other Holocaust memoirs that describe what it took to survive the concentration camps, Dry Tears is the story of a Jewish young girl with blond hair and blue eyes trying to pass as a Christian in Nazi-occupied Poland. At the beginning of the book, Nechama’s father worries that she and her sister will fall behind in school. Of course, her learning cannot take place in a traditional school since the Nazis have closed them to Jews. Even private tutoring becomes impossible.

Yet Nechama acquires different kinds of knowledge during the war years. Nazis made it extremely difficult for Poles to find enough to eat because of the activities of the Polish underground. Jews were not supposed to be in Poland at all, so there were no food rations for them. Since she looked Aryan, Nechama could pass for a Pole and venture out of her family’s hiding place. She learns to bargain for the cheapest food prices on the “black market.” Later, she learns to sell her mother’s rolls at the same market when the family finances are low.

Child vendor in ghetto during the Holocaust

Child vendor in ghetto during the Holocaust (Nechama is not living in a ghetto, but she still sells food illegally to other Poles)

Nechama also acquires knowledge about human nature most eleven year olds do not. The Christian family that takes her and her family into their small home in the Polish countryside do not do so out of charity, but out of their own self-interest. Poles were unpopular with the Nazis as it was, and hiding any Jew was punishable by death. However, no one could survive on the wages that Nazis provided to Poles, so families like the Homars decide to “keep cats,” meaning that they took in Jews in return for handsome sums of money.

Some of the members of the Homar family treat Nechama very well. Helena, the family matriarch, even encourages the girl to call her Grandma. Yet despite her affection for Nechama, Helena says that she initially disagreed with having Jews come to stay in her home because Christian blood should not be spilt for Jewish blood. The Homars, like most other Polish families, are anti-Semitic. They emphasize that Nechama and her family are “not really Jewish” because “real Jews were greedy and dishonest”–qualities that Nechama’s family abhors.

Nechama cannot understand how the Homars could like her family and still think bad things about Jews. Her father tells her that the Homars’ anti-Semitism comes from hating an abstraction, a caricature of Jews that does not exist. Soon Nechama discovers that adults are not the only ones who think Jews are evil. Children that she socializes with in the small Polish village of Kielce also make anti-Semitic remarks. She says, “in a sense, they were unconsciously telling me that I was their friend only for as long as they thought I was one of them.”

As Nechama gains knowledge, the reader learns that a trying to pass as a Christian in Poland during World War II is fraught with almost as many dangers as trying to survive a concentration camp. There are random raids on Poles that threaten to deport even Aryan looking Jews. Certain members of the Homar family are less trustworthy than others, making their hiding place precarious. Nechama’s efforts to get food and money for her family place her in special danger since Nazis hate the Poles’ black market activities.

The fact that her looks give her the opportunity to pass does not ensure her survival or her family’s. Nechama’s unique struggles make this memoir a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Holocaust years or students of human nature.

Raoul Wallenberg and the Rescue of Jews During World War II

As a young man growing up in Sweden, Raoul Wallenberg couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do with his life. His family expected him to become a banker, but his grandfather also wanted him to travel Europe. Wallenberg thought traveling to foreign countries was exciting, so with his grandfather’s blessing he worked for a branch of the family’s bank in Haifa, Palestine. Since he arrived in Palestine during the 1930s, the boarding house where he stayed at night was filled with Jewish families who recently fled Germany. Adolf Hitler was in power and the Nazi party placed harsh penalties on the Jews, making it difficult for them to earn a living or even walk the streets without fear of being beaten.

 Traveling Europe after World War II

Bored with his work, Wallenberg left the bank. After World War II began, he met a Jewish businessman named Koloman Lauer from Hungary. Wallenberg’s home country stayed neutral during the war, but Hungary’s alliance with Germany made it impossible for native Jewish businessmen to travel in Europe. Instead, Lauer hired Wallenberg to travel on his behalf. Though Wallenberg enjoyed traveling, what he saw in Nazi-occupied territories like Hungary disturbed him. He encountered Nazis beating Jews in the streets and saw families rounded up and sent to so-called labor camps where they seemed to disappear. Wallenberg’s family was Jewish and he wanted to do something help, but he didn’t know what he could do.

 Wallenberg’s Assignment

Finally, in 1944, Wallenberg received the opportunity to aid Europe’s Jews. The United States had just formed the War Refugee Board, which was designed to provide rescue and relief programs for European Jews. The Board’s representative in Sweden needed a Swedish diplomat who could travel to Budapest, Hungary and rescue Jews there. Wallenberg’s boss mentioned his name to the WRB representative in Sweden, Iver Olsen. Olsen met with Wallenberg and warned him of the dangers of his mission. Wallenberg didn’t care about himself—he just wanted to do something to stop the Nazis.

 Efforts to Protect Hungarian Jews

When he arrived in Hungary, Wallenberg decided the best way to protect Jews was to provide them with Swedish identification badges. The badges proved that these Jews had ties to the neutral country of Sweden and therefore could not be deported by the Nazis. When Wallenberg ran out of official badges, he printed his own. Approximately 7,000 Hungarians received protective badges. Wallenberg also turned large houses in Budapest into Swedish safe houses and allowed Jewish people to live in them. Each house flew the Swedish flag, signifying neutral territory. The badges and safe houses all served the purpose of protecting Jews from deportation to concentration camps where Jews were killed. With the help of a Jewish staff, Wallenberg also worked on other projects, like setting up hospitals and soup kitchens for needy Jews.

Opposition

Despite Wallenberg’s best efforts to protect Hungarian Jews, the Nazis sometimes tried to defy him. On one occasion, he returned to the safe houses and discovered German troops rounding up all the able-bodied Jewish men. When the German patrol refused to leave, Wallenberg said, “As long as I live, none will be taken out of here. First you will have to shoot me.” The Nazis decided against making an enemy out of Sweden by killing Wallenberg, so the patrol left. Unfortunately, they returned later to snatch a handful of Jews and placed them on a train bound for a concentration camp. Undaunted, Wallenberg sped away in his car and caught up with the train. He shouted for the Jews onboard to show their papers, and anyone with Swedish papers returned to the safe houses with him.

Results of Wallenberg’s Work

Wallenberg’s massive efforts helped save tens of thousands of Jews. Though Wallenberg mysteriously disappeared when the Soviet Army arrived in Budapest in 1945, he left a legacy of helping others even when the task endangered his life.

The Importance of Teaching the Holocaust

Though by middle school I knew about the murder of Jewish people and others in the Holocaust during World War II, the topic was not emphasized in my history classes. As a teenager, I watched the movie Schindler’s List at a friend’s house. Seeing this movie was an emotional experience for me, particularly at the end when the main character regrets that he could not save more Jews.

After watching Schindler’s List, I came to the conclusion that the Germans were bad people. The movie’s characters are portrayed as either good or evil. If I had only watched the movie, I would have held on to these assumptions. When I finally took a course on the Holocaust in college, however, I realized that the film stereotyped the behavior of Germans and Jews during the Holocaust. For example, Nazis were not simply fanatical murderers. Many of them were well educated, loved their families, and enjoyed classical music. In fact, classical music helped some Nazis relax after the day’s brutalities. They were not terrible people but rather people who did terrible things. Also, not all Jews were helpless victims. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi said that the history of the concentration camps could not be divided into simple groups of victims and persecutors. He talked about a “gray zone” in which corrupt Jews in positions of authority abused fellow prisoners while some Nazis showed they were human by weeping as they killed people.

In addition to the gray boundaries between victims and persecutors, I learned that the German population as a whole was not made up of monsters. Instead, they were mainly worried about their own well being in wartime. Busy with their own concerns, average Germans reacted with indifference when Jews were excluded from certain professions and public places.

While the German indifference towards the Jews is inexcusable, the amount of knowledge that the German population had about the extermination of the Jews is still debatable. Although their indifference to milder forms of prejudice made it possible for others to contemplate extermination, the majority of Germans had little information about the death camps. As one historian suggested, “the very secrecy of the ‘Final Solution’ [the Nazis’ plan to kill the Jews] demonstrates more clearly than anything else the fact that the Nazi leadership felt it could not rely on popular backing for its extermination policy.”

In fact, if faced with enough problems of our own, Americans might act with indifference toward a persecuted group. This is one of the most important reasons that young adults should study the Holocaust. Although the Holocaust happened years ago, prejudice against others who are different can still lead to serious consequences. The underlying dislike of Jews in the minds of Europeans laid the foundation for a catastrophe, particularly when the Great Depression in the 1930s came and people could not find work. Many European countries were also beaten down after losing World War I.  The majority of Europeans blamed the Jews for their sufferings and looked for a leader who would tell them how great their country would be again.

Of course, some Americans might say that we are not prejudiced against Jews, did not elect Adolf Hitler, and our economy is not as bad as it was in the 1930s. Yet some of the same ingredients for another Holocaust exist in America today. Murders of homosexuals, the isolation of some African-Americans and others in ghettos, as well as racial hate groups are all present in American society. Like the majority of the German population during World War II, most people in America do not condone killing minorities, but some feel uncomfortable helping them or associating with them. If this prejudice spreads and other factors like an economic depression and a persuasive leader are added, the world could witness another Holocaust. Teaching the Holocaust is important because it shows students that we must learn from history so the same event cannot happen again.