The Right Thing To Do
A hero is someone who defies their fear to help others at their own personal risk. Usually, a hero winds up losing a lot, perhaps everything. They help others for no better reason than that it is the right thing to do. World War II was full of gun-swinging, torpedo-launching, button-pushing fearless types about whom books and treatises have been written. The gunslingers may have helped win (or lose, depending on what side they were on) the war, and that certainly is necessary for the whole war equation to work itself out. Those types of heroes will get their own page at some point.
Here, though, we look at the Unsung Heroes of World War II. One could say that anyone who died in the gas chambers was a hero, and they would be correct, but we have to keep this manageable. Many of the names of true heroes are lost and never will be known. A few of the names are known, though, and those are the ones we honor in the absence of all the rest. And, no, this page is not meant to be complete. This is a sampling, meant to show the diversity of heroes.
Not everyone would necessarily agree with every name on this page. So be it. The folks mentioned are in no particular order.
"I hated the brutality, the sadism, and the insanity of the Third Reich. I just couldn't stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had to do, what my conscience told me I must do. That's all there is to it. Really, nothing more." - Oskar SchindlerSchindler was a German factory owner. He also was a member of the Abwehr, the German intelligence (spy) service. The Abwehr was full of people opposed to Hitlerism, and it was headed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, a committed opponent of the regime who himself was executed for that reason in April 1945. In contemporary German parlance, the Abwehr was "a nest of spies" for the Allies. Whether that had anything to do with Schindler ultimately opposing the destructive policies of Hitlerism is difficult to say, and may just be a coincidence.
Working for the Abwehr, Schindler helped with the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, so he was no Saint. However, as the war went on, he became disenchanted with the extermination programs of the Third Reich. Bribing, wheeling and dealing, and generally risking getting shot every other day, Schindler managed to transfer his 1200 or so employees from the East to safety in the West during the closing days of the war. They all would have been executed otherwise.
Schindler had no business success at all after the war. Perhaps German customers did not wish to deal with this "traitor"? He survived only by the benefaction of the people he had saved. Although named Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli government in 1963, Oskar Schindler died anonymously and in poverty in 1974.
Long after his death, Oskar Schindler had a successful movie made about him, so he is a big deal in the media because of that. That does not matter one way or the other in terms of inclusion on this list. He is a hero of World War II.
In September of 1940, Witold Pilecki (May 13, 1901 – May 25, 1948) was a Polish Resistance soldier who wanted to know the truth about Auschwitz. He volunteered to infiltrate the death camp, spending the next 2.5 years as a prisoner. On his escape, Pilecki smuggled details about the German methods of execution and interrogation and eventually authored the first WWII intelligence report on the concentration camp. Whether or not the authorities made proper use of that information, Pilecki got it for them in an incredibly sacrificial way.
It is pretty clear that Witold Pilecki was a stud. Thank you for your truth and justice work.
The White Rose
|Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst.|
Along with other students, the three formed a resistance group called The White Rose. After Hans was drafted into the Wehrmacht, he saw the reality of the Eastern Front, including the abuse of Jewish slave labor. This helped to propel them to action. They began mailing anti-regime pamphlets to random people they found in the phone book and began leaving their materials in phone booths. This evolved into writing graffiti such as “Freedom!” and “Hitler the Mass Murderer!” on the university walls.
Inevitably, the Gestapo caught Hans and Sophie in the act of distributing their literature. Taken before the notorious "People's Court" headed by Roland Freisler, they and Probst were swiftly convicted of high treason. As was customary, the decision on the morning of 22 February 1943 was followed by swift execution by guillotine in the afternoon. Eventually, the Gestapo got around to Huber and others in the group, including Alexander Schmorell (later canonized as a Saint by the Russian Orthodox Church), and executed them, too. The White Rose is remembered as one of the few active resistance groups in the Third Reich.
|Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, executed in a concentration camp for opposing Hitler|
Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller
There is no question that Niemöller is probably the most controversial name on this list. He isn't usually recognized as a big hero, and, in fact, he is almost forgotten except by students of the war. He openly resisted Hitler at the pain of his life, though, and for that, he was a hero.
Niemöller initially welcomed the order that Adolf Hitler was able to bring to an unstable country. However, he quickly grew alarmed at the regime's oppressive policies directed against the church and others. Niemöller was not particularly fond of Jews in general, at least at first, and was more interested in saving Christians. However, ultimately he did change his attitude toward the Jews, though not sufficiently ever to earn the title of Righteous Among the Nations from Israel, like Schindler.
What Niemöller did do, and do very effectively, was openly oppose the regime. For his pains, he would wind up in a concentration camp himself. He didn't have to go to a camp, like so many - he basically asked to be sent there as a form of protest. He survived the war by sheer good fortune, winding up in Dachau. In any event, he is best known for the following quotation, which may not be precisely what he said, but is generally agreed to be pretty close:
First they came for the socialists,You have to admit, it is a pretty darn good quote, still used to this day.
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
He wrote this in his diary on August 13, 1943:
It’s impossible to believe all these things, even though they are true. Yesterday I saw 2 of these beasts in the tram. They were holding whips in their hands when they came out of the ghetto. I’d like to throw those dogs under the tram. What cowards we are, wanting to be better and allowing all this to happen. For this, we too will be punished, and our innocent children after us, because in allowing these evil deeds to occur, we are partners to the guilt.Hosenfeld survived the war, but died in Soviet captivity on 13 August 1952, from injury possibly sustained during torture. If you think that simply being a German army officer is sufficient grounds for someone to suffer the pains of Hell, well, he did. Were it not for the film "The Pianist," he would be completely forgotten.
|Unknown British Postal Worker collecting the mail after a bombing raid.|
|Kids need their milk, bombs or no bombs.|
Really, when your world comes crashing down around you - what else can you do?
"I am not ashamed of the court's verdict. On the contrary, I am proud to have saved the lives of hundreds of oppressed people. My assistance to Jews was rooted in my Christian world outlook… It was basically a question of saving human lives threatened with death. How could I then seriously consider bureaucratic schemes and calculations? "Paul Grüninger was a nobody. He was a border policeman in a nation at peace, who could go home every night to his home, smoke his pipe, listen to the radio, then go peacefully to bed. A civil servant in a nation that wasn't even at war, Grüninger inexplicably and illegally allowed 3,600 desperate Jews entry to Switzerland, where they had a chance at life. Lost his job and pension, as a result, died in poverty. End of story.
I don't know anything about Grüninger's later life and, to be honest, at this point it really doesn't matter. The guy was just sitting there in his border control shack, on an ordinary day like every other, minding his own business. Out of the blue, he just decides to save 3,600 desperate people from certain death in the camps, despite clear and explicit orders to the contrary. Crazy.
Grüninger knew what would happen to him, civil servants always know the consequences of disobeying. In those days, it was much, much worse than now - there weren't any sympathetic media outlets to go cry on. It ain't pretty that he died poor and struggling when, by just doing nothing at one key juncture and following orders, he could have lived in comfort to the end of his years and left something for his heirs. He gave up something very real to him - sometimes death isn't the only ultimate sacrifice.
Paul Grüninger probably died alone and feeling nobody would ever care a whit what he did, with people around him perhaps even considering him a fool for throwing away his entire future. Without a pension, he was as good as dead. And for what? Just some Jews. Why didn't he just mind his own business?
Some people just deserve to be remembered, somewhere, somehow.
In 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo and, after being beaten and imprisoned, was taken to be executed. While being transported to her place of execution, she escaped - a sympathetic co-worker had bribed the guards. Irena resumed her nursing duties under an assumed name and survived the war. Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. She also received numerous other awards, including by the United States Congress. Irena Sendler passed away in 2008. There are plans to make a motion picture about her life.
Father Franz Stock
|Father Franz Stock.|
After the Liberation, Father Stock was imprisoned along with all other captured Germans. He performed his priestly duties for his fellow German prisoners. Father Stock was allowed to organize a secret seminary in his prison camp in order to aid in Germany's rehabilitation. This project was a success despite the indifference and outright hostility from the public and many authorities - both religious and civic - toward German POWs. This project took off, and over 600 of the POWs later became ordained priests. Father Stock passed away in 1948 in part from mistreatment and deprivations suffered as a result of the war.
Father Stock greatly helped with reconciliation between France and Germany. On the fiftieth anniversary of Father Stock's death, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited his tomb at Chartres, while on the sixtieth anniversary, French President Nicolas Sarkozy marked the occasion with a ceremony at Mont Valérien where Stock had performed many duties for prisoners. The process of the beatification of Father Stock is ongoing.
|Unknown rescue worker rescuing a cat.|
|Wehrmacht soldier Josef Schulz walks toward the line.|
There are issues of proof with this story, but many accept it as true. A young German soldier (pictured center left, without a helmet) refused to participate in the execution of 16 Yugoslav civilians in 1941. He dropped his rifle and positioned himself within the group. He was executed along with the civilians for disobeying his NCO and buried with them. The man chose death instead of killing helpless civilians. You can't do any more than give your life. His name apparently (this is disputed) was Josef Schulz.
|Unknown rescue worker holding a cat.|
He was there at the beginning when it counted, and he instantly and loudly protested. If others had joined him, things might have been different - but they didn't. What more can you do? His wife divorced him just before the war because of his protests. He wound up in a succession of concentration camps during the war, including the notorious Oranienburg. Somehow, he survived. He died forgotten, though his memory has been honored at times since then.
Like so many other heroes, Wegner was no Saint. He just tried to do the right thing at his own personal cost. Ultimately, Wegner was declared Righteous Among the Nations by Israel. That's good enough for me.
Anne Frank (and family)
|Anne and Margot Frank in 1933.|
|Anne Frank, just before the war.|
Claus von Stauffenberg
|Claus von Stauffenberg.|
The Gestapo arrested Elser as he tried to escape across the Swiss border at Konstanz. He confessed that "getting rid of Hitler just became an obsession of mine." The Gestapo held Elser in concentration camps for over five years before executing him on 9 April 1945.
Major Gen. Herman "Henning" von Tresckow
|Major Gen. Herman "Henning" von Tresckow.|
Tresckow himself tried to kill Hitler directly by hiding bombs in two bottles of wine that he off-handedly asked someone flying with Hitler to carry for him back to Berlin. As Hitler returned back home after visiting with Army Group Center - his very last visit there, in 1943 - the bombs failed to detonate. The story is chilling in how close it came to succeeding, and it also makes one wonder whether some of the other airplane crashes that killed bigwigs like Werner Molders and Hans Hube were actually accidents or not. History would have been vastly different had he succeeded. In any event, Tresckow failed as a triggerman, so he had to find someone else. That man was von Stauffenberg, who Tresckow managed to get appointed to a key staff position in Berlin with responsibilities that included direct reports to Hitler himself. That set up Tresckow's final attempt to kill Hitler.
When the final July 1944 bomb plot failed, Tresckow knew it was all over. Hitler finally was on to his organization in a big way, and he could count on someone betraying him eventually. While serving with his unit in occupied Poland, Tresckow committed suicide by exploding a hand grenade under his chin. He gave up everything to try and do the right thing, and German soldier, Jew or Gypsy, that's all anyone can do. There were others like him who also were good at planning things out and organizing assassination attempts, but they all needed someone willing to get his hands dirty like von Stauffenberg and actually do the deed. You do need both - planners/organizers, and effective executioners. Tresckow did his best, despite his failure.
|Another photo of Hannah Szenes.|
Denounced by locals, Szenes quickly was arrested at the border by the Hungarian police and severely tortured. Despite her torture, she kept the details of her mission secret. During a "trial" in October 1944, she defended her actions but was sentenced to death. Szenes was executed by firing squad shortly thereafter. Not widely known in the West, Szenes is widely regarded by Palestinian Jews as one of Israel's national heroes.
Polish Resistance Fighters
|Unknown Polish Resistance Fighters.|
|Raoul Wallenberg - just another guy in a suit. Or maybe not.|
While serving as Sweden's special envoy in Budapest between July and December 1944, Wallenberg issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory. Wallenberg quite possibly saved more lives than any other man in history. Think about that.
Wallenberg is famous, but not quite "Schindler" famous, despite saving more lives than the German businessman. The difference probably lies in Schindler having saved lots of "connected" figures, while Wallenberg saved mostly anonymous peasants who perhaps didn't even know who was saving them. Wallenberg also didn't live to cement his deeds in peoples' minds after the war.
As with many, many, many heroes of World War II, Wallenberg received no accolades during his lifetime, or, at least none that he could have known about. Nobody later made a splashy movie about him, either. He was just some guy in a suit who had no business getting involved at all but did what he could for the sole reason that it was the right thing to do.
The Soviets completely encircled Budapest by Christmas 1944, and Wallenberg was trapped along with everyone else. All German relief attempts failed, and the city finally fell in February 1945. Well, no problem for such a wonderful guy whom the Soviets would probably decorate with their highest honors, right? Wrong. For his troubles, Wallenberg is believed to have been tortured to death by the Soviets in post-war captivity - though nothing ever has been confirmed. Why would the Soviets be upset at Raoul Wallenberg, an inoffensive diplomat from a neutral nation? You'd have to ask them.
For what it's worth, Raoul Wallenberg was named Righteous Among the Nations by Israel. He has been given (most likely posthumous) citizenship by numerous nations around the world, including by the U.S. No earthly honor would be enough to properly recognize what Raoul Wallenberg accomplished.