Remembering Nechama Tec, the Survivor-Turned-Scholar

August 14, 2023 | Richard Sandomir
About the author:

Born in Lublin in 1931, Nechama Tec survived the Holocaust by hiding with a Catholic family. She immigrated to Israel in 1949, married, and later moved with her husband to the U.S. Although she is best known among American Jews for her autobiography Dry Tears, which tells the story of her wartime experiences, she was also an accomplished sociologist who wrote several groundbreaking scholarly studies of the Shoah. She died on August 3 at the age of ninety-two. Richard Sandomir writes:

In Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (1993), [Tec] 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.

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.

“Many were casually anti-Semitic, 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.”

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