Professor Sam Oliner Studies the Brave Souls Who Saved Him-and Many Others-from the Nazis

updated 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Tears streaming down her face, a young student stepped forward as the college auditorium emptied. The lecturer, Samuel P. Oliner, then an associate professor of sociology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., was disturbed but not surprised to see her in such distress. It was the spring of 1978, and since he had started his course on the Holocaust six months earlier, he had seen the bleak subject matter reduce many of his students to despair. Now, trembling, speaking with a German accent, the young woman announced, "I am quitting the course. I cannot stand the guilt over what my people did."

Oliner gently comforted the woman. He explained that "it was not your people," then went on to draw a distinction between Germans and Nazis. "It was just a convulsion in human history." The woman was persuaded to stay, yet the incident led Oliner to revise the way he taught about Hitler's murderous "final solution." "I concluded that it distorts the image of humanity to focus only on the negative. Millions couldn't or wouldn't help, but there were others who risked their lives." He began to study and write about the exemplary individuals, non-Jewish and some of them German, who defied the Gestapo to shelter fleeing Jews. In 1982, with $150,000 in private seed money, he established the Altruistic Personality Project to study the character and motivations of those heroes. So far, with the help of associates in six foreign countries including Poland and Israel, he has traced and interviewed 245 rescuers. Oliner found them to be self-confident people with a high sense of self-esteem who were willing to take calculated risks. They had in common a moral upbringing that instilled justice and compassion, and strong support for their dangerous actions by one or more relatives.

One such person, in fact, had saved Samuel Oliner's life. He was 12 years old in August 1942, when Nazi soldiers raided the ghetto of Bobowa in southern Poland, where he had been placed. The Germans rounded up some 1,000 Jewish residents—including Oliner's father, stepmother, brother, sister and grandparents—and trucked them into the forest where they were forced to undress by open graves and then were shot. After the Jews had been carted off to die, young Oliner crawled down from the roof where his stepmother had told him to hide. Following a week of moving from village to village, he knocked on the door of a peasant woman named Balwina Piecuch, a friend of his father. Though it meant her death if Oliner was discovered, she took him in without hesitation. Since the boy had blond hair and hazel eyes, Balwina decided to give him a new identity as a Catholic. "She taught me the catechism," Oliner says. "I can still say it in Polish to this day."

At Balwina's suggestion, Oliner found work as a stable-boy on a remote farm. When the war ended, he was swept into a displaced persons camp. From there he went to England and was educated. "I was 15 and hadn't been in school since I was 8," he says. "I was virtually illiterate."

In 1950 he emigrated to America. After serving with the Army in Korea, he used the Gl Bill to earn a B.A. in sociology at Brooklyn College. There he met his wife, Pearl. By the time he joined the Humboldt State faculty in 1971, Oliner had a Ph.D. from Berkeley and three sons, Aron, now 24, David, 21, and Ian, 19.

He never got to interview Balwina, who died in 1977. But he had corresponded with her regularly, and he says she was like many of the other rescuers. "She was a compassionate, religious person who always made me hopeful," Oliner says. He also credits his patient English schoolteachers and his wife for his emotional wholeness today at age 55. "I believe that people can come out of tragic experiences if they form steady relationships."

Indeed, that is characteristic of the rescuers. "They had emotional support from others—a wife, a child, a mother, who gave them strength. They were not superhuman. They came from all walks of life. But somehow a spark arose within them."

In view of the millions of people who did nothing, Oliner continues to marvel at that spark. Last year in France, he interviewed a woman who, with her husband, had saved more than 3,000 Jews. Thinking of what they had done, Oliner "just broke down and cried. I couldn't continue the interview until she put her arms around me and walked with me outside. She symbolized everything that was decent. There is, after all, no greater deed a person can do than risk his or her life on behalf of others with no promise of reward."

Louisa Steenstra: a secret chamber in the attic, a search by the SS

Louisa Steenstra paid dearly for her heroism—with her husband's life. Louisa and Albert Steenstra (a winery manager) built a concealed chamber in a closet of their home in the Dutch city of Groningen. In that tiny space the couple secreted two Jews and a Dutch Resistance fighter. For more than a year, a Jewish businessman and his brother also shared the space.

By January 1945 all but one of the Steenstras' wards had left the house and were relocated by the Resistance. But the family had a new worry—a Dutch couple billeted in one of their downstairs rooms by the local authorities. One day the couple let slip word of the illegal tenant to a Dutch policeman they took for a friend. Soon after, an SS officer tipped off by the policeman came storming into the house behind a barking police dog. In the secret chamber he found the Jewish refugee. The officer shot him and Louisa's husband dead.

Grabbing her 4-year-old daughter, Beatrix, Louisa ran out the door and fled to the underground. The two of them spent the remaining months of the war hiding in an attic with five other people.

When Canadian troops liberated the Netherlands, Louisa denounced the Dutch policeman who had brought the SS to her house. "He first got the death penalty," she says. "But later it was changed to 20 years."

Now 77, Louisa lives in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Why did she help? "I have asked myself that question a hundred times," she admits. "Because I felt sorry. And I hated the Germans for what they did. I never regretted anything. We did it of our own freewill."

Alexander Roslan: making a disguise of bandages

The first time the three German plain-clothesmen searched his Warsaw apartment in the spring of 1943, Alexander Roslan was ready. He figured they would come. He'd known that someone might get suspicious and tip off the authorities. Roslan himself had nearly fainted with fright when he first laid eyes on 8-year-old Jacob Gotgelt four months earlier. The boy "looked so much Jewish," Roslan recalls. "It was very dangerous."

So why did Roslan, a Catholic fabric store owner, take the boy in? He had a wife and two children of his own and enough to worry about without hiding Jews. He was making and selling candy on the black market. A good friend had been caught dealing in the black market and was executed in 1942 by the Nazis. That friend had once told Roslan about an elderly Jew he knew and liked, "a good man," who wanted desperately to save his grandsons. Maybe that's why Roslan agreed to take in Jacob, one of those grandsons. Maybe, says Roslan, "there is no reason."

Ganick they called him, a good Polish Christian name, the name of his own nephew. So Roslan used his nephew's birth certificate to make it look official. He built a secret compartment where Ganick could hide, under the bottom shelf of the kitchen china cabinet. When the plainclothesmen came, they searched everywhere, including the cabinet. But they did not spot Ganick hiding behind the china.

The police, however, were nothing compared to scarlet fever. Roslan had taken in Ganick's 6-year-old brother, Shalom, but when the boy came down with scarlet fever, the family faced an agonizing dilemma. Deciding it was just too dangerous to send him to the hospital, they nursed him as best they could. It did no good. When the child died, Roslan wrapped his body in sheets and buried him under the basement.

Then Ganick got scarlet fever. Roslan found a doctor who agreed to treat the hidden boy for 10,000 zlotys—about $1,888. Roslan put his apartment and all its furnishings up for sale to pay the doctor. But still worried about Ganick's health, Roslan took the boy to a hospital, wrapping his head in bandages to conceal his Jewish features. The boy recovered.

Today Ganick is again Jacob—Jacob Gilat, 46. He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and two daughters and is head of an Israeli nuclear research safety division. His brother David, 51, who had also found sanctuary with the Roslans in 1943, also lives in Tel Aviv, where he is a math professor. Roslan, now 76, lives in Clearwater, Fla. with his wife, Amelia. Late in the war, his son Yurek was killed in cross fire between the Nazis and the Polish Resistance. When the war ended, Roslan took Jacob and David to Germany, where they awaited word from their father. When they left Roslan to be reunited in Israel with their father, the boys cried. Roslan visited his foster sons there four years ago and thinks of them often.

Irene Opdyke: hiding Jews in the officer's villa

As a captive worker in Nazi-occupied Poland, Irene Opdyke had a precarious hold on life. Yet she set aside concerns of personal safety to reach out to 12 Jews facing certain death. The 19-year-old Catholic had been seized by the Nazis and forced to wait table in an officers canteen. When the unit was transferred to Tarnopol, on the Russian border, Irene was taken along and put in charge of the laundry. A dozen Jews labored there. From her continuing duties as a waitress, Irene was able to pick up scraps of information, which she relayed to her new friends in the laundry. "When I overheard about the total liquidation of the ghetto in Tarnopol," Irene relates, "my 12 friends did not have anywhere to go. They asked me for help. Then a miracle happened, and the Lord made a decision for me. The major in charge asked me to be his housekeeper in a new villa."

Irene knew the Nazi threat was not an idle one. Eleven months earlier, while working in the Ukraine for the same major, she had watched the Gestapo prod a large group of Jews—including pregnant women and about three dozen children—out of town at gunpoint. "The children were like little sheep, clinging and holding each other to find protection," Irene recalls. "I had nightmares about that march. We were sent back to work, but we could hear from far away the shooting."

Irene managed to smuggle her 12 charges one at a time into the villa. Discovering the house had been designed by a Jewish architect, she had a hunch he would have provided a hiding place somewhere. Searching, she found it—a crawlway from the cellar to a gazebo on the grounds. "We put food and water inside and practiced getting there," she says.

Late in the war, an unexpected Gestapo search team descended on the villa. The 12 Jews were sheltered in the crawlway and escaped detection.

As the Russian army closed in, the German soldiers were forced to evacuate the villa. Irene had to act again. She gradually led her dozen friends into a forest, to a remote area where some 200 other Jews were living in foxholes and dugout shelters. At considerable risk she stole ration cards and smuggled food, blankets and clothing to her friends. In 1944 the Russians liberated the area, and the Jews were rescued.

Today Irene, 67, lives in Yorba Linda, Calif, with her husband, William Op-dyke, and works as an interior designer.

Bert Bochove: an alarm to warn his fugitives

In 1942 Anne Frank began hiding in an Amsterdam attic, recording her family's travails in a celebrated diary. In that same year, 15 miles away, Bert and Annie Bochove converted the attic over their apartment and drugstore in Huizen into a clandestine home for fugitive Jews. When the Nazis first occupied Holland in 1940, the Bochoves had taken in a childhood friend of Annie's, 32-year-old Henny Juliard. A few months later Henny's husband, also Jewish, joined them. Others followed—there were always at least six to 10 people in the house. "Once we had 26 people," Bert says. "That time I had to sleep on the floor."

The Bochoves' apartment above the drugstore was spacious. The couple would often let their boarders lounge there, with a warning to stay away from windows. Bert wired the pharmacy with an alarm to trigger in an emergency, warning the fugitives to hide, locking the disguised attic door behind them.

Working in the shop one day, Bert says, "I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was a Gestapo captain. As I turned to talk to him, a clerk slipped away to warn everyone. Two people didn't want to hide. One was Henny's older sister, who was blond and blue-eyed and had very good papers. The other was a 70-year-old woman. The captain's aide said, 'You are a Jew!' She jumped up and screamed, 'You have insulted me, and I don't take that from anyone!' It was the right thing to say, because he backed off."

Annie Bochove suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1949, leaving Bert with two small children. He remarried in 1953 and three years later settled with his new wife, Betty, in California, where they had four children of their own. Now 75, Bert (below with grandson Jeremiah) still works as an upholsterer. Of the people they sheltered, all but one couple survived the war.

"I am not a hero," he insists. "They never put a knife to my throat. I always had the feeling I do the right thing and it turns out right." Smiling broadly he puts it another way. "I always could sleep at night pretty good."

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