Nechama Tec 15 May 1931 – 3 August 2023

500 words / 2 ½ minute read

Photo: With Nechama Tec, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York, October 2005.

In her 1982 memoir, Dry Tears, the Story of a Lost Childhood, Nechama Tec describes antisemitism’s lasting appeal and how unconnected hatreds can be toward the hated.  She was a child when the Germans invaded her hometown of Lublin, but she, her older sister and their parents  survived because they were taken in by a Polish Catholic family in Kielce, a Polish family who hated Jews.  When little Nechama asked her parents to explain this, she writes:

“My father tried to explain that the Homars, like most Poles, took anti-Semitism for granted. . . . He believed that the Homars hated an abstraction, the stereotype of the Jew, but not actual people like us, who happened to be Jewish. . . . We were not ‘typically Jewish,’ we did not conform to the image that phrase evoked for them. It did not matter that they had perhaps never encountered anyone who did conform to the image. . . . They simply treated us as an exception, which allowed them to keep their anti-Semitism intact.”

Along with defining the stereotype of Jews as being different from “actual people like us” Nechama Tec, through her many important books, has challenged the stereotypes of Jews going “like lambs to the slaughter” and that “the world stood silent”.  Her ground-breaking work on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, Resilience and Courage, and Resistance, showed what Jews did to survive against impossible odds.  Her book When Light Pierced the Darkness described those Christians who risked their lives and that of their families – like the Homars – to help Jews,.

Nechama Tec’s most well known book, Defiance was made into a film in 2008.  Defiance focusses on the Bielski Brothers of the Nalibocka forest of what is now Belarus, who built a family camp for Jews who had escaped the ghettos and slaughter.  As Sir Martin writes in his book The Holocaust, “Belsky’s three hundred partisans were not only an armed unit.  They had also been, since their first days in the forest, the protectors of more than a thousand women, children and old people, who had managed to escape from the surrounding ghettos, or whom Belsky and his three brothers had succeeded in rescuing.”

Martin had written about it, but it was Nechama Tec’s film, based on her book, that brought the story to a wider audience in a medium that is more easily accessible, and no less important.

Jack Kagan, whose story is represented in part by characters in the film, had escaped from the Nowogrodek labour camp by tunnelling with a group of men to relative safety outside the camp.  He was an advisor on the film, a researcher in his own right, and his experiences have shown what courage and resilience were needed to survive.

The 80th anniversary of that escape will be explored on October 29, Please register Here

I included Nechama Tec’s memoir Dry Tears in my Holocaust Memoir Digest.  At a launch of the Digest at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2005, I had the great honour of meeting Nechama Tec.   She took her Holocaust experiences and her academic training and created a legacy of truth to break apart the stereotypes of ignorance and hatred.

May her memory – and her legacy – be for a blessing.

Read:  The Atlas of the Holocaust

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