A little over half of the Righteous Among the Nations recognized by Yad Vashem are women. While many of them acted in cooperation with other family members, some of these courageous women were the initiators of the rescue and acted independently to save Jews. Here are some of their stories.
From 1942 until the end of the war, the war widow, Johanna Eck (b. 1888) sheltered, successively, four victims of Nazi persecution. Two of those who found refuge in her home were Jews. Eck had been acquainted with the family of the first, Heinz Guttmann, for many years before the war. Heinz’s father, Jakob, and Eck’s husband had been comrades-in-arms during World War I.
In 1942, Jakob, his wife, and their children were deported to the East, never to return. Young Heinz alone had barely managed to escape arrest and was wandering aimlessly in the streets without a plan, without a place to stay, and without any food-ration cards. Everybody he turned to for help refused to have anything to do with a Jewish illegal for fear of being caught. Eck alone, of all his non-Jewish acquaintances, stood by him in this difficult moment, offering him refuge in her home, and sharing her meager food allowance with him. She would spend several days on end away from home in an effort to obtain additional food rations from trustworthy friends. When, in November 1943, the house was destroyed in an air raid, Eck took it upon herself to locate an alternative hiding-place for Heinz. Even while he was living away from her, Eck kept in close contact with Heinz, providing him from time to time with food-ration cards, and, as the need arose, with vital contacts.
It was through Heinz’s landlady, Ms. M. that Eck came to be acquainted with Elfriede Guttmann (no relation to Heinz), a Jewish girl who was hiding in her home. In December 1943, the Gestapo, raided Ms. M’s house. Elfriede, who had been hiding under one of the beds, barely managed to escape detection. Shattered by this traumatic experience, the Jewish girl visited Eck and told her what had happened. Eck, who had in the meantime been assigned a single-room apartment, immediately agreed to offer her refuge.
One day, as they were standing in line in a bakery shop, Elfriede was warmly greeted by a girl of the same age. It turned out that this was Erika Hartmann, a former classmate, who had attended the same school in Mühlhausen, East Prussia (today Mlynary in Poland). Hartmann, who was deeply touched by the lot of the Jewish girl, was very eager to help. She gave Elfriede some of her personal Aryan documents, including one confirming that she had done work for the labor service.
This was soon to prove invaluable. When, on the night of January 30, 1944, Allied planes wrought havoc in the skies of Berlin, Eck took advantage of the ensuing confusion to register Elfriede with the police authorities as Erika Hartmann, whose house and personal documents had been burned down in the recent air raid. It was by means of such subterfuge that she could legalize the Jewish girl’s existence and have her officially registered as a lodger in her apartment.
Elfriede’s end was very tragic. The Jewish girl, who survived the horrors of the war intact, succumbed to a sudden stomach constriction shortly after the liberation. She passed away in June 1946, on the eve of her projected emigration to the United States. Eck, a nurse by training, sat at her bedside at the hospital until she passed away. She later inquired with the Jewish community as to the names of Elfriede’s parents and brother. Although they had all perished, she had the names inscribed on the gravestone that she set up at her own expense at the Berlin-Weissensee cemetery. Questioned about her motives, Eck expressed herself as follows:
“The motives for my help? Nothing special in a particular case. In principle, what I think is this: If a fellow human being is in distress and I can help him, then it becomes my duty and responsibility. Were I to refrain from doing so, than I would betray the task that life – or perhaps God? – demands from me. Human beings – so it seems to me – make up a big unity; they strike themselves and all in the face when they do injustice to each other. These are my motives.“
On December 11, 1973, Yad Vashem recognized Johanna Eck as Righteous Among the Nations.