Nechama Tec’s experiences as a child in the Holocaust led to her career highlighting nontraditional stories of surviving it. Tec was eight when the Nazis invaded Poland; her family survived with the help of Christian families who hid them. After immigrating to America, Tec wrote Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood and When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland. Her work challenged previous theories: righteous gentiles were not purely driven by religious convictions or friendship, but also a capacity for independent thought and action. Defiance: The Bielski Partisans showed that Jews could be heroes, not just passive victims, and Resilience and Courage: Women, and Men, and the Holocaust, demonstrated the differing experiences of male and female survivors.
“My research about the Nazi annihilation of European Jews alerted me to a serious omission and an equally serious distortion,” begins Nechama Tec in the preface to her sixth book, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (1993). Tec’s determination to address the silences and inaccuracies surrounding the Holocaust and to reveal the untold stories of righteousness and rescue epitomize her work as an American Jewish scholar. Tec brought to Holocaust studies the training of a sociologist and the insight of a survivor. Her in-depth studies of Jewish and Christian rescuers during World War II added a new dimension to the understanding of heroism and the Holocaust.
Early life: Holocaust survival and journey to America
Nechama Tec’s interest in rescue and resistance was rooted in her own experiences as a hidden child in German-occupied Europe. Born in Lublin, Poland, on May 15, 1931, to Roman Bawnik, a businessman, and Esther (Hachamoff) Bawnik, Nechama lived for three years during World War II under an assumed Christian identity. With the aid of Catholic Poles, her sister and parents also survived the war by hiding in homes and evading German detection.
Immediately following the war, Nechama was determined to put her Holocaust experiences behind her. She married Leon Tec, a child psychiatrist, in 1950 and immigrated with her husband to the United States in 1952, where they had two children, Leora and Roland. Tec embarked on a career in academia, earning her bachelor’s (1954), master’s (1955), and doctoral (1963) degrees in sociology from Columbia University.
Tec’s early works
In 1975, Tec’s memories of the war reemerged, and she began to write her Holocaust memoir. The result was Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982), a vivid account of Tec’s life in Poland from 1939 to 1945. Dry Tears represents a turning point in Tec’s career. By recalling her own story of Christian protection, Tec raised questions about rescue and survival, namely, why did certain Christian Poles help save Jews and what were the experiences of other Jews who, through passing and hiding, survived? Tec’s subsequent book, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (1986), is a systematic exploration of these issues.
Based on archival material and in-depth personal interviews with rescuers and survivors, When Light Pierced the Darkness examines Jews under Christian protection and the background and motives of righteous gentiles. Tec challenged previous theories that characterized rescue behavior as either inexplicable or rooted in class, friendship patterns, or political or religious affiliation. Instead, she explained altruistic rescue by the presence of several characteristics: individuality that approximated marginality, independence to act according to one’s beliefs despite external pressures, long-standing commitment to aiding the helpless, perception of rescue as a necessary response to circumstances and not an act of heroism, unplanned initiation of rescue, and universalistic view of Jews as needy human beings reliant on others’ aid.
Focusing on relatively unknown but extraordinary cases, Tec’s subsequent books continued to explore passing and rescue. In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen (1990) recounts the experiences of a young Jew who survived the Holocaust by passing as half German and half Polish. Rufeisen’s story is particularly remarkable because of his role as a rescuer of hundreds of Jews and Christians. Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (1993) makes an important contribution by showing that many other Jews could be both rescuers and survivors. Defiance presents the story of Tuvia Bielski, a Belorussian Jew who organized a band of partisans that helped save over twelve hundred lives. In recounting the Bielski fighters’ heroic actions, Tec corrected the distorted view that Jews were passive victims of Nazi persecution and demonstrated that Jewish altruism, courage, and resistance helped save Jewish lives. Defiance was made into a feature film, starring actor Daniel Craig, in 2008. Resilience and Courage: Women, and Men, and the Holocaust (2003) tackles the complex issue of gender in the Holocaust, using hundreds of first-person accounts to delineate the different experiences of women and men during World War II.
Beyond Tec’s writing
Tec was Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Connecticut at Stamford, where she began teaching in 1974. She was a member of the advisory board of the Braun Center for Holocaust Studies of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and of its International Advisory Board of Directors of the Foundation to Sustain Righteous Christians. She was the author of over 70 articles in such journals as Adolescence, Contemporary Sociology, Journal of Marriage and Family, Journal of Social Problems, Journal of Social Science and Medicine, Social Forces, Eastern European Quarterly, and Polin. Tec was also the recipient of numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination, a First Prize for Holocaust Literature by the World Federation of Fighters, Partisans and Concentration Camp Survivors in Israel, a Christopher Award, an International Anne Frank Special Recognition Prize and the National Jewish Book Award for Holocaust writing.
Nechama Tec died on August 3, 2023.
Selected works by Nechama Tec
Gambling in Sweden (1964).
Grass Is Green in Suburbia: A Sociological Study of Adolescent Usage of Illicit Drugs (1974).
Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982. Reprint, with new epilogue, 1986).
When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (1986).
In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen (1990).
Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (1993).
Resilence and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust (2003).
Jewish Children: Between Protectors and Murderers (2005).
Resistance: Jews and Christians Who Defied Nazi Terror (2013).
Ash, Timothy Garton. Review of When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland, by Nechama Tec. The New York Review of Books 32 (December 19, 1985): 26–28+.
Baumgarten, Murray. “Nechama Tec’s Dry Tears and the Sociological Imagination.” In Expectations and Endings: Observations on Holocaust Literature. Working Papers in Holocaust Studies 3 (September 1989): 1–78.
Bronner, Ethan. Review of Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, by Nechama Tec. Boston Globe, August 22, 1993, B16.
Contemporary Authors; Gross, Jan Tomasz. Review of When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland, by Nechama Tec. NYTimes Book Review 91 (January 12, 1986): 37.
Kirsch, Jonathan. Review of Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, by Nechama Tec. Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1993, E6.
Lyons, Gene. Review of When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland, by Nechama Tec. Newsweek 107 (January 27, 1986): 62.
NYTimes, February 6, 1994, C1.
Pease, Neal. Review of In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen, by Nechama Tec. The Catholic Historical Review 77 (April 1991): 323.
Tec, Nechama. Interview by author. Tape recording. Westport, Conn., June 8, 1995.
Who’s Who of American Women. 9th ed.