Nechama Tec, scholar and survivor of the Holocaust, dies at 92

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For three decades after the Holocaust, Nechama Tec tried to move past her wartime memories. She refused to read about the genocide or watch movies about World War II, focusing instead on her sociology career in the United States, where she studied teenage drug use in the Connecticut suburbs. When acquaintances heard her accent and asked where she came from, she would reply bluntly: “Europe.” It was clear from her tone the conversation was over.

Yet in the mid-1970s, Dr. Tec began to find herself drawn back to childhood memories, returning to days spent hiding in cellars, memorizing fake identities and peering through a crack in the wall, dreaming of a more normal girlhood while watching other children play across the street. “First, very gently,” the memories “demanded attention,” she recalled years later. “Then, more forcefully, they insisted on being heard.”

When they finally “threatened to become a compulsion,” she wrote a memoir, “Dry Tears” (1982), recounting her experience as a young Jewish girl in German-occupied Poland. With her blond hair, blue eyes and flawless Polish accent, she managed to pass as Catholic for three years, living under a false identity and escaping certain death with help from Polish families that also sheltered her parents and older sister.

Writing the book helped her answer questions she had about herself and her family, as well as her rescuers and her would-be killers: the Nazis and their collaborators, who murdered an estimated 6 million Jews while trying to exterminate European Jewry. But along the way she found herself with new questions, including about the experience of other Jews who lived in hiding and the Polish people who risked their lives to help.

Dr. Tec, who died Aug. 3 at 92, spent the rest of her academic career exploring issues of resilience, courage and compassion, emerging as a leading scholar of the Holocaust through books such as “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” (1993), a chronicle of Jewish resistance in the forests of present-day Belarus. The book was adapted into a 2008 film starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, and offered a corrective to the misconception that Jewish people were passive during the war, going off like so-called “sheep to the slaughter,” according to her colleague Joel Blatt, a historian at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus.

“In a world where most scholars are interested in why people do evil, she was a scholar of altruism, and believed that stories of altruism might inspire other people to behave in similar ways,” said Blatt, who taught a Holocaust course with Dr. Tec for around 30 years.

Dr. Tec was an early advocate for the use of individual Holocaust testimonies and oral histories, and would switch between French, German, Yiddish, English, Polish and Hebrew to conduct interviews with survivors. Drawing on her own wartime experience, she asked “probing questions that other interviewers wouldn’t feel comfortable asking, or wouldn’t know to ask,” said Avinoam Patt, the director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life.

For her first scholarly work on the Holocaust, “When Light Pierced the Darkness” (1986), Dr. Tec spoke with dozens of Polish Christians who had rescued Jews, trying to figure out what motivated them to act when so many others remained idle or backed the Nazi regime. Many were nonconformists, she found, motivated not by class or religion but by a sense of fundamental decency, even when they may have continued to nurture long-standing resentments toward Jews.

Her follow-up, “In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen” (1990), told the story of a young Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by pretending to be half German and half Polish, and who helped save some 200 Jews in Mir, now part of Belarus, while working as an interpreter for the German police. Forced to go into hiding, he found refuge at a monastery, decided to convert to Christianity and went on to serve in a resistance group.

“Another biographer might have been tempted to label Mr. Rufeisen a hero, or an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, or a religious zealot,” wrote New York Times reviewer Susan Shapiro. “To Ms. Tec’s credit, she allows these contradictions to coexist in her pages.”

Dr. Tec said she initially focused her Holocaust research on two categories of people: Polish rescuers and Jewish survivors. But she came to believe that she had overlooked the extent to which Jews played an active role in fighting for survival, and sought to fill a hole in the historical record — showing, as she put it, that “Jews were determined to survive” and “refused to become passive victims” — with “Defiance.”

The book documented the efforts of Tuvia Bielski, a Belarusian Jew who, with several of his brothers, fought the Germans and their collaborators while helping save more than 1,200 Jews. Their actions marked “the most massive rescue operation of Jews by Jews,” according to Dr. Tec, who reported on the group’s efforts to smuggle Jews out of ghettos and into the forest, where the partisans developed a camouflaged community that grew to include a hospital, school, bakery, barber shop and synagogue.

“We may be killed while we try to live,” she quoted Tuvia as saying, “but if we die, we die like human beings.”

Edward Zwick, who went on to direct and co-write the movie adaptation, said that when a friend brought the book to his attention, he was initially skeptical, believing that it was yet another morbid story about Jewish victims. Then he began to read.

“The triumph of the three Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Zus and Asael, who fought the Nazis in the deep forests of Belarus and saved 1,200 lives, was unlike anything I had ever read about that dark time,” he wrote in a 2008 essay for the New York Times. “Rather than victims wearing yellow stars, here were fighters in fur chapkas brandishing submachine guns. Instead of helplessness and submission, here were rage and resistance.”

The younger of two children, Dr. Tec was born Nechama Bawnik in Lublin, Poland, on May 15, 1931. Her father owned a pair of chemical and candle factories, and after the Germans marched into the city in 1939 her mother was hired as a housekeeper for a Nazi official. While serving meals, she would listen in on her employers’ conversations, gathering information. When she learned that the Germans were about to get rid of the city’s remaining Jews, relocating some to a new ghetto and deporting the rest, the family fled.

They took refuge in an upper room of the chemical factory, where they were protected by a German commissioner friendly with Dr. Tec’s father. With help from a cousin, they obtained false identification papers in late 1942 and moved to Warsaw, living illegally under Catholic identities.

Dr. Tec and her sister, Giza, were soon sent to the city of Otwock, where they passed as nieces of a Catholic family that was paid to take them in. They later rejoined their parents in Kielce, in the south of Poland, where they lived with a family of poor laborers. Their parents, whose looks and accent hinted at their Jewish identities, spent nearly three years in hiding there while Dr. Tec and her sister tried to maintain a facade of normalcy.

“An extra layer of secretiveness, combined with a fear of discovery, became part of my being,” she wrote in “Dry Tears.” “All my life revolved around hiding; hiding thoughts, hiding feelings, hiding my activities, hiding information.”

After the war, she and her family briefly returned to Lublin, where they learned that they were one of only three families to survive intact. Only 150 of the city’s 40,000 Jews survived the war years, according to Dr. Tec.

Dr. Tec later moved to West Berlin and, in 1949, immigrated to Israel, where she met a Polish-born physician, Leon Tec, later a child psychiatrist. They married in 1950 and immigrated to the United States two years later, settling in New York.

While her husband completed a residency program, Dr. Tec studied sociology at Columbia University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1954, a master’s in 1955 and a doctorate in 1963. She taught at Columbia, Rutgers University and Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., before joining the faculty of the University of Connecticut at Stamford in 1974.

Her later work included the Holocaust books “Resilience and Courage” (2003), which examined the differing experiences of men and women during wartime, and “Resistance” (2013), which further argued against stereotypes of Jewish passivity.

Dr. Tec’s death, at home in Manhattan, was confirmed by her son, Roland, a co-producer of “Defiance.” He did not cite a cause. Dr. Tec also had a daughter, Leora Tec, who was inspired by Dr. Tec’s work to found a travel group called Bridge to Poland, which highlights the history of Jewish life in the country.

In addition to her two children, survivors include two grandsons and a great-grandson. Dr. Tec is also survived by a half brother and half sister from her father, who separated from Dr. Tec’s mother after the war and kept the children secret; Dr. Tec discovered their existence only after being contacted by her half sister, who read “Dry Tears” and recognized her father in the book, according to the family. Her husband and her sister, Giza Agmon, both died in 2013, a few years after Dr. Tec retired from teaching.

In a phone interview, her colleague Blatt said that Dr. Tec had an unusual rapport with students that was evident whenever she answered questions in the classroom.

“She would divine what was underneath the question — she would feel what was troubling the students,” he recalled. “She was unerring in that, just brilliant at it. I suspect that’s why her books were so good, because she would understand the people she was interviewing, what was stated and unstated, and work very carefully on drawing it out.”

“She got down to human bedrock, the way people really live,” he added. “Occasionally a student would ask, ‘Why do you study the Holocaust?’ And she would say, ‘In extreme situations, you see the way people really are.’”

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