Nechama Tec, a Polish Jew who pretended to be a Roman Catholic to survive the Holocaust and then became a Holocaust scholar, writes about Jews as heroic resisters and why some people, even antisemites, become rescuers, died on August 3 at his home in Manhattan. He is 92 years old.
His death was confirmed by his son Roland.
In “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” (1993), the most famous book of Dr. Tec, he describes the courageous actions of Tuvia Bielski, who commanded a resistance group that fought the Germans and, above all, saved about 1,200 Jews. The partisans entered the ghettos under siege and took the Jews back to the forests of Belarus, where Mr. Bielski built a community for them.
“Opposition” gives Dr. Tec is a platform to show that Jews saved other Jews during the war and were more active in resisting the Nazis than most people believe.
When a friend suggested to filmmaker Edward Zwick that “Defiance” would make a good movie, he was not immediately impressed.
“Not another movie about victims,” he recalled his response when he wrote in The New York Times about directing the film, released in 2008, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski and Liev Schreiber as her brother. Zus.
“No, this is a story about Jewish heroes,” he said his friend told him. “Like the Maccabees, only better.”
As Mr. Zwick put it, “Instead of victims wearing yellow stars, here are warriors in fur chapkas brandishing submachine guns.”
At that time Dr. Tec wrote “When the Light Pierces the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland” (1986). His interviews with rescuers for the book show a picture of Christians sheltering Jews, despite the possibility of imprisonment or death for providing such help. They were, he concluded, outsiders who were marginal to their communities; have a history of doing good deeds; did not view their actions as heroic; and did not grieve for being helpful.
“Many are casually antisemitic, but that is not their primary purpose in life,” said Christopher R. Browning, a Holocaust expert who is a professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina and who edited, with by Dr. Tec and Richard S. Hollander, a collection of letters written by the Polish Jewish family of Mr. Hollander from 1939 to 1942. “Using his skills as a sociologist, he was able to describe a more complex spectrum of interactions than simplistic people without collecting empirical data like his have.”
Nechama Bawnik was born on May 15, 1931, in Lublin, Poland. His father, Roman, owns a chemical factory. His mother, Esther (Finkelstein) Bawnik, was a homemaker.
Shortly after the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, Mr. Bawnik transferred the title of his factory, instead of the Nazis confiscating it, to his foreman, who also gave him work and a place for the Bawniks, including Nechama’s older sister, Giza, will live on the top floor of the building. Nechama hides in the shelter, her only link to the outside a hole in the wall that overlooks her in the grounds of a convent school.
As conditions worsened for the Jews and rumors of deportations frightened them, the family considered moving to Warsaw but found it too risky. In mid-1942, Nechama’s parents sent him and Giza to live with a family in Otwock, Poland, a half-hour train ride from Warsaw. Nechama has false papers identifying her as Krysia Bloch. To help her play the role, she learned Catholic prayers and family history.
The sisters, who have blond hair and blue eyes, manage to pass as orphaned nieces and nephews in the family they live in and move around without hiding. In the summer of 1943, they and their parents moved with a family to Kielce.
When the Bawniks needed money in Kielce, Nechama’s mother baked rolls and sent Nechama to sell them on a local black market. Nechama also sells bottles of vodka distilled by a local farmer, Roland Tec said. Once, he said in a telephone interview, a retailer criticized him and the Gestapo chased him away; when he returned, his father told him to run to a nearby farm, while his parents hid under the boards, until it was safe.
After the war, the family returned briefly to Lublin and then moved to Berlin. In 1949, Nechama immigrated to Israel, where she met Leon Tec, a Polish-born internist who later became a child psychiatrist. They married in 1950 and moved to the United States two years later.
Nechama studied sociology at Columbia University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1954 and a master’s in 1955.
After working at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, he began teaching sociology in 1957 at Columbia. He then taught at Rutgers University, returned to Columbia and moved to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., before joining the sociology faculty at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus, in 1974. He remained there for 36 years.
He earned a Ph.D., also in sociology, from Columbia, in 1965.
Dr. Tec said he was determined to put his Holocaust behind him, but in 1975 his childhood experiences demanded his attention.
“When these demands became a compelling force,” he wrote in “Resistance,” “I decided to revisit my past by writing an autobiography.”
In that autobiography, “Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood” (1982), he recalled the attitude of Helena, the grandmother of the family of the saviors of Kielce, towards the Jews.
“I will not harm a Jew,” remembers Dr. Tec as Helena said, “but I see no point in going out of my way to help someone.” He added: “You and your family are not like the Jews. If they want you to leave now, I won’t let them.”
In another book, “Into the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen” (1990), Dr. Tec the life of another Polish Jew, who hid his identity, worked as a translator for the German police and helped save about 200 Jews. in the Mir ghetto.
“Especially shocking were the details of his translations for his German superiors,” wrote Susan Shapiro in The New York Times Book Review, “where his careful substitution of two words saved the entire Jewish community. “
After his identity was revealed, Mr. Rufeisen took refuge in a monastery, converted to Catholicism and joined partisan fighters, according to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and research center in Jerusalem. He became a Catholic priest after the war and moved to Israel, where he joined a monastery on Mount Carmel.
In addition to his son, Dr. Tec is survived by his daughter, Leora Tec; two grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a half sister, Catharina Knoll. Her husband and her brother, Giza Agmon, both died in 2013.
During the filming of “Defiance,” Dr. Tec to see that the Bielski partisan camp in the Belarusian forest has been faithfully recreated in Lithuania, with a kitchen and workshops to repair shoes and watches and leather goods.
“He was amazed at what they built; it was really incredible,” said his son, who is the co-producer of the film. He added: “When Daniel Craig saw her on set, he cornered her and spent an hour or an hour and a half questioning her. It’s really nice.”