Nechama Tec, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by pretending to be Roman Catholic and later became a renowned Holocaust scholar, passed away on August 3 at the age of 92. Her son, Roland, confirmed her death. Dr. Tec gained recognition for her book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” (1993), which recounted the courageous acts of Tuvia Bielski and his resistance group that fought against the Germans and managed to save approximately 1,200 Jews. The partisans would enter ghettos under siege and bring Jews back to their community in the Belarusian forest. This book aimed to challenge the perception that Jews were passive victims during the war by highlighting their active resistance against the Nazis.
Following the success of “Defiance,” Dr. Tec published “When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland” (1986). In this work, she conducted interviews with Christian rescuers, revealing that many risked imprisonment or death to hide Jews during the war. She found that these rescuers were often outsiders in their own communities, performed good deeds throughout their lives, did not view their actions as heroic, and did not struggle with the decision to help. Dr. Tec’s ability to portray the complex interactions between rescuers and Jews was recognized by Christopher R. Browning, a Holocaust expert, who commended her for collecting empirical data to illustrate a more nuanced perspective.
Nechama Bawnik was born on May 15, 1931, in Lublin, Poland. Her father, Roman, owned a chemical factory, and her mother, Esther, was a homemaker. When the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, Mr. Bawnik transferred ownership of his factory to his foreman to prevent its confiscation. The Bawnik family then sought refuge in Lublin, with Nechama hiding in the living quarters of a building while her older sister, Giza, attended a convent school. As conditions deteriorated, the family moved to Otwock in mid-1942, where Nechama assumed the identity of Krysia Bloch and lived with a family. Nechama and Giza’s ability to pass as non-Jewish allowed them to move around without hiding. They later moved to Kielce and survived by selling homemade products on the black market.
After the war, the family briefly returned to Lublin and then relocated to Berlin. In 1949, Nechama immigrated to Israel, where she met her husband Leon Tec. They married in 1950 and moved to the United States in 1952. Nechama pursued a degree in sociology at Columbia University, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1954 and her master’s degree in 1955. She began her teaching career at Columbia and later taught at Rutgers University, Trinity College, and the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus. She obtained her Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia in 1965.
Dr. Tec initially sought to leave her Holocaust experiences behind but felt compelled to revisit her past in 1975, leading her to write her autobiography, “Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood” (1982). The book recounted her experiences living with a family of rescuers in Kielce, particularly emphasizing the ambivalent attitude of Helena, the grandmother, towards Jews. Despite not wanting to harm Jews, she was not eager to assist them either. This book shed light on the complexity of relations between Jews and their rescuers. In “Into the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen” (1990), Dr. Tec explored the life of another Polish Jew who disguised his identity, worked as a translator for the German police, and aided in the rescue of approximately 200 Jews in the Mir ghetto.
Nechama Tec is survived by her son, daughter, grandsons, great-grandson, and half-sister. Her husband and sister passed away in 2013. During the filming of the movie adaptation of “Defiance,” she was impressed by the faithful recreation of the Bielski partisan camp in Lithuania. Daniel Craig, who portrayed Tuvia Bielski in the film, spent an hour and a half questioning Dr. Tec about her experiences.