The Task That God Demands from Me

The Fellowship  |  October 20, 2020

Johanna Eck tree planting ceremony at Yad Vashem, 1977
Johanna Eck tree planting ceremony at Yad Vashem, 1977

A German war widow who sheltered Jewish victims of Nazi persecution during World War II, Johanna Eck truly earned the title of Righteous Gentile.

Johanna Eck’s husband died during World War I. Before he died, he served with and befriended a German Jew named Jakob Guttman. As World War I began and the Nazis started deporting and murdering Germany’s Jews, they killed Jakob and his family. One of Jakob’s sons, Heinz, escaped to the streets. But none of Heinz’s Gentile acquaintances risked their lives to shelter him – except one.

Johanna Eck took the boy in and shared her meager food rations with him. Even when an air raid destroyed her house, Johanna found hiding places for the boy and shared her food ration cards with him.

Her home gone, Johanna found an empty one-room apartment. This didn’t stop her from harboring a young Jewish girl, Elfriede Guttman, who barely escaped a Gestapo raid at her previous hiding place.

In January of 1944, Allied air raids destroyed much of Berlin. Johanna Eck took advantage of this to create a new identity for Elfriede. She told the authorities that the girl was a Gentile, and that her papers had been destroyed in the bombing, thus allowing Elfriede to live freely with the kindly widow.

Elfriede survived the war, but died of a stomach condition shortly after liberation. Johanna, a nurse, never left the girl’s side until she passed away. After Elfriede’s death, Johanna paid for a tombstone with not only the girl’s name on it, but those of her parents and brother, as well. Johanna Eck was named Righteous Among the Nations in 1973, her tree-planting ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem shown above. When asked why she acted so selflessly, Johanna said:

“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.”

Stay informed about issues affecting Israel, the Jewish people, Jewish-Christian relations, receive daily devotionals, and more.