My Duty and Responsibility

The Fellowship  |  March 16, 2016

Johanna Eck tree planting ceremony at Yad Vashem
(Photo: Yad Vashem)

Johanna Eck

Life: January 4, 1888 – September 27, 1979

Why you should know her: Johanna Eck was a German war widow who, during World War II, sheltered four victims of Nazi persecution, including two Jews.

Johanna Eck’s husband was killed during World War I. One of his friends during the war was a German Jew named Jakob Guttman. When the Nazis began deporting and murdering Germany’s Jews, Jakob and his family were killed. One of his sons, Heinz, was able to escape and left on the streets. None of his Gentile acquaintances would risk their lives to shelter him – except one. Johanna took the boy in and shared her meager food rations with him. Even when her house was destroyed in an air raid, Johanna found hiding places for the boy and shared her food ration cards with him.

Her home destroyed, Johanna was assigned a one-room apartment. This didn’t stop her from harboring a young Jewish girl, Elfriede Guttman, who had barely escaped a Gestapo raid on her previous hiding place.

In January of 1944, Allied air raids destroyed much of Berlin. Johanna 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 would survive the war, but died of a stomach condition shortly after liberation. Johanna, a nurse, was by the girl’s side as 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. 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.”

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