Larry Jacob

Holocaust Heroes. What Would You Have Done in Their Situation?

I love stories like the ones described in this blog. Most of us are familiar with Holocaust heroes, such as Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List) and the Zabinskis (Zookeeper’s Wife), but there were many other heroes who were just as brave, who took just as many risks, and who were just as heroic, whose feats were accomplished below the surface in anonymity and have been lost to history. Thanks to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum some of these acts of bravery have been coming to light. I have endeavored to relate some of these in previous blogs. Below please find a brief summary of two additional stories. As you read about these heroes ask yourself what would you have done in their circumstances. Would you have provided assistance, or would you have stood aside as so many others did?

Josephine Baker

Freda Josephine Baker was born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, MO. Later, she dropped her first name and became known as Josephine Baker.

Like most performers of that era she began her career in vaudeville as a teenager. She soon became an iconic actress and dancer. For example, in 1927 she was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture (the silent film Siren of the Tropics). Later, after moving to France she became a star as an erotic dancer and a headliner in the renown dance troupe, the Folies Bergere in Paris.

In the US Baker, despite her fame and accomplishments, was subjected to the same restrictions, prejudices and “Jim Crow” laws as any other Black person in the early 20th Century. The fact that she was bisexual exacerbated the situation. After she moved to Paris she felt liberated. At the time, life in France for Blacks was very different from the US. The French were much more tolerant. Suddenly, Baker could live where she wanted, travel where she wanted, and sit wherever she wanted on a train or bus. She loved France. It became her new home.

With the advent of WWII Baker sought to use her fame to spy for the French resistance. She was recruited by a French intelligence agent named Jacques Abtey. Her attitude was that she owed her adoptive country for having welcomed her, and she ready, willing and even eager to repay that debt. As she often averred, “the Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life.”

Baker was a very successful spy. Her notoriety gave her access to various parties, events and gatherings that were attended by high-ranking Nazis. Normally, she would merely mingle, observe and listen. However, on occasion, she would have the temerity to write important notes on her person. She was confident that she was above suspicion even though she epitomized all that the Nazis hated and fervently persecuted: Black, bisexual and Jewish (by marriage). As it turned out, she was right.

When the Nazis invaded France and occupied Paris Baker fled to Marseilles, which was controlled by the Vichy French collaborators. Abtey accompanied her disguised as her ballet instructor. Encouraged by Baker’s fame and naturally vibrant personality they were able to continue their espionage activities. They got even more aggressive. For instance, they would travel freely throughout southern France and, even to Portugal. Two of their tactics were to smuggle information written on the back of Baker’s sheet music in invisible ink and pin photographs to the inside of Baker’s clothes. They became a most effective conduit between the French resistance and British intelligence under the very noses of the Nazis. They were never caught.

Commencing in 1943 Baker came into the open. She began touring to entertain the Allied troops, mainly in North Africa. She raised in excess of 3 million francs for the Free French. In recognition of her service the women’s auxiliary of the French air force made her an honorary officer. She was so honored by this that she wore her uniform at every public performance, even at the March on Washington in 1963 at which she was one of the few women’s speakers.

Following the liberation of Paris in 1944 she sold many of her valuables to raise money for refugees in Paris who were living in dire poverty. In 1945 General Charles de Gaulle awarded her two most prestigious honors – the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance and named her a Chevalier de Legion d’honneur. Back in the US Baker continued her fight for civil rights for Blacks.

Baker passed away on April 12, 1975.

Roswell and Marjorie McClelland

In contrast to Baker the McClellands were not celebrities, but rather normal, everyday Americans. They also took extraordinary actions to save Jews and other victims from Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust. Their rescue and relief efforts spanned some five years and transpired in three separate countries – Italy, France and Switzerland.

Roswell McClelland was born on January 25, 1914. He was well-educated, possessing degrees from Duke and Columbia Universities. Upon graduation Ross had been awarded a fellowship from the American Friends Service Committee (“AFSC) to study in Switzerland but had been unable to use it due to the outbreak of WWII in 1939. The AFSC was the largest non-Jewish organization that sought to aid refugees to escape Nazi persecution.

Marjorie Miles was born on August 7, 1913. She was a graduate of Stanford University, had completed graduate work in child psychology at the University of Cincinnati and Yale and was the director of a nursing school in NY when she and Ross first met. They were married in 1938.

Through friends of Marjorie’s who worked for the AFSC she ascertained that the organization was actively recruiting aid workers to work overseas. It was particularly interested in multi-lingual persons. Ross, who spoke German, French and Italian, was an ideal candidate. The couple did not have to join up. They were both well-educated professionals who could have ridden out the war in the US and made a comfortable living, but they decided they wanted to help others who were less fortunate.

The AFSC first assigned the couple to work in its Rome office. During the first year they helped over 100 persons by arranging for food, clothing, shelter and other necessities and helping them to emigrate. They also helped to place orphaned children (particularly Jewish children) in new homes. Essentially, they were a lifeline to desperate people who had fled the Nazi horror.

Unfortunately, during the summer of 1941 the US halted immigration of refugees from Italy forcing the AFSC to close the office. The McClellands were despaired by this turn of events telling friends “we comfort ourselves by thinking of the 108 [The exact number is unknown.] people that we have helped to emigrate… but we wish that the number could have been larger.”

Later on they performed similar services in France and Switzerland. Obviously, this was dangerous work, but the McClellands were committed to do their part. Moreover, of necessity, most of it was accomplished in secret and therefore unknown by the general public.

In 1944 the US created the War Refugee Board, which focused on providing relief and rescuing Jews stuck in occupied countries. The Board was nominally run by the US Secretaries of State, Treasury and War, but Ross was the chief officer in Switzerland. Ross appreciated the Board’s efforts, but he lamented that it should have been created earlier in the war “when the opportunities for saving people were far greater.”

The McClellands had four children – two boys and two girls. After the war Ross joined the US Foreign Service and eventually became an ambassador. They remained in Switzerland until 1949 after which they returned to the US.

Marjorie passed away on June 12, 1978, Ross on May 6, 1995.


Josephine Baker and the McClellands are but two examples of the many brave people who risked their lives selflessly to help the persecuted during WWII.

Thousands of Jews and other refugees are alive today because of their efforts. Although they operated primarily behind the scenes their deeds should not be forgotten. Kudos to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for keeping their stories alive.

Their stories and others like it remind me of the famous quote from Martin Niemoller. At the advent of WWII Niemoller was a virulent antisemite and Nazi supporter. Later, after the Nazis had imprisoned him for having criticized their policies regarding churches he realized the error of his ways and penned the following famous quotation – “First They Came.”

“First, they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then, they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

That quotation still resonates today.

Thousands of Jews and other refugees are alive today because of their efforts. Although they operated primarily behind the scenes their deeds should not be forgotten. Kudos to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for keeping their stories alive.

About the Author
Larry was born and raised in New York. He is 73 years old. He has a Bachelors Degree in Accounting and a Masters Degree in Marketing Management, and worked in the financial industry for 42 years in accounting and Compliance. Larry is also a veteran, whose hobbies are reading and golf. He has been writing a blog for three years, which is being read by people in 90 countries.
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