I just watched a film about a young Jewish woman who "passes" in occupied France during the Second World War. It reminded me of a time that I was helping two elderly Holocaust survivors fill out forms for restitution funds. I had been instructed that the Germans are great record keepers and very wary of fraud. I had been warned of people being denied their benefits because of very small inconsistencies in documentation, e.g. spring 1941 vs. March 1941. With that in mind, I tried to be as precise as I could with dates. The man's papers seemed to be more or less in order, and he had the identifying tattoo to match. The woman's papers were more confusing. She had dates from a previous claim, but they didn't really make sense with the story she told me. She was in and out of camps, according to her paperwork, and there were other documents that contradicted both what she told me and what her previous forms said. I didn't really know what to do, so I told her I would ask for help. She panicked, grabbed my arm, sat me back down. Pointing to the form with the dates, she said "this isn't me." She told me in her stilted English about how with her blonde hair and blue eyes, no one suspected her of being Jewish. She was able to "pass" for the duration of the war, working as a seamstress. The documents corroborating her time spent in camps she had gotten from another young woman who had died shortly after liberation.
Of course I felt no moral compunction about filling out the forms as necessary for her benefits (i.e. lying). I did wonder, though, was she lucky to have come to me rather than most any other member of the general populace? I'd like to think that anybody else would have done the same as me, but it's hard to know. Arguing in her favor, she must have suffered during the war, if not in the same ways, for the same reasons as those the restitution was meant to help. She probably lived in constant fear of being discovered. Who knows who she had to bribe or befriend to maintain her freedom -- being able to "pass" is not really a passive endeavor. Arguing against her, we don't want to help people who seem to be able to help themselves. We are disgusted with those who seem to game the system, accepting government help rather than seeking employment, being opportunistic about social safety nets, etc. We may even consider her less noble for taking her God given gifts of aryan beauty and making the most of them. But luckily for her, "we" only despise those things when we are unavoidably confronted with them, when we have our faces rubbed in the ugliness of reality, taking away with us the scent of our hypocrisy. As long as she continues to "pass," we may forget she and her kind ever existed, which is all anyone can ever really ask for from society.