The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust

BOOK: The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust
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The Righteous

The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust
Martin Gilbert

, S

According to Jewish tradition, “Whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world.” In
The Righteous
, distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert explores the courage of those who, throughout Germany and in every occupied country from Norway to Greece, from the Atlantic to the Baltic, took incredible risks to help Jews whose fate would have been sealed without them. Indeed, many lost their lives for their efforts.

From Greek-Orthodox Princess Alice of Greece, who hid Jews in her home in Athens, to the Ukrainian Uniate Archbishop of Lvov, who hid hundreds of Jews in his churches and monastaries, to Muslims in Bosnia and Albania, to British prisoners-of-war, many risked, and lost, everything to help their fellow man. Those who hid Jews included priests and nuns, nurses and nannies, teachers, neighbors and friends, employees and colleagues, soldiers and diplomats, and, above all, ordinary citizens. These are the stories of those who have received formal recognition by the State of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.

Praise for Martin Gilbert’s
The First World War

“Among the thousands of accounts of the conflict, Gilbert’s is remarkable, even stunning.”

—Michael Kenney,
The Boston Globe

“All the ways Mr. Gilbert’s
The First World War
brings the conflict home to people at the end of the twentieth century renders it one of the first books that anyone should read in beginning to try to understand this war and this century.”

—John Milton Cooper, Jr.,
The New York Times Book Review
(front page)

Praise for Martin Gilbert’s
Churchill: A Life

“A masterful work.”

—Henry Kissinger

“The most scholarly study of Churchill in war and peace ever written…Essential diplomatic history and enlightening personal history.”

—Herbert Mitgang,
The New York Times

One of Britain’s most distinguished historians, S
was knighted in 1995. Among his many books are
The Holocaust, The First World War, The Second World War, Churchill: A Life
, and
The Boys



who has done so much to uncover
and to preserve
the stories of the Righteous

Even in hell, even in that hell called the Holocaust, there was goodness,
there was kindness, and there was love and compassion.

saved as a child

Illustration Credits

to the Photo Archives, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), Washington DC, for access to, and permission to reproduce, the sixty-four photographs in this book. Additional acknowledgement for the use of these pictures is due to Gay Block and Malka Drucker,
Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust
(photographs 1, 25, 26, 31, 57), Abraham Foxman (2 and 3), Museum of Jewish Heritage/Centre for Holocaust Studies, and Stanley Berger (4), Helen Wisgardisky Lewin (5), Rose Levin Weinberg (6), Anita Helfgott Ekstein (7, 8), Shalom Foundation: Golda Tencer-Szurmiej Collection (9), Alicija Fajnstejn Weinsberg (10), Zydowski Instytut Historyczny Naukowo-Badawczy (11, 12, 13, 14), Jacky Barkan (15, 16), Annette Lederman Linzer (17), Jacques Leibman (18), Yettanda Stewart (19), Sara Lamhaut Boucart (20), Michel Reynders (21), Thea Rothenstein (22), Rachelle Silberman Goldstein (23), Marguerite Birnbaum (24), Bep Meyer Zion (27, 28), Thomas Stein (29), Nederlands Institut Voor Oorlogsdocumentatie (30), Memoir Juive de Paris (32), Hanne Leibman and Jack Lewin (33), Nelly Trocmé Hewett (34), Roger Waksman (35), Nadine Fain Thiberville (36), Gavra Mandil (37), Marion I. Cassirer (38), Babi Yar Society (39), Bernard Geron (40), Alice Slade (41), Lea Kalin (42), Sophie Zajd Berkowitz (43), Ursula Korn Selig (44), Frihedsmuseet, Denmark (45, 46), Hagstromer & Qviberg Fondkommission (47), Eric Saul, of ‘Visas for Life’ (48, 49, 51, 52, 53, 55, 61), Nina Gladitz Film Produktion (50), Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (54), Agnes Herzer (56), Yad Vashem Photo Archives (58), Swedish National Archives (59), Thomas Veres (60), Comité International de la Croix Rouge (62), PFG International (63) and Leopold Page Photographic Collection (64).

About the Author

One of Britain’s most distinguished historians, S
was knighted in 1995. Among his many books are
The Holocaust, The First World War, The Second World War, Churchill: A Life
, and
The Boys


1974, while walking on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, I saw in front of me the end of a procession on its way to one of the city’s Christian cemeteries. Surprised that most of the walkers seemed to be Jews, I asked one of them whose funeral it was, and was told it was that of a German Christian, Oskar Schindler, who had helped save the lives of more than fifteen hundred Jews during the Second World War.

Like most of the four hundred people in the procession, the man to whom I spoke was a Jew saved by Schindler. So too was the Polish-born Judge Moshe Bejski, a survivor of the Holocaust, who delivered the funeral oration. Bejski was then active in the search for non-Jews who had saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust, to enable them to receive formal recognition as Righteous Among the Nations. This recognition was being given, and continues to be given, by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and archive in Jerusalem, as laid down in the law of the State of Israel.

The concept of Righteous Among the Nations—in Hebrew,
hasidei umot haolam
—is an ancient one in Jewish tradition. Originally those ‘nations’ were the non-Israelite tribes of Biblical times. During the Passover evening family recitation, according to a post-war tradition, Jews recall Shifra and Puah, the two Egyptian midwives ‘who defied Pharaoh’s edict to drown the male children of Israel in the Nile’, and the daughter of Pharaoh, ‘who violated her father’s decree to drown infants, and who reached out to save Moses’.
Seeing the new-born Israelite boy for whom death was the sole decree—her own father’s decree—she took him in his basket from the river and brought him up as her own son. In the Bible she is given no name. The Jewish sages chose a name for her: Batya, daughter of God.

From that moment on Mount Zion in 1974, I began collecting newspaper items about the awards and award ceremonies at Yad Vashem, and spending time in that part of the archive there dedicated to the Righteous. Some of the material in this book derives from my researches at that time.

Many of those Jews who survived Nazi rule and occupation in Europe between 1939 and 1945 owed their survival to non-Jews. The penalty for helping a Jew hide was often death, especially in Poland and eastern Europe. Many hundreds of non-Jews were executed for trying to help Jews. Hostile neighbours could be as dangerous as the Gestapo, often betraying both those in hiding and those who were hiding them. At the beginning of the year 2002, fifty-six years after the end of the war in Europe, more than nineteen thousand non-Jews had been honoured as Righteous at Yad Vashem. As one century gave way to another, more than eight hundred non-Jews were being identified and honoured every year. Were a single printed page to be devoted to each person already recognized as Righteous, it would take fifty books the size of this one to tell all their stories.

In 1993 I was invited to speak in Jerusalem to a gathering of several hundred Jews who had been hidden as children during the war by non-Jews. These ‘Hidden Children’, as they called themselves, had first come together two years earlier in New York, and felt strongly that the time had come to seek public recognition of those who had saved their lives. Those who had hidden Jewish children, saving them from deportation and death, included Roman Catholics—among them Franciscans, Benedictines and Jesuits—Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Baptists and Lutherans, as well as Muslims in Bosnia and Albania. They were priests and nuns, nurses and nannies, teachers and fellow pupils, neighbours and friends, as well as employees and colleagues of their parents. A single act, even a single remark, could save a life—as when a Polish peasant woman, hearing her fellow villagers say, of four-or five-year-old Renée Lindenberg, ‘throw her into the well’, replied: ‘She’s not a dog after all’, and Renée was saved.

Abraham Foxman, who had been saved by his nanny in Vilna, told the Hidden Child conference in Jerusalem: ‘For the first fifty years after the Holocaust survivors bore witness to evil, brutality and bestiality. Now is the time for us, for our generation, to bear witness to goodness. For each one of us is living proof that even in hell, even in that hell called the Holocaust, there was goodness, there was kindness, and there was love and compassion.’

The story of non-Jews who saved Jewish lives—the ‘Righteous’ of this study—was not one that had a high priority in the first few decades after the war. Understandably, Jewish writers wanted to tell the story of the suffering, the destruction, and the murder of loved ones, as well as of Jewish resistance and revolt. In his substantial study of the Vilna ghetto, published in 1980, the historian Yitzhak Arad, himself a survivor of that ghetto and a wartime partisan, wrote only a few sentences about the Righteous, while stating emphatically: ‘The Lithuanian populace in Vilna did not provide refuge for the Jews.’

In commenting on the paucity of rescuers in Lithuania, Dr Arad noted: ‘A possibility of haven in a non-Jewish surrounding was dictated by two basic conditions—the attitude of local inhabitants, and the punishment awaiting those who extended help. Both were disadvantageous to the Jews. A big segment of the local public was animated by anti-Semitism, profited by illicit gains from abandoned Jewish property, and favoured or was apathetic toward the extermination of the Jewish community. Those who might have been ready to assist the Jews were intimidated by the likelihood of punishment. Very few overcame their fears and extended help.’

Yet Yad Vashem, of which Dr Arad was chairman for many years, has—since the fall of Communism made it possible—paid homage to more than four hundred Lithuanian rescuers, many from Vilna. As research continues in independent Lithuania, the cases of as many as two thousand more Lithuanians are being prepared for possible recognition in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Focus on the Righteous is not universally welcomed. In response to my published requests for stories of rescue, a Polish-born Jew wrote in some perturbation that ‘in my opinion, enough is being written on Christian help to rescue Jews. I feel that the focus is shifting away from the crimes.’
Another correspondent, a Polish-born survivor of the Holocaust, Ella Adler, who was living in Cracow when war broke out, wrote: ‘Thank you kindly for your recent letter inquiring as to whether I had experienced a kindness from a non-Jew during my four years of incarceration during the Holocaust years. Sorry to say that I personally do not recall any such kindness during that period.’ Such responses were not unusual. Yet at the same time, Ella Adler added that she does know ‘of a person in our group of Holocaust Survivors who had such an experience’, and that she was passing on my request to him.

Baruch Sharoni, a member of the committee at Yad Vashem that recognizes the Righteous, has commented: ‘The number of such cases was peripheral because so many more who could have contributed to the rescue did not.’
Yet Sharoni also reflected: ‘I see the savers as true noble souls of the human race, and when I meet with them I feel somewhat inferior to them. For I know that if I had been in their place I wouldn’t have been capable of such deeds.’

Many survivors react with unease, and even anger, when they reflect on how few people were willing to help. Gerta Vrbova, a young Slovak girl during the war, asked: ‘What were the reasons for the appalling behaviour of the local population when their neighbours were deported to unknown destinations?’
A Dutch survivor, Dr Maurits de Vries, wrote: ‘I would like to stress again the fact that only the relatively few, who were saved, could bear witness, and that the voice of those who fell in the hands of the Nazis, by treason, cannot be heard.’
Professor Edgar Gold, who survived the war in Germany as a hidden child, and whose father survived four concentration camps, including Auschwitz, writes that his father often told him ‘that the Germans could not have done what they did without the assistance of their Ukrainian, Polish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Hungarian and Croatian “helpers”. Furthermore, the roundup of Jews in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and even Norway, would not have been so “successful” without significant local “help”. My father also often mentioned that the cruelty and bestiality of Ukrainian and Baltic States’ concentration camp guards often far surpassed the cold, calculated cruelty of the Germans.’

Collaboration and betrayal cast a shadow on the story of rescue, raising the question of how many more Jews might have been saved had more people been prepared to take the risk of helping them; they also intensify the light that shines on those who did help, almost always at great risk to themselves. Henry Huttenbach, the historian of the Jews of Worms, writes of an elderly Jewish couple in Worms who were made welcome in a Catholic convent and thus escaped deportation: ‘They had the good fortune of encountering brave and decent people who sheltered them in an otherwise overwhelmingly unfriendly and disinterested Europe. It must be remembered that those who did escape camps, ran away into societies poisoned by anti-Semitic sentiments. The vast majority perished at the hands of collaborators with Germany’s scheme to exterminate the Jews, whether Swiss border guards refusing entrance to anyone over sixteen, or the French police arresting foreign Jews, or Poles refusing to hide escapees from ghettos, or Russian partisans who killed Jews seeking to join them in their fight against the Germans.’ But, he added: ‘In this morally depraved Europe, there were islands of exceptions, an occasional decent person who risked his life by opening his home, and a rare convent or monastery which had the moral backbone to extend sanctuary to persecuted Jews other than to those who had converted to Christianity.’

Those ‘islands of exceptions’ and the ‘moral backbone’ of the rescuers are central to the story of a Nazi-dominated Europe within which righteous acts testified to the survival of humane values, and to the courage of those who save human life rather than allow it to be destroyed. In every country under Nazi rule or occupation, the instinct to help remained strong, despite widespread hostility or indifference. Six million Jews were murdered, but tens of thousands were saved.

In almost every instance where a Jew was saved, more than one non-Jew was involved in the act of rescue, which in many cases took place over several years. ‘In order to save one Jew,’ writes Elisabeth Maxwell, referring to the French experience, ‘it required ten or more people in every case,’ and she cites the story of Alexander Rotenberg, who crossed from France into Switzerland. On reading his story, she noted, ‘I find that more than fifty people were directly involved and needed in his rescue from Antwerp, via France to Switzerland, and that takes no account of all those who were in the know or closed their eyes and did not talk.’

The story of the Righteous is the story of men and women who risked their lives and those of their families to help save Jewish lives: people who, in the words of Si Frumkin, a survivor of the Kovno ghetto, ‘ignored the law, opposed popular opinion, and dared to do what was right’.
According to Jewish tradition: ‘Whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world.’

Merton College
28 June 2002

BOOK: The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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