Righteous among the Nations

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RIGHTEOUS AMONG THE NATIONS

RIGHTEOUS AMONG THE NATIONS (Heb. חֲסִידֵי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם, ḥasidei ummot ha-olam), term applied to non-Jews who saved Jews from their Nazi persecutors by endangering their own lives. (For earlier use of the term see *Ḥasidei Ummot ha-Olam.) In 1953 the Israeli parliament (Knesset) enacted the "Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance (Yad Vashem) Law." By authority of this law, *Yad Vashem was established in Jerusalem, to conduct research into the Holocaust and to document it in every possible aspect. The law also specifically charged Yad Vashem with carrying out the task of perpetuating the names of the Righteous Among the Nations "who risked their lives to save Jews." In the course of the formation and organization of Yad Vashem, a special public committee (Commission for the Designation of the Righteous) was established in 1962, to specify the criteria for the awarding of the Righteous title. Israel Supreme Court justice Moshe *Landau, who presided over the Eichmann trial, was appointed chairman of the commission, which comprised lawyers and jurists, Holocaust historians, public figures, representatives of organizations of former partisans, and Holocaust survivors. At Yad Vashem, a special department was set up to assist the commission in the gathering of material for its deliberations and for carrying out its decisions. In 1970, Moshe Bejski, also a Supreme Court Justice, and a Holocaust survivor thanks to Oskar *Schindler, replaced Justice Landau as chairman of the commission, and in 1995, he was followed by retired Supreme Court Justice Yaakov Maltz. Owing to the large number of applications three sub-committees were organized in 1978, which meet at fixed intervals in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, each holding separate sessions. The three sub-committees meet together as a plenary commission to decide on problematic cases. Every request for the recognition of a person with the Righteous title is carefully scrutinized on an individual basis. The fundamental criteria established include: personal involvement in help to at least one Jewish person; risk to the safety of the person when extending such aid; no material or other compensation or reward to the rescuer as a precondition for his/her help; the availability of testimony from the side of the rescued person, or other valid documentary material. Although the basic principle of granting individual recognition, whether the rescuer saved one or many persons, has been adhered to in general, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous has seen fit in certain instances to avoid an overly rigid interpretation of the criteria and has granted recognition in exceptional cases to persons who either risked their life to speak out against the persecution of Jews (such as church bishops) or bent the rules to allow many Jews to emigrate out of Nazi-controlled countries (such as diplomats).

Up to January 1, 2005, some 20,750 persons had been awarded the Righteous title, including men and women from all European countries, as well as persons from other countries who acted to save Jews in Europe during the Holocaust. A person honored with the title of "Righteous Among the Nations," whether living or dead, is entitled to a medal and certificate of honor, as well as inscription of the person's name on honor walls in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. The planting of trees in honor of the Righteous was discontinued in 1989, due to the lack of space, after close to 2,000 trees had been planted representing some 3,000 persons (some trees were for couples and in some cases also their eldest children). The medal was designed by the Jerusalem artist Nathan Karp; depicted on it are two hands holding onto a rescue line woven out of barbed wire. The rescue line is wound around the globe and there is a feeling of movement in its rotation. The globe is surrounded by the rabbinic saying, "Whosoever saves a single life, it is as if he has saved an entire world." The reverse of the medallion has a schematic drawing of the memorial site of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the inscription of the honoree's name. The ceremonies at which the title of Righteous Among the Nations is bestowed – at Israeli embassies, or at Yad Vashem – are held with wide media coverage. Of equal importance, Righteous persons in need of financial and medical assistance are helped by two voluntary organizations in the United States and Switzerland. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, in New York, assists some 1,700 Righteous, mostly in Eastern Europe, with monthly stipends. The Anne Frank Fonds, in Basel, assists several hundred Righteous with hard-to-get medicine in the Righteous person's country of residence. Finally, at Yad Vashem, the current multivolume Encyclopaedia of the Righteous Among the Nations gives a summary of the deeds of the rescuers, who are listed alphabetically and by country.

Forms of Aid

There were four principal types of aid for which the Righteous title may be awarded to rescuers of Jews. These are: sheltering, dissimulating, moving, and help to children.

sheltering

This represents the principal form of aid. It consists of finding a secure hiding place for the fleeing Jew, either in the house of the rescuer, or nearby; of a remote and well-hidden space, unobservable to a visitor's eyes; a place where no one would suspect that a living human being was in hiding. Hiding places varied in size and personal comfort. It could be a dark corner in the attic, a space under the rescuer's home, with only mice and insects as close companions, or worse, a pit under the barn or pigsty, with its terrible stench. In several isolated cases, people hid in tombs, after removing the coffins, such as in the Manko Szwierczszak story, where three people lay huddled in a tomb in Buczacz, Poland, for over one-and-a-half years. In less unpalatable circumstances, it could be a dark corner in the rescuer's home, hidden from outside view by a piece of furniture; an unused section of a commercial storeroom, such as was the case with the Anne Frank family in Amsterdam, Holland; or within a large double wall or ceiling; or, again, as in the case of Reverend Gerrit Brillenburg, in Utrecht, Holland, in the garret of a church. All this, for as long as it might take: from a temporary arrangement lasting only days or weeks, to perhaps several months, and in some cases for as long as two-and-a-half years – that is, until the danger had passed and a particular area had been liberated from the Germans. In all these instances, the helpless hidden Jew was at the mercy of his rescuer for basic needs, such as food, washing, and the removal of bodily wastes. All these needs were now the responsibility of the rescuer and his family. In the Netherlands, Victor Kugler and Miep Gies, former business associates of Otto Frank, cared for his and another family, and saw to their daily needs while they remained hidden for two years in an annex of their former business premises. In Warsaw, Poland, the Wolski family hid several dozen Jews, including the famed Polish-Jewish historian Emanuel *Ringelblum, in an underground garden shelter near their home, on the non-Jewish side of the city. Outside Kaunas, Lithuania, Jonas Paulavicius hid a dozen Jews in several shelters outside his home, so that in the event that one was uncovered, the captured persons would not, even under torture, know and disclose the presence of the other hidden persons.

dissimulating

Another major form of aid was helping a fleeing Jew disguise his real identity; that is, assist him in assuming a new and fictional non-Jewish-sounding name, together with a new biography, and help in learning local customs, especially the prevalent religious rites. This implied getting new documents for the rescued person, including birth or baptismal certificates, and a new place of residence. This was easier said than done, for one had to first carefully ascertain whether the Jew had what was considered a Jewish-looking appearance. This was not something one could take lightly, for the slightest error could be fatal. It was, moreover, not sufficient that the Jew did not have pronounced Jewish features, such as curly hair or inquisitive and sad-looking eyes, but he had to be well acquainted with the local customs, proper language inflection, folk mannerism, jokes, and religious beliefs; in short, everything needed to disguise otherness as well as to assume a type of behavior that would not make him or her immediately stand out in a crowd. Anyone wishing to try passing as a non-Jew, and there were thousands of such persons all over Europe, needed other persons to assist him, first in obtaining proper papers, then in moving to a new location, arranging living quarters and a place of work – requirements which were not necessarily accomplished by a single person. Another form of dissimulation was registration as an essential worker in a war-related industry under German supervision. Berthold Beitz employed over 1,000 generally unqualified Jews through the ruse that they were needed to run the oil refinery installations in Drohobycz, Poland. Julius Madritsch and Alfred Rossner did likewise for their many Jewish workers in the military uniform firms in Cracow and Bendin, and Hermann Graebe for his Jewish workers in railroad installations in Zdolbunov, Ukraine. The most celebrated case in this category is of Oskar Schindler, who claimed that his 1,200 Jewish workers were doing vital work in producing ammunition, in his factory in Brunnlitz, Moravia, when in fact very little of military value was produced during the whole eight months of the firm's operation. A third form of deception was that adopted by certain diplomats who claimed that certain groups of people were nationals of a foreign country with which Germany maintained friendly relations, and should therefore not be harmed. Numerous such "protective letters" were issued by the ambassadors of neutral countries in Budapest, in 1944, which were thus able to prevent the deportation of thousands of Jews. Included in this group one may mention Raoul *Wallenberg, of Sweden; Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian who masqueraded as the Spanish charge d'affaires; Carl Lutz, on behalf of Sweden, and Monsignor Angelo Rotta, the papal nuncio. All these diplomats utilized the "protective pass" ruse to try to save in combination tens of thousands of Jews in the Hungarian capital during the most critical phase of the Holocaust in that country.

moving

An additional principal form of help was to assist Jews who wished to flee from an endangered place to another location; either within German-controlled areas, or across frontiers to countries not embroiled in the war, such as Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, and Turkey. Even in areas under German spheres of influence, conditions for Jews varied. In France, for instance, it was somewhat easier to survive in the southern Vichy, so-called "free" zone, where antisemitic measures were applied with less severity than in the German-occupied north (including Paris). Conditions were even more favorable in southeastern France, in the provinces under Italian administration, where Jews were not mistreated. Similar conditions prevailed in other regions under Italian rule, up to September 1943, in western Yugoslavia, Albania, and the Italian zone in Greece, which included Athens. In Poland, conditions were bad and dangerous everywhere. At the same time, for people trying to pass as non-Jews it was safer to do so far away from one's own hometown, so as not to be recognized on the streets. Some persons also wished to flee from one to another ghetto, where it was felt life was relatively more tolerable, such as the Warsaw ghetto up to summer 1942, as compared with the Lvov (Lwów) ghetto. In Ukraine, persons close to the Romanian zone of occupation wished to flee there; again, because of the less severe conditions prevailing for Jews after the initial period of widespread pogroms by the Romanian military. In Ukraine and Belarus, one could also try fleeing into the deep forests, to join up with friendly partisans fighting the Nazis. In Greece, after the whole country came under Nazi rule in September 1943, Jews sought to escape into the hills, to enlist with the partisans, or by boat to neutral Turkey, where they were permitted to land. Similarly, in Norway and Denmark, thousands of Jews escaped, either by boat or by negotiating tortuous paths through the hills, to Sweden, where they were welcomed. In France, after the whole country, including the Italian zone, came under direct Nazi control, after September 1943, Jews sought to flee either to Switzerland or to Spain. In all these endeavors, to travel over long distances and tortuous trails and negotiate well-guarded border crossings without being apprehended, help was needed from non-Jews since the use of public transportation and public accommodations was forbidden to Jews by law. Of the many examples in this category, only a few may be mentioned. Tadeusz Soroka helped a group of nine Jews flee from the Grodno ghetto, in Poland, which was about to be liquidated in March 1944, aboard a German military train on its way to the front. Himself a railroad worker, Soroka accompanied them for a long night ride, as they lay huddled on the roofs of the cars. After Vilna, they jumped off, hoping to reach the partisans known to be operating in the vicinity. In Italy, Father Beniamino Schivo constantly moved a Jewish family from one location to another, and past German lines; in one instance hiding them in a monastery dressed as nuns, until he had seen them to safety with the arrival of the allied army. In the Netherlands, Joop *Westerweel arranged and led groups of Jewish youth on a long trek through occupied Belgium and France and up to the Spanish border, high in the Pyrenees. Several diplomats also facilitated the flight of many Jews from German hands. Such as Aristides de Sousa *Mendes, the Portuguese consul-general in Bordeaux, France, who freely issued thousands of Portuguese transit visas to Jewish refugees in the city, on the eve of its surrender to the Germans; Jan Zwartendijk and *Sempo Sugihara, the Dutch and Japanese consuls, respectively, in Kaunas, Lithuania, who likewise issued transit visas to thousands of Jews stranded in that country; finally, Paul Grueninger, the Swiss police border officer in St. Gallen, Switzerland, who issued false entry permits to several thousand fleeing Jews who appeared at his border outpost. Some of these senior government officials disobeyed instructions from their superiors that forbade the issuing of visas to fleeing Jews, or their entry into the country. Such open defiance by senior public servants on a moral issue, which led to the saving of at least several thousand lives, merited them the Righteous honor.

children

The fourth and final major category pertains to the rescue of children. One need not belabor the point that saving children presented a special problem. For in most cases, where adult Jewish persons had to fend for themselves, such as in hiding places where silence and strict discipline were of the utmost importance, or circulating freely under an assumed identity, children could hardly be part of this conspiracy of subterfuge. If both parents and especially their children were to have a chance to survive, the two sides had to separate, and perhaps never to see each other again. This meant turning over one's child for an indefinite period for safekeeping and adoption in either a children's home or with a private family. Children old enough to distinguish between their natural and adopted parents had to be "reprogrammed," that is, to erase from their minds the remembrance of their true parents and their own earlier names, forget their Jewish affiliation and religious customs – all this for reasons not fully, if at all, understood by these tender minds – and readapt to totally new filial and group relationships, and new cultural and religious environments. Persons involved in this rescue operation included those who traveled long distances to make the proper arrangements, escorted the children to their new homes, and made routine inspection visits to make sure the children were well cared for. Nor should we overlook the host families who took the frightened children into their homes and showered them with love and affection, and patience, while fabricating stories to neighbors to explain the sudden appearance of a strange child in their household. Rough estimates place the number of children saved through the help of non-Jewish rescuers at several tens of thousands. Also included under this category are persons who led children across great distances and difficult terrain to cross well-guarded frontiers, such as into Switzerland. Of the many examples, one may mention Yvonne *Nevejean, who as head of Belgian's national child care agency opened the agency's doors for hundreds of Jewish children on their way to host families. In the Netherlands, the nv group is the most noteworthy of the several clandestine cells dedicated to rescuing Jewish children by dispersing them with various host families in distant locations. In France, Dr. Rita Breton dispersed several hundred children in the Normandy countryside, while Denise Bergon sheltered children in religious institutions. Rolande Birgy, who worked on behalf of a Catholic youth organization, and the Quaker-affiliated Helga Holbek and Alice Synnestvedt spirited many children across the Swiss border. In Poland, Irena *Sendler spirited children out of the Warsaw ghetto, and with the help of trustworthy aides helped disperse them in private homes and religious institutions. Still in Poland, Sister Matylda Getter is one of several nuns awarded the Righteous title for sheltering many Jewish girls in her religious orphanage.

Risks to the Rescuer

The Nazis, although they did not reveal the exact nature of their murderous intent with regard to the Jews, made it clear that they consigned them to a bitter fate. It also soon became clear to the local population that the Nazis intended to deal harshly with anyone who would place obstacles in their way by offering aid to Jews. To remove any doubts, the Nazis warned the local population of dire punishment, including the death penalty, for any violation of regulations forbidding aid to Jews in distress. In Poland, for instance, large posters appeared on bulletin boards in the major cities threatening the death penalty for various forms of aid to Jews on the run, including sheltering them in one's home, selling them provisions, and moving them from one place to another. Such was the following public warning, one of many, posted in Przemysl, on November 19, 1942, which stated in no unclear terms that: "(1) Every Pole or Ukrainian who admits a Jew in his home, or affords him hospitality, provisions and refuge, will be shot. (2) Every Pole or Ukrainian who assists in whatever way a Jew who is found outside the Jewish quarter, will be shot. (3) Every Pole or Ukrainian who even attempts to carry out items 1 and 2 will be shot." Similar dire warnings were repeated in Warsaw and other major cities in Poland. Some rescuers indeed paid with their lives for helping Jews. Such was the case with the rescuers of the noted Polish-Jewish historian Emmanuel Ringelblum, who was hidden together with a large group of Jews in an underground shelter on the Aryan side of Warsaw. When the place was discovered, the Germans shot all the bunker's inhabitants, including their rescuers – the Polish Wolski family. Rescuers in other countries fared no less well. In Germany, the farmer Heinrich List was sent to the Dachau camp in 1942, where he died the same year, after being apprehended for sheltering a Jewish acquaintance on his farm. In Italy, Giovanni Palatucci was also sent to Dachau, where he perished, for aiding Jews and other persons sought by the Nazis, in Fiume. In Denmark, Henry Thomsen was arrested and sent to the Neuengamme camp, where he died, for his involvement in ferrying Jews across to Sweden. In France, Father Jacques (Lucien Bunel) was arrested in his Catholic seminary, in Avon, after it was discovered that he was sheltering three Jewish boys. He was sent to a concentration camp, where he died. Suzanne Spaak, deeply immersed in the rescue of Jewish children in the Paris region, was executed by the Nazis on the eve of the liberation of the city, in August 1944. In the Netherlands, Joop Westerweel, Jaap Musch, Joop Woortman, and Albertus Zefat, were executed on Dutch soil for their involvement in the rescue of Jews. Sometimes, not directly aiding but merely showing sympathy with Jews could land the person in a concentration camp. Adelaide Hautval, who complained of the treatment of Jews in a French prison, was dubbed a "Friend of the Jews," and deported to Auschwitz, which she luckily survived. These are but a few of many examples of rescuers who suffered martyrdom, or severe physical damage to their health, for their attempt to help Jews elude the Nazi dragnet. Much as the rescuers feared the Germans, the danger did not only stem from them but also from other quarters as well, such as local collaborators, anti-German partisans units who also attacked Jews and their protectors (especially in Eastern Europe), various antisemitic elements (pro- or anti-Nazi), and plain blackmailers holding to no particular political agenda.

Problematic Issues

Most rescue stories placed before the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous do not present problems, and do not therefore occasion serious divisions of opinion among commission members, insofar as the Righteous title is concerned. However, as with all issues dealing with human behavior during times of extreme stress and tension, from time to time cases of a special and unique character come to the fore which may not accord in all its aspects and contours with the criteria for the Righteous title. Such cases, due to their special and unique character, may require a different approach and judgment. Over the years, the Commission has acted in such specific cases, as follows:

1. The testimony of a rescued person who was an infant at the time is acceptable but not sufficient for the Righteous title, as it may be assumed that it is based on hearsay. What is required is an additional corroborative statement from someone who was at the age of understanding, or supporting documentary material in lieu of eyewitness testimony.

2. The rescuer saved one or more Jews, at the risk of his life, but at the same time was involved in reprehensible acts, inflicting harm on other Jews or members of other nationalities. He is not recognized. Such is the case with police officers who rounded up Jews for deportation but spared some out of personal friendship. A person having antisemitic sentiments is not automatically disqualified, if no acts followed upon such personal feelings. The noted Polish author Zofia Kossak-Szuczka, who made no secret of her antisemitic views, in 1942 issued a manifesto to her underground colleagues to step forward and save Jews from annihilation. She inspired the creation of Zegota, the sole Polish clandestine organization dedicated to the rescue of Jews, and herself sheltered a Jewish woman in her home. She was recognized.

3. A person who rescued but also collaborated with the enemy, or belonged to a Nazi or Fascist political movement – this requires a careful study of the person, his standing and influence in the community and the measure of the collaboration. Simply belonging to the Nazi Party does not, as in the case of Oskar Schindler, disqualify the person, if such membership was not coupled with the authority to delineate anti-Jewish policies, and the rescuer otherwise saved Jews at the risk of his life. At the same time, membership in the SS militia has so far automatically disqualified a person from bearing the Righteous title.

4. The rescuer carried out his operation at the behest of a clandestine, or partisan organization. In general, if he did not go beyond merely following orders, he would not be recognized. But if he went above and beyond instructions, and increased the risks to his person in affording aid to Jews, as was for instance the case of the Polish underground leader Henryk Wolinski, he would be recognized.

5. Persons who did not rescue but undertook great risks to themselves to try to stop the Holocaust. The German industrialist Eduard Schulte and the Polish underground courier Jan *Karski were awarded the Righteous title for trying to alert the world to the Final Solution, hoping that the free world would intervene to stop it.

6. Diplomats who saved – if they acted in contravention of instructions from above, coupled with a sizable number of Jews saved – would be awarded the Righteous title. This ruling has allowed the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes and the Japanese diplomat Sempo Sugihara – two of a larger group – to earn the Righteous title.

7. Rescue inside monasteries and convents – in general the Father or Mother Superior, in other words, the person with ultimate authority and responsible before the authorities, is recognized and not monks and nuns inside these houses, unless they acted in a special and unique way to save their Jewish wards.

8. The rescuer of his, or her, Jewish spouse would not earn the Righteous title, unless the rescue act also included family members of the Jewish spouse.

9. Baptized Jews who acted either as rescuers or rescued. In general, a Jew who freely and out of inner conviction and persuasion converted out of Judaism before the advent of Nazism and anti-Jewish laws in his country is considered to have willingly left the Jewish fold, and his, or her, case (be it as rescuer or rescued) is not considered with the framework of the Righteous program. Such a ruling would not apply if the conversion was done to avoid persecution by the Nazis and their allies.

Motivations and Lessons

Several studies have been made to try to explain the motivations of the rescuers. Nechama Tec, in her research on Polish rescuers, concluded that most rescuers in her sample stood out from their immediate surroundings, since they did not identify with the behavioral norms of their neighbors. In short, rescuers tended to be nonconformists and individualists who preferred to draw their own conclusion as to the proper responses to various human issues confronting them. Samuel and Pearl Oliner researched rescuers from many European countries, and found, as opposed to Tec, that most rescuers had so completely internalized the social norms of their society, such as compassion and aid to the less favored, that whereas most others only paid lip service to the values taught in their society, rescuers in fact had taken these teachings so seriously that they became behavioral codes in their day-to-day lives – to a greater degree than non-rescuers and bystanders. Whatever the ultimate reasons for this unique kind of behavior (risking one's life to help strangers), the example of the Righteous Among the Nations suggests that man, left to his own devices, while not a saint – is not necessarily prone solely to evil deeds. When confronted and challenged, ordinary people have the capacity to perform acts of goodness for their own sake. The lessons to be drawn include the following: (a) That it was possible to save Jews at the individual level, even in spite of the risks involved; that the individual, left to his own devices, can decide to act right morally and can make a difference, and thereby serve as an example and role model for the behavior of others. (b) That helping others in distress may be a natural, not coerced, human behavioral mode, and represents man at his best. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel *Levinas has stated that a true ethic begins with a turning towards and responding to the Other, since such an encounter makes possible a true dialogue with one's own conscience – the questioning of oneself in light of the Other, who is somehow also present in ourselves, in our consciousness, yet is not of it. (c) An added dimension to the uniqueness of the behavior of the rescuers comes to the fore when one compares their responses with that of the perpetrators. Perpetrators usually say: "I did not do it exactly as described. Besides, I was forced into it, for orders have to be obeyed. Personally, I have nothing against Jews, and I am not responsible for my deeds. I am passing the buck." Rescuers, in contrast, generally say: "Of course I did it, and I would do it again, if called upon. I take full personal responsibility for my deed. I was not coaxed into it, and no one forced me to do it. Besides, it was the most natural thing." Herein lies the abyss separating these two types of moral conduct. (d) The example of the thousands of Righteous who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis is testimony to the human spirit as a potent creative force. Primo *Levi has stated this idea best when he reflected on the significance of his rescue by the Italian Lorenzo Perrone in the hell on earth that was Auschwitz: "However little sense there may be in trying to specify why I, rather than thousands of others, managed to survive the test, I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving… Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man." In conclusion, the importance of the saving of even one life is an important Jewish moral principle; again, as it is stated in the Talmud (and etched on the Righteous medal): "Whosoever saves one life is as though he has saved an entire world."

bibliography:

I. Gutman (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, 6 vols. (2002–6); M. Paldiel, Path of the Righteous (1994); idem, Sheltering the Jews (1995); idem, Saving the Jews (2000); M. Gilbert, The Righteous (2003); M. Halter, Stories of Deliverance (1997); D. Gushee, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust (20032); E. Silver, The Book of the Just (1992); A. Bauminger, The Righteous (1983).

[Mordecai Paldiel (2nd ed.)]

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Righteous among the Nations

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