Jonas Eckstein, a Bratislava Jew who saved some 2,000 fellow Jews in the Holocaust, was honored on Monday at the 12th annual B’nai B’rith World Center Holocaust Remembrance ceremony in the Scrolls of Fire Plaza located in the Martyrs Forest near Ramat Raziel and Moshav Kesalon.
Some 300 of the Jews saved by the late Eckstein are living in Israel.
Slovakian Ambassador Radovan Javorcik said that on a per capita basis, more Slovaks had been acknowledged as Righteous Among the Nations than most other countries.
More than 500 non-Jewish Slovaks have received this distinction, but a number of Jews have also been recognized for their efforts.
Among them is Nicholas Winton, who, at the time, was not aware he was Jewish.
He rescued 609 Jewish children from German occupied Czechoslovakia. Other rescuers, include Rabbi Dov Weissmandl, Gisi Fleischman, Haviva Reich and Jonas Eckstein.
Javorcik said that he had met some of the rescuers and some of the rescued, including Nicholas Winton and singers from the original Brundibar choir that sang in the children’s opera in Theresienstadt, and wished he could meet the “300 Eckstein children who still live in Israel.”
Eckstein died in Australia in 1971 and was the grandfather of Israel Radio’s prize winning journalist Benny Teitelbaum. Teitelbaum’s mother, Tova (nee Gerta Eckstein), lives in Haifa.
Since Eckstein’s death, she had spent many years in an attempt to have her father officially recognized for having saved so many men women and children.
Tova contacted Yaron Enosh – who at that time was hosting a missing persons radio program for people who wanted to locate longlost relatives and friends, mostly from the Holocaust era – and broadcast a request for anyone who was saved by her father to make contact.
Through the broadcast, she discovered a Holocaust-related geniza (a Jewish storage unit in a synagogue or cemetery) in Bnei Brak. In it were documents about Orthodox Holocaust survivors, among whom was a file on her father.
In August, 2009, she used the information she gathered, and a story about it was published in The Jerusalem Post. Following its publication institutions dealing with Holocaust history began to take notice.
She was contacted by people whose own fathers had worked with hers, and others who had been saved by him.
This started a round of email connections as well as many face-to-face meetings, which were also attended by her son Benny who video taped and recorded them.
Eckstein was a formidable wrestler in the Hakoah Sports Club. His sporting activities brought him into contact with many influential people, including government and municipal officials and the police, some of whom helped him in his efforts to hide, feed, and clothe Jews and to facilitate the illegal escape of many across the Hungarian border.
He built two bunkers – one under the cellar of the house that he shared with his wife, Valerie (Wally), and the other under an adjacent building. In these he could hide up to 60 men, women and children at any given time.
What he was doing was an open secret in Bratislava. There are records of his rescue operations not only in Yad Vashem, but in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Teitelbaum, who among other vocations, covers the Jewish World for Israel Radio, said that he could not understand why the institutions that had initially refused to recognize his grandfather were more preoccupied with non-Jews than Jews. He seemed to be implying that the only Jews they cared about were victims.
The Nazis got wind of the fact that Eckstein was hiding Jews and threatened that if he did not give them up, he would be deported to Auschwitz.
Eckstein refused, and said he would rather go there than be responsible for the death of a single Jew. Eventually he and his wife were sent to Theresienstadt.
JNF chairman Efi Stenzler said that 6 million trees had been planted in the Martyrs Forest to symbolize the 6 million Jews who were murdered.
Stenzler referred to the trees as “6 million green candles.”
Knesset Education, Culture and Sport Committee chairman Amram Mitzna said that when one is at Yad Vashem, one is supremely conscious of the Righteous Among the Nations who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. But at the BB-JNF event, one became conscious of the heroism of Jews who saved Jews.
Jewish rescuers set an outstanding example for future generations of Jews said Haim Katz, chairman of the B’nai B’rith World Center.
Brig.-Gen. Shimon Dadon, the education officer of the Israel Border Patrol, which traditionally participates in the ceremony, said that maintaining the memory of the Holocaust was akin to the Biblical edict “Remember what Amalek did to you.”
Although the focus of the event was on Eckstein, citations were also presented to the next of kin of seven other deceased rescuers: Efraim Agmon, Moshe Alpan, Neshka and Zvi Goldfarb, Yitzhak Roth and his wife Miriam who is still living and Jacob Maestro.
Summing up Eckstein’s commitment to Jewish life, Javorcik said: “He understood that saving [a] life takes precedence over lighting a Shabbat candle.”
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