Reflecting upon the heroism of victims and rescuers on Holocaust Remembrance Day

This is a magnificent gesture from the leader of the country that leads the free world.

May 1, 2019 18:55
4 minute read.
Yom HaShoah

IDF soldiers at the Chamber of the Holocaust, Mount Zion, Jerusalem for a Yom HaShoah ceremony, April 11, 2018. (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)

Holocaust Remembrance Day gives us an opportunity to commemorate and honor the memory of the victims of the Nazi persecution, one of the darkest chapters in human history.

The importance of this day was recently underscored by US President Donald Trump, who published an official call to the people of the United States to “observe the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust, April 28 through May 5, 2019, and the solemn anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camps, with appropriate study, prayers and commemoration, and to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution by remembering the lessons of this atrocity so that it is never repeated”.
This is a magnificent gesture from the leader of the country that leads the free world.

Holocaust Remembrance Day also prompts us to reflect upon the heroism of those who fought Nazism, including the persecuted ones, their rescuers and soldiers of the liberating armies.

The Holocaust had two opposing faces. The evil embodied by the Nazis and their henchmen tends to overshadow the courage and goodness of those who confronted it, for the human mind is more prone to recognize atrocities than pure altruism.

The courageous Jews who organized the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto, the various Partisans groups give us a great example of the heroism of the victims.

Likewise, the fighting spirit of the Allied soldiers, who expelled the Nazi occupiers from Europe and liberated the concentration camps, cannot be downplayed.

The third front of goodness was populated by courageous women and men from all walks of life, who opted not to stand idly by in the face of evil. Instead, these rescuers reached out to the victims of the Nazi murderous machine, offering protection to the persecuted ones, oftentimes risking their own lives and that of their families.

Many of the rescuers were prominent diplomats, such as the Swedish Raoul Wallenberg, the Portuguese Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Brazilian Luis Martins de Souza Dantas, the Spanish Sebastian de Romero Radigales, the Vatican Nuncio Angelo Rotta and the Swiss Carl Lutz, just to name a few. Others became famous after their deeds were discovered, such as the Polish Irena Sendler and the Italian Gino Bartali. Many others are still anonymous, but all of them acted upon their conscience.

Several decades ago, I founded the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation together with my late friend, Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor who served in the US Congress, becoming the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Tom himself was saved by Wallenberg and later became part of his life-saving network. 

THE OBJECTIVE of our NGO is precisely to preserve and divulge the legacies of the rescuers, trying to instill their spirit of civic solidarity in the minds and hearts of the younger generations.

Back in 2014, we launched an ambitious educational program titled Houses of Life. The idea was to identify and mark with special plaques those sites in Europe that provided shelter to the victims of the Nazi persecution.

Five years later, we have managed to identify well over 500 Houses of Life across Europe, and we are in the process of marking each one of them. We have learned that most of the refugees were children, left by their parents before the latter were deported to the Nazi concentration and death camps.

An overwhelming number of Houses of Life were related to the Catholic Church. In Italy and France alone, hundreds of churches, convents, monasteries and Catholic schools were part of this intricate network, a fact that emphasizes the importance of opening the wartime Vatican archives, as announced earlier this year by Pope Francis, in order to understand the role played by the Church.

In the next few months we are scheduled to proclaim three Houses of Life in Hungary in which hundreds of children were sheltered and saved. One can only imagine how many lives were born from those children.

Back on January 27, 2019, in a moving ceremony that took place in Tirana, with the participation of Albania’s President Ilir Meta and dignitaries from his government, our foundation proclaimed the whole country of Albania as a House of Life.

This tiny country in the Balkans, predominantly Muslim, is the only one under Nazi occupation that ended up the war with more Jews than it had before the outbreak of the Holocaust. This was due to the fact that the whole country, including politicians and common people, gave shelter not only to the Albanian Jews, but also to Jews from neighboring countries, based on the ethical principle named Besa, which in Albanian refers to “the Promise” or “Code of Honor” whereby Albanians will always protect their guests, even by risking their own lives.

The Houses of Life program clearly exemplifies the courage of the rescuers and in the eve of the Holocaust Remembrance Day, we should all reflect upon the blessed memory of the victims and their rescuers.

Their joint spirit will help us all in our efforts to prevent a future Holocaust.

The writer is founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

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