Lives decided in a moment

Israel remembers 'righteous' heroes and the Holocaust survivors they rescued.

Holocaust survivor 521 (photo credit: ATZUM)
Holocaust survivor 521
(photo credit: ATZUM)
Last month, as Jews and their Christian supporters gathered in Poland once again to join the March of the Living between the infamous Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, Israelis commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day. This annual day in Israel pays tribute to the six million Jews who lost their lives in the dark era of Nazism during World War II.
The nationwide ceremonies open every year with an official memorial service at Yad Vashem attended by Holocaust survivors as special guests, most of whom lost entire families and many loved ones in Hitler’s genocide campaign against the Jews.
Those who survived had to endure unimaginable hardships and challenges. Many acknowledge that they are alive today thanks to God’s grace, but also thanks to certain individuals who, in a time of great trial and risk, refused to give in to fear and endangered their own lives in order to save the lives of others.
Amid a world of total moral collapse, there were a few gentiles who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold the value of human life.
Those who took immense risks to rescue their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust are not forgotten either, thanks to a special initiative of Yad Vashem. In 1963, the Remembrance Authority embarked upon a worldwide project to grant the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” to those gentiles who helped Jews escape harm in this tragic period of history.
The designation Righteous Among the Nations is given specifically to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, based on the testimony of those they rescued. The gentiles recognized as “righteous” receive a medal and a certificate of honor, and their names are commemorated on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.
Yad Vashem underscores that the number of recognized Righteous Gentiles does not reflect the full extent of help given by non-Jews to Jews during the Holocaust, only those which are backed by personal testimonies and other documentary evidence.
One of Yad Vashem’s principal duties is to convey the gratitude of the State of Israel and the Jewish people to these gentile heroes. This is expressed in many ways, including by conferring honorary Israeli citizenship upon the Righteous Among the Nations, and commemorative citizenship if they have passed away. The distinction includes a standing offer to move to Israel and a commitment by the state to take care of these honorary citizens in old age.
Jerzy Radzio and his family were among those Righteous Gentiles who were granted honorary citizenship and moved to Israel. Today, Jerzy has passed on, but he is survived by his wife, Aldona, and daughter Beata in Israel, as well as son Robert who remained in their native country of Poland. Jerzy’s family still give testimony to his heroism. Despite not having comfortable lives themselves, they decided to take a Jewish family into their home and share the little they had with strangers for two long and difficult years.
In many cases, Righteous Gentiles never planned to become rescuers and were totally unprepared for the moment in which they had to make critical decisions. This was true also of Jerzy and his older brother Slavek Radzio, who lived in a town where Jews were brought to a ghetto and forced to work. It was 1942 when Jerzy, then 16, together with Slavek watched a line of Jews marching along the Vistula River and into a labor camp.
It all happened very fast. Slavek, a well-built young man, pulled out a Jewish couple named Shmuel and Dvora Lipszyc from the line and hid them behind him. As the guards were not looking, they also grabbed Shmuel’s mother-in-law, Leah Batz. A few days later, they managed to smuggle Shmuel’s brother Avraham out of the Jablonna camp near Warsaw, where he was imprisoned.
“Jerzy and Slavek came home with the Lipszyc family,” Aldona recently recalled for The Christian Edition.
“They just called out to their mother, ‘We’ve brought guests!’ And without any questions asked, these ‘guests’ moved in with them.”
The Radzio family quickly changed the attic of their home into a living space. The entrance to this hiding place was concealed behind a cupboard and the only view the Lipszyc family had of the outside world was through a narrow opening.
At the time, the Radzio brothers shared a small two-bedroom home with their widowed mother, Helena, and sister, Marylka. In the beginning, the Jewish refugees paid the Radzio family, who were Christian, for the cost of their upkeep. But even when their money ran out the Radzios shared all their food with them, despite living entirely on the salary of one of the brothers.
During this two-year period they experienced many anxious moments, especially when a Nazi army unit was stationed nearby. A German army doctor came to live with the Radzio family for a while, right next to the entrance to the hiding place. During that time the brothers secretly moved their Jewish friends to another home until the Germans left.
Young Jerzy became very good friends with Avraham Lipszyc, and their friendship has been passed on to the next generations in their families, who remain in contact until this day. For decades, Jerzy and Avraham would write each other letters, until it was possible for them to meet again in person. The reunion was very emotional and further strengthened the ties between the families.
Soon after this happy reunion, Jerzy’s daughter Beata traveled to Israel and got to know the rest of the Lipszyc family. Eventually, she chose to study in Israel, where she also started a family of her own. Jerzy and Aldona were granted Israeli citizenship and decided to move to Israel in 1995. It was not a difficult decision, since their daughter was already living here as were their close friends Avraham and Shmuel. The relationships had turned into something beautiful, despite having been born in an era marked by fear and cruelty.
Rescuers and the rescued lived under constant fear of being discovered. In many Western countries under Nazi occupation, the rescuers would usually face imprisonment if caught, though some were put to death. In Eastern Europe, however, the Nazis executed not only those who sheltered Jews but their entire families as well. Because they proved to be of such great courage and faithfulness, Yad Vashem recognized the entire Radzio family as Righteous Among the Nations.
In many cases, Jews turned for help to non-Jews, who then were faced with an instant to make a fateful decision. For many Righteous Gentiles there was an instinctive human reaction to help on the spur of the moment, only to be followed by long and weighty wrestling with their moral choices. Only a few assumed full responsibility for the Jews they helped.
Working closely with Yad Vashem, scholars have researched whether those recognized as Righteous Gentiles shared any characteristics that made them more likely to extend help to an endangered person. Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner pointed out that those who intervened were distinguished by their sense of empathy and connection to others. Nehama Tec found a series of shared characteristics as well as conditions of separateness, individuality or marginality.
The Righteous Among the Nations helped threatened Jews mainly by hiding them in their homes or elsewhere on their properties and often provided them false papers and false identities. Sometimes they smuggled them out or assisted in their escape. There are also many cases of gentiles rescuing Jewish children – adopting them as their own or pretending they were children of distant relatives.
One such Jewish child was Elena Dolgov from Belarus, who was “adopted” into a gentile home. Her parents, well-known physicians, suspected danger after the war broke out and pleaded with their gentile neighbors Vladimir and Galina Imshenik to save their daughter when they were being forced into a ghetto. The Imsheniks cared for Elena as their own daughter, and by the time the war ended Vladimir and Galina were the only parents young Elena knew. Unable to trust their own neighbors and even being questioned by the Gestapo at one point, the Imsheniks did not have an easy time. But they never had second thoughts about their decision. They fell in love with little Elena.
Elena’s biological mother and brother were among the few family members who managed to survive the Holocaust. Since Elena did not remember her biological family, the process of leaving the Imsheniks was extremely difficult.
Elena eventually acclimated to the new situation, but stayed in close contact with her adoptive family. Eventually, when she decided to make aliya to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she was determined to take Galina with her. In 1992, Elena and her family moved to Jerusalem together with the widowed Galina.
Over the years some 130 Righteous Gentiles have taken up the offer to move to Israel, and for many the decision was a courageous one.
Having grown up in countries where everything Jewish was considered “bad,” they turned their lives upside down by moving to the Jewish state.
Their decision was often frowned upon by relatives and friends; and just like the Holocaust survivors they helped save, all of a sudden they had to start their lives all over again.
There are still several dozen Righteous Gentiles now living in Israel, and they receive attention not only from Yad Vashem but also from a handful of private organizations that are grateful for what they did. Among them are the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and the Israeli charity ATZUM.
Aware that this small group of precious souls are now of advancing age and require much physical and emotional care, ATZUM offers them the daily support they need. This sends a clear message to the rescuers from Israelis themselves that the heroism and sacrifice of Righteous Gentiles have not been forgotten.