Rescued by Jews during the Holocaust: Solidarity in a disintegrating world

The six survivors chosen as torchlighters for the Holocaust Remembrance Day opening ceremony all share a common thread. They or their families embody the selfless choice to assist fellow Jews.

Candles burn (photo credit: CALEB HERNANDEZ BELMONTE-/UNSPLASH)
Candles burn
Gisi Fleischmann of Bratislava, Slovakia, was in her 40s during the Holocaust. Her two daughters had immigrated to Eretz Israel before the war. For years, she had been involved in public service in the fields of welfare, education, youth hachshara (training) and Jewish emigration, and was active in the Women’s International Zionist Organization and the Joint Distribution Committee.
At the beginning of 1942, when Fleischmann and her colleagues learned about the plan to deport the Jews of Slovakia, Jewish figures in Bratislava formed an underground organization that came to be known as the Working Group.  Thanks to her organizational skills and her contacts with various officials in the Slovak administration, she came to lead the group – the only woman in a group of men – alongside Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel. In the spring of 1942, Fleischmann and her comrades took action to stop the deportations of Jews from Slovakia to Poland. In addition to her involvement in aid and rescue operations, she also labored to alert the free world to halt the deportations.
Fleischmann was one of many Jews who risked their lives in order to save fellow Jews living under the Nazi regime, which aimed and acted to annihilate world Jewry as part of the Final Solution. Germany was aided by collaborators from the occupied nations who played an active role in the persecution, and sometimes even murder, of the Jews. In a reality where every Jew was in danger, it was natural for individuals to focus on trying to save themselves, their families and their friends.
Even though the Jewish people had internalized the generations-old principle that “all Jews are responsible for one another,” choosing to risk one’s life for others cannot be taken for granted. Jews who attempted to save other Jews took a double risk, since they too were persecuted under Nazi Germany’s murderous policy. They often unconditionally saved Jews they did not even know, and for nothing tangible in return. The prime motivations for their actions were their accurate perception of reality, their awareness of the fate awaiting all Jews and their profound commitment to Jewish solidarity.
Individuals conducted rescue initiatives on their own, or as part of underground movements and various Jewish institutions. Rescue operations took place both in countries where the Jews were persecuted, as well as in those to which they fled. Diverse rescue attempts included clandestinely crossing borders, preparing and circulating false papers, helping Jews emigrate or hide, and establishing aid and welfare institutions for the benefit of all persecuted Jews.
In France, the OSE (Children’s Aid Society) relocated Jewish children and adults from internment camps and sent them into hiding in children’s institutions and private homes. Various organizations and frameworks in which young people participated, such as Zionist youth groups and the Scouts, helped hide children and lead them across the border to Switzerland and Spain. After Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, local Jewish youth groups assisted in smuggling attempts across the border to Romania, fabricated lifesaving false papers and helped children in orphanages they founded throughout Budapest.
Zerach Warhaftig worked to save yeshiva students in Lithuania, while Hennie and Yehoshua Birnbaum rescued Jewish orphans in the Netherlands – first in the Westerbork transit camp and later in Bergen-Belsen. In Romania, the Jewish leadership under Dr. Wilhelm Filderman acted to aid Jews who had been deported to Transnistria, sending food and even ransoming some of them. Jewish organizations operating out of neutral Switzerland also took action to smuggle Jews into the country. When he fled to the woods, Tuvia Bielski decided to form a partisan unit composed of families, including children, women and the elderly. The vision and mission of the group he founded was that saving lives outweighed all other considerations. Better to save a single Jew, he said, than to kill 20 Germans.
THESE EXAMPLES are only a small part of Jewish attempts to aid and rescue other Jews, but they indicate the extent and scope of rescue efforts. Not every rescue attempt was effective, however, and even though Jews made numerous attempts to rescue other Jews, to do so successfully was almost impossible under Nazi Germany’s systematic murderous policy. The vast majority of the Jews who lived under Nazi German occupation were murdered in the Holocaust. Shmuel Oswald Rufeisen sent information to the Jewish residents of the Mir ghetto in Belarus and helped them flee to the woods, but only a few of those who escaped the ghetto survived. Numerous other rescue actions by Jews were neither documented nor preserved due to their clandestine nature, or because their participants were murdered.
Many of the Jewish rescue initiatives owe a great debt to help extended by non-Jews, including those later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. The courage of individuals and groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, during the Holocaust shows that solidarity was maintained in a time of existential danger, and humane and moral values were adhered to, including the will and the obligation to help one’s fellow human being. The Jewish rescuers faced frequent hardships and dilemmas, yet they chose to act on behalf of their fellow Jews. It is incumbent upon the Jewish people, and the world, to remember and learn from these amazing deeds.
The six survivors chosen as torchlighters for this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day opening ceremony all share a common thread. They or their families embody the selfless choice to assist fellow Jews in danger. They risked their lives and often suffered the same fate as those they tried to rescue. Here are their stories:
Aviva Blum-Wachs
Aviva Blum-Wachs was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1932 to Abraham (Abrasha) and Luba Blum (née Bielicka). Abrasha was a leader of the Bund, the Jewish socialist workers’ party, and Luba was deputy director of a nursing school.
During the “Great Deportation” of the summer of 1942, the residents of the ghetto nursing school were marched to the Umschlagplatz, the departure point for deportations to the death camps. Luba managed to convince the Germans that nurses were essential to the efforts to deal with epidemics in the ghetto. The Germans let the nurses go, and Luba smuggled Aviva and Olek out in a vehicle used to carry corpses away from the Umschlagplatz.
In the Aktion of January 1943, the Germans barged into the hospital at 33 Gesia Street and shot hundreds of patients, physicians and nurses. Luba had received a few minutes’ warning from the resistance, and managed to hide several of the nurses and patients, as well as her children, in the basement. Luba decided to smuggle her children out of the ghetto; first Olek, and several weeks later Aviva, who hid among a group of Jews working outside the ghetto. She went to Aurelia Borkowska, a poor and isolated laundress, who found a family that hid Aviva for two months. After an informer revealed her place of refuge, Aviva was moved between a few hideouts for several months.
Aviva’s father, who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was arrested by the Gestapo and murdered. Luba escaped the ghetto by posing as a Pole, and took Aviva with her to work on a Polish estate. When Polish partisans attacked the estate, Luba and Aviva fled back to Warsaw, where they survived until liberation. Olek also survived under a false identity, with Borkowska’s extended family.
In the summer of 1944, Luba and Aviva were liberated by the Red Army. Aviva immigrated to Israel in 1950.
Today, she is an artist who presents her paintings in exhibitions. She has a daughter, four grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Haim Arbiv
Haim Arbiv was born in Benghazi, Libya in 1934, then under Italian rule. The traditional family of nine lived in a mixed neighborhood of Arabs, Jews and Italians. At the end of 1940, the British launched an attack on Cyrenaica, the region that included Benghazi, and held it for several months until the Germans pushed them back out and reinstated the Italians. During the battles, Haim and his mother fled the city to seek shelter from the bombings.
After the Italians regained power, the treatment of Jews worsened, as the authorities and the local Italian residents considered the Jews collaborators with the enemy. Jews in Benghazi were arrested and forbidden from engaging in commerce, and much Jewish property was confiscated.
In 1942 Haim’s family was deported to the Giado concentration camp, 1,200 kilometers from Benghazi. Before the horrific journey, his parents managed to hide gold coins inside loaves of bread, suitcases and belts, hoping it would help them survive. In Giado, every family received a small amount of living space inside a shack, with only bedsheets separating them. The food at the camp consisted mostly of meager, moldy bread. Hundreds of Jews died of hunger, fatigue and disease in Giado. Haim’s immediate family avoided starvation thanks to his elder brother and sister, who bought bread at great risk from local Bedouins in exchange for the gold coins they had smuggled from home.
After their liberation by the British Army in 1943, the family returned to Benghazi. They rebuilt their destroyed home, and Haim attended a Hebrew-language school set up by soldiers from the Jewish Brigade. His connection to Eretz Israel grew stronger. In 1949, Haim and his family went to Tripoli and boarded a ship to Israel.
Today, Haim is a volunteer chess teacher in kindergartens and senior citizens clubs. He has a son, a daughter and five grandchildren.
Leah Reuveni
Leah Reuveni was born in Iršava, Czechoslovakia, in 1926, the eldest daughter of Elias and Halana, who raised a traditional family of nine. In 1929, her family moved to Antwerp, Belgium.
When the city came under aerial attack in May 1940, the family fled and Leah lost contact with her mother and two of her siblings. For eight months, Leah took care of her younger siblings and the household.
When she heard that her mother and missing siblings were in southern France, Leah managed to obtain a travel permit. As her father was not given permission to travel, they bade him goodbye and traveled alone by train, all the while fleeing German soldiers and evading checkpoints. Leah eventually found her mother in the southern city of Quarante. Elias managed to join them a few weeks later.
When Vichy police began taking away Jewish refugees in the city in the summer of 1942, Leah went to look for a new place for her family to live. She convinced the mayor of Chirac to give them an abandoned house with no bathroom, where her youngest brother was born.
In November 1942, Germany occupied southern France (except for the area occupied by the Italians) and Elias was arrested. Leah went to the local command center and asked for him to be released for a day, explaining that her mother was recovering from childbirth. Impressed with her boldness, the French commander approved the request. Leah and her father took the opportunity to flee to Nice, which was under Italian occupation. Afterwards, Leah managed to smuggle her mother and siblings into the city as well.
In 1943 the Germans occupied the area of Nicem and Leah and her family fled again, this time with a group of refugees. Leah backtracked several times along the tortuous mountainous paths in order to help the elderly and women with children. Leah and her family reached the town of Borgo San Dalmazzo, where she contacted Father Don Raimondo Viale. The priest, who was later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, smuggled Leah’s family into the forest, where they reached a monastery in the Florence area.
In November 1943, the Germans raided the monastery. Leah remembered that the Hungarians were allies of the Germans, and convinced them that she and her mother were Hungarian gentiles who had lost their papers. Leah managed to save 15 other Jewish women in a similar manner.
After Leah’s father was apprehended, Leah urged her mother to flee to Rome with the children. She stayed behind in the monastery in order to maintain contact with Elias, but he was deported to the camps and murdered.
After liberation, Leah reunited with her family in Rome. In 1960, she immigrated to Israel and worked as a hospital nurse.
Today, Leah volunteers in a retirement home and visits lonely Holocaust survivors. Although she has no children of her own, for her 80th birthday, her entire extended family came to celebrate with her. One of them noted: “If it weren’t for your actions, none of these children would be here today. They are your children.”
Zohar Arnon
Zohar Arnon was born in Kisvárda, Hungary in 1928, the middle child of five to parents Bina and Aaron. He attended a cheder, and at the age of 10 joined Hashomer Hatza’ir and became a Zionist. When he was 15, he went to Budapest to learn a trade.
On March 19, 1944, the Nazis occupied Budapest. Zohar went to the offices of the Jewish community to figure out what had happened to his family. There he met Efra Agmon, his Hashomer Hatza’ir group leader. Agmon told him he had been in Kisvárda and told the young people to escape, but they refused because they believed the penalty for running away was the murder of their entire families. Agmon asked Zohar, “Are you ready to go on a journey that will end in Eretz Israel?” Zohar responded in the affirmative, and Agmon gave him dollar bills and instructions to wait across from the train station the next evening.
Zohar arrived there at the specified time, but he did not see Agmon. Suddenly a man wearing the uniform of a Hungarian train police officer approached him. Zohar recoiled, but the officer grabbed him and asked, “Don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Efra.”
Agmon was a member of the underground Zionist movement in Budapest, which provided thousands of young Jews with false papers and smuggled them into Romania. He gave Zohar false papers and instructions to buy a ticket to Nagyvárad, near the Romanian border. During the train ride, two gendarmes boarded the train. Zohar feigned a stomachache and went to the bathroom. When he emerged, he was wearing the clothing of a Hungarian youth group. The gendarmes questioned him, then left him alone.
In Nagyvárad, Moshe Alpan, another operative in the smuggling network, assigned Zohar and nine other Jewish youth a smuggler. He took them on foot through the fields, walking all night and crossing the border into Romania at dawn.
Zohar traveled through Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. In January 1945, he finally arrived in Eretz Israel.
Zohar fought in the War of Independence and became a forest ranger, producer and director. He and his wife Ahuva have two daughters.
Yehuda Beilis
Yehuda Beilis was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1927, the youngest of Eliezer and Chana’s three sons. The Germans occupied Lithuania in 1941, while Yehuda was living in the resort town of Palanga. He was imprisoned in a synagogue with other Jewish teenagers, where they suffered abuse.
In October 1941, Yehuda’s family was sent to the Kovno ghetto. A few days later, they were taken with thousands of other Jews to the Ninth Fort, the site of the mass murder of Kovno Jewry. Yehuda survived a mass shooting into a pit, managing to make his way out through the bodies. Back inside the ghetto, Yehuda told the remaining Jews what had happened to him, but they did not believe him.
In March 1944, hundreds of children in the ghetto were abducted and murdered by the Germans. A few parents managed to hide their children and the Judenrat sought to smuggle them outside the ghetto. They asked Yehuda to petition his friend, Father Stanislovas Jokubauskis, for help. Yehuda slipped out of the ghetto and found the priest, who agreed.
The plan entailed giving Yehuda a sack with a sleeping child inside, as well as money and cigarettes. He would leave the ghetto with the sack, bribe the SS guards and go to the rendezvous point with the nuns sent by Father Jokubauskis. The nuns would then take the child to a hideout. In all, Yehuda smuggled 22 children out of the ghetto. Father Jokubauskis was later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
In the summer of 1944, upon liquidation of the ghetto, Yehuda and his brother Yosef were sent to Dachau. Yosef didn’t survive, and Yehuda was left alone in the world.
In 1946, Yehuda immigrated to Eretz Israel. He joined the IDF and fought in the War of Independence, and regularly gave testimony about his experiences during the Holocaust.
He and his wife Ahuva have two daughters, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Avraham Carmi
Avraham Carmi was born in Krzeszowice, Poland, in 1928, the only child of Bezalel and Lea Stolbach. After the German invasion, his family fled to his uncle Moshe Posner, who managed the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. Posner let them and other families stay in a structure in the cemetery. Avraham got used to living in the cemetery, which had 30 to 40 funerals a day, and would play with the workers’ children. He also helped his mother build the ghetto walls in order to meet the quota for a food ration card.
In the summer of 1942, while the deportations from Warsaw to the extermination camps were underway, the Germans came to search the cemetery. Everyone living there ran to hide in a bunker, but Avraham and his mother didn’t make it. They were taken along with other cemetery workers to the Umschlagplatz, the departure point for deportations. The Germans discovered Avraham’s relatives hiding in the cemetery, and shot them.
Moshe Gelbkrin, the cemetery watchman, was given permission to leave the Umschlagplatz in order to take care of burials. He took Lea, who pretended she was his wife, and smuggled Avraham out in a backpack. Avraham’s father was deported to Treblinka and murdered.
During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943, Avraham, his mother and his uncle Moshe Posner were sent to Majdanek, where Lea was murdered.
Avraham and Moshe were taken to a forced labor camp in Budzyn, where they worked in an aircraft factory. They were later sent to a forced labor camp in Radom, taken on a death march and deported to various labor camps. Moshe, who covered for Avraham and saved him every step of the way, died of exhaustion and disease just two days before liberation.
In September 1945, Avraham immigrated to Eretz Israel. He fought in the War of Independence, and was taken prisoner by the Jordanians. After his release, Avraham worked in the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School and was an inspector in the Education Ministry. He has given testimony and traveled to the camps in Poland numerous times.
Avraham and Rivka, who survived Bergen-Belsen, have three children, nine grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
To mark Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, Yad Vashem invites the public to participate in an international campaign to record themselves reciting the names of Holocaust victims, and share the video on social media using the hashtags #RememberingFromHome and #ShoahNames.