Righteous Gentiles and the Jewish State

Why Righteous Gentiles move to Israel and why they are often overlooked.

tamara bromberg 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Atzum)
tamara bromberg 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Atzum)
Like many who lived in Nazi-occupied Odessa, Tamara Maximenok-Bromberg has vivid memories of being locked in the Jewish ghetto with her mother and being refused permission to leave. But unlike the Jews of Odessa, who were sent to the ghetto against their will, Tamara and her mother - non-Jews who empathized strongly with the suffering of their neighbors - snuck into the ghetto as often as possible to bring food and warm clothes for their Jewish friends, bribing the guards at the gate if necessary. On one occasion, they nearly didn't make it back. "We managed to talk one of the guards into letting us in," Maximenok-Bromberg recalled recently from her modest apartment in Haifa, which she shares with her Jewish husband, Shimon. "But when we finished and went to the gate to leave, the guards had changed and the new guard didn't know us and wouldn't let us out." The two spent a terror-filled week in the ghetto before her mother convinced the guards they weren't Jews and didn't belong there. The key to their survival, it turned out, was Maximenok-Bromberg's mother's ability to speak Greek, which the Nazi guards accepted as proof that she was of Greek, not Jewish, descent. The hardship, however, failed to weaken Maximenok-Bromberg or her mother's sense of purpose. The two continued to make the long trek to the ghetto and even a prison camp whenever conditions allowed, relying on Tamara's small, thin frame to slip in and out of restricted areas to drop off regular deliveries of food and clothing. "My mother always insisted 'We have to do this,'" Maximenok-Bromberg said about her life-saving efforts, which also included finding a hiding place for a Jewish family of four and providing for their needs despite food shortages for themselves and other local residents. "It was simply something we felt in our souls we had to do," she said. "We knew about the risks - there were signs posted everywhere warning against helping Jews - but we just let ourselves forget what could happen to us and focused on what we felt we had to do." When the war ended, Tamara and her family resumed their lives in Odessa and continued helping the people they saved rebuild their own lives. In 1970, she married her second husband, Shimon Bromberg, and the couple moved to Israel in 1995, following Shimon's sister who made aliya two years earlier. Their life in Haifa has not always been easy. The couple struggled with the new culture and new language, and has had little contact with family in the Ukraine since they moved. During last summer's war in Lebanon, they chose to remain in their Haifa home despite the threat of Katyusha rockets rather than face another upheaval to safer housing. In 2001, the family Tamara Maximenok-Bromberg hid during the war informed Yad Vashem about her efforts on their behalf. Following their testimony, Yad Vashem declared Maximenok-Bromberg a Righteous Gentile in recognition of the lives she saved during World War II. Along with the long-deserved recognition of her heroism during the war, she was granted Israeli citizenship along with other benefits. Today, at the age of 81, Maximenok-Bromberg suffers from many of the health problems common to a person her age. But her memory of the war remains crystal clear. And, 65 years later, she still shudders at what the Jews went through. "It was always shocking to see how the Nazis treated the Jews - especially the elderly and little children," she says. "I get chills whenever I think about it," she adds, trembling slightly at the recollection. Righteous Gentiles (Hasidei Umot Olam) have been settling in Israel since the first years after World War II. The first group arrived in the early 1950s. A second, smaller wave followed the fall of the Soviet Union, when Righteous Gentiles from the Ukraine, like Tamara Maximenok-Bromberg, were permitted to come to Israel. Yad Vashem began bestowing the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" in 1963 to people who saved Jewish lives during the war at personal risk and without expectations of payment or reward. To date, Yad Vashem has recognized 21,758 Righteous Gentiles, most of them from Poland, the Netherlands, France, Ukraine and Belgium. Of that total, 98 have chosen to live in Israel, and only 43 (including widows) are still alive today. In the late 1980s, the Knesset enacted a law granting health benefits and a modest monthly stipend to Righteous Gentiles and their spouses who settle in Israel. In the 1990s, after many delays, a cemetery was opened in Tel Aviv especially for Righteous Gentiles and their spouses. Righteous Gentiles live in every region in Israel and come for a variety of reasons. Some, like Tamara Maximenok-Bromberg, came because they married Jews. Others because of their close relations with the people they saved. In one case, the daughter of Righteous Gentiles from Poland came to Israel to visit the people her parents had saved. The woman ultimately converted to Judaism, married a Jewish man and settled in Israel. Her parents followed a few years later. In another case, a Righteous Gentile married one of the men she had saved during the war. The woman converted and the couple came to live in Israel. Eventually, her husband died and she remarried another Holocaust survivor. Both feel that their union represents the closing of a circle. Ivan Vranetic, a Righteous Gentile who saved 17 people during the war and later founded the Organization for Righteous Gentiles in Israel, also married one of the people he saved. Originally, he had hoped to marry her shortly after the war but her mother wouldn't allow her to marry a non-Jew. Seventeen years later, he came to Israel to visit the woman, and the two were finally married. According to Nomi Roth Elbert, who coordinates Atzum's Righteous Gentile Project that provides practical assistance to the Righteous Gentiles living in Israel, the remarkable thing about them is their humility about their accomplishments. "They are heroes and then they go on with their lives," says Elbert. Elbert, who has developed a strong rapport with each of the Righteous Gentiles across the state, said none of them regret the risks they took or about moving to Israel. "They are proud of the acknowledgement (by Yad Vashem) and they are proud to live in Israel," she says. "They wouldn't want to live anywhere else." The non-profit organization Atzum (Avodot Tzdakah U'Mishpat - Justice Works, www.atzum.org) helps the Righteous Gentiles arrange logistical matters such as doctors' visits and helps them cope with Israel's bureaucracy to ensure they get the care they need. It also arranges visits by volunteers and serves as a public advocate on behalf of the Righteous Gentiles. When one of them was in a car accident recently, Atzum helped ensure she received everything she was entitled to receive from the government. Along with the social services, Atzum is also preparing a major documentary project, visiting all of the Righteous Gentiles in Israel and recording their stories for a documentary film. The documentary, like the effort to honor Tamara Bromberg as a Righteous Gentile at the age of 75, is part of the growing awareness that projects honoring the generation of survivors and the people who saved them cannot be delayed. Each testimony Atzum records sheds light on a whole world of courage and secrecy few people know. Those hiding Jews were so good at keep their activities quiet, Elbert says, that in at least one case, two people were hiding Jews in the same apartment building and neither knew about the other. Twenty years later, the neighbors met at a reception for Righteous Gentiles and discovered what the other was doing. Elbert points out that the testimonies also reveal how much work it was to hide people from the Nazis. Not only did the hidden Jews require food each day, they also needed a place to relieve themselves that would not draw attention. Eliminating waste caused a constant problem that required creative solutions. She also notes the fundamental risks the Righteous Gentiles took to protect Jews, often placing their families' lives in jeopardy in the process. She described the testimony of one woman whose daughter was killed by her classmates after the class found out that her mother saved Jews during the war. But Elbert notes that the documentary also seeks to learn about the Righteous Gentiles' lives after the war, and especially about their lives in Israel. "We want to acknowledge them as a remarkable group of individuals, not only because they saved people during the war but also because they chose to move here," she says. For a group that has contributed so much to the Jewish people, Righteous Gentiles maintain a low profile among the general public and tend to be overlooked when Israel commemorates the Holocaust. There are no public tributes to the Righteous Gentiles' contribution to the Jewish people or the Jewish state, and scant mention of their heroics in history textbooks, if they are mentioned at all. According to Hana Shamir, whose father Stephan Rozinsky was a Righteous Gentile and whose mother, Shoshana, was a major activist in the Organization for Righteous Gentiles, the low profile has contributed to a lack of interest in the issue among the general public. "Very few people really know about the issue," says Shamir. "My mother used to go to schools to lecture about how there really were people in Europe who saved Jews, that Europe wasn't all anti-Semites." Shamir says the situation for Righteous Gentiles in Israel has improved in recent years. But they were almost completely ignored by the government and public as late as the 1980s. The turning point, she said, was an expose by Israeli journalist Rafi Ginat on his television program Kolbotek that revealed that Righteous Gentiles across Israel often did not have enough food, lacked proper housing and did not receive the medical care they required. The Kolbotek report stimulated a discussion in the Knesset and led directly to the passage of laws ensuring that the government helps Righteous Gentiles meet their basic needs. Before she died, Shamir's mother had launched a number of private initiatives to bring about more awareness about Righteous Gentiles, including efforts to push the Education Ministry to include a section on Righteous Gentiles in all state history books and even to add a section about them on matriculation exams. Shamir says that her mother was deeply involved in the successful campaign for a cemetery in Tel Aviv, explaining that the original proposal for the cemetery was rejected because there wasn't enough room - an excuse she found unacceptable considering what Righteous Gentiles did for the Jewish people. "My father saved 40 Jews during the war and he never said, 'There isn't enough room, or there isn't enough food.' I don't accept that as a reason for denying the cemetery." Shamir plans to continue another of her mother's initiatives - an effort to create an international day of remembrance for Righteous Gentiles across the world. And the first country to adopt the measure, she says, should be Israel. Atzum's executive director Levi Lauer took the issue one step further, calling on the Jewish world to devote some of its resources toward ensuring that Righteous Gentiles across the world live out their remaining years in the dignity that is due them. Lauer calls the proposal a Jewish "Hakarat Hatov" (appreciation) project. "If someone saved my bubbe, I'd want to know that person was being cared for," says Lauer, "but in Eastern Europe today, there must be thousands of Righteous Gentiles who probably don't have enough to eat or improper housing, or don't have access to proper medical care." According to Lauer, there are no Righteous Gentiles in Israel today who lack the basic necessities in life. But he agreed that their status in Israel falls well below their contribution to the Jewish people. "They are under-appreciated because dividing the world into Good and Evil, which the Holocaust does, doesn't lend itself to the gradations that appreciating Righteous Gentiles requires," says Lauer. "The Jewish world saw Christianity as morally bankrupt as a result of the Shoah," he continues. "It failed the test. It failed to prevent mass murder. People don't want to deal with the fact that Christians saved Jews precisely out of their Christian beliefs. It is a complicating fact they don't want to deal with." Lauer says that the depth of gratitude the Jews owe Righteous Gentiles is so profound that people would rather ignore it or deny the debt. However, if the Jewish world - led by the Israeli government - were to make a grand gesture on behalf of Righteous Gentiles across the world, the positive effect could resonate well beyond the confines of Jews and their saviors. "I would like to see the State of Israel bring the issue of Righteous Gentiles to the world's attention," he says. "We would do well to show that there is another way to confront evil. What if Rwandans had known about Righteous Gentiles? Maybe they would have hidden a few people. Israel could make a more forceful case for modeling good behavior." For Nomi Roth Elbert, Atzum's outreach is helping Righteous Gentiles in Israel live out their lives in dignity. "We are achieving what we set out to do," she says. "They are getting their acknowledgment, love and respect in the last years." With Atzum's help, Tamara Bromberg and her husband recently moved to a senior citizen's hostel where they have more in common with their neighbors. "Now that people know who she is, she gets far more attention and respect and admiration from her neighbors," notes Elbert. She also notes that the issue of Righteous Gentiles is gaining notice in the education system. She holds up an appreciation card for a Righteous Gentile created by a school child. Along with the colorful pictures of flowers and animals, there is a note of gratitude expressed as only a child could. "Thank you," it says, "for saving my people."