The Righteous

It is 50 years since the State of Israel began to express the gratitude of the Jewish people to those rare individuals who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Genowefa Majcher with the boy she rescued Bialystock in 1947 (photo credit: Courtesy Ya d Vashem)
Genowefa Majcher with the boy she rescued Bialystock in 1947
(photo credit: Courtesy Ya d Vashem)
I come to you with what is perhaps a strange request – to commemorate the name of a man who has been dead for many years, but I owe him a debt that I couldn’t repay after the war for having saved my life and the lives of my family. Since I am nearing the end of my life, this weighs heavily on my conscience, and this is why I am turning to you…” (from a letter to Yad Vashem).
One may argue that the Righteous among the Nations title granted by Yad Vashem to gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust is the foremost prize of all – the Olympic gold medal for compassion, the Nobel Prize for human decency. Each award tells a tale worthy of a Steven Spielberg film – mortal danger and a daring rescue against all odds. Each offers irrefutable proof that compliance with evil during the Holocaust was not the only option.
This is the 50th year since the State of Israel formally began to express the gratitude of the Jewish people to those rare individuals who had the courage to uphold human values at a time when the very ethical foundations of civilized life were under brutal assault.
“Through the process of recognizing these special people, we have built a compilation of thousands of stories that give hope that there isn’t only evil in the world, but that there is also human decency,” says Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. “Evil took over Europe in such a short period of time and people were either complicit or indifferent.
These stories prove that there is a kernel of goodness upon which we can build hope.”
The Righteous among the Nations program was formally launched in 1963, 18 years after the end of the war. It was also eight months after the State of Israel executed Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. “Israel dealt with the perpetrators but didn’t forget the rescuers,” says Irena Steinfeldt, director of the project.
In fact, the survivors themselves were the ones who lobbied for the recognition of their rescuers as a therapeutic antidote to the horrors they had experienced.
“They needed it to reaffirm their hope in mankind,” Steinfeldt tells The Jerusalem Report. “If everything is black, why live and build a future? They needed the Righteous so as not to sink into bitterness and revenge. This is something unique. It takes a certain strength and moral resilience to establish this program such a short time after the horrors.”
To commemorate the 50th anniversary, Yad Vashem has created a new multimedia exhibition, “I Am My Brother’s Keeper,” dedicated to the 24,811 people from 47 countries honored over the years. The exhibition features short video clips revealing facets of the complex human situations involved in the rescues.
The installation, “In the Cellars, Pits and Attics,” focuses on Jews on the run who were offered shelter for indefinite periods of time in crowded hideouts, totally dependent on their benefactors. “Parting Once Again” spotlights children separated from their parents at a young age and placed with strangers for the duration of the war. After the war they are torn away again from the rescuers, whom they have come to regard as parents. “Under the Benefaction of the Cross” pays tribute to members of the Christian clergy; and “Paying the Ultimate Price” focuses on rescuers who were killed for their actions.
The few who refused to comply with orders to hand over Jews are featured in “The Courage to Defy.” The film tells the story of Dimitar Peshev, the Bulgarian minister of justice and deputy speaker of the parliament, who blocked the deportation of 48,000 Bulgarian Jews.
“It’s a very interesting story,” says Steinfeldt.
“You have the deputy speaker of the Bulgarian parliament who votes for the anti-Jewish laws in parliament. But when the agreement with the Germans is signed for the deportation of the Jews, he says enough is enough.”
Steinfeldt’s desk in her office at Yad Vashem is cluttered with several strata of papers and file folders; some are pending applications for the title. “You see this file?” she says, and picks one up in her hand. “This department receives requests from all over the world, an average of 500 to 700 a year. Some don’t reach the vetting commission, but about 450 new Righteous are recognized every year.”
Steinfeldt recently received an email from a Canadian family of Greek immigrants who found a letter in their father’s desk after his death. The letter, postmarked 1957, was sent from Niso Moustaki in Israel who thanked their father for having saved his life. Although Moustaki is no longer alive to verify the story, Yad Vashem’s research department found an archived video testimony that Moustaki had given years earlier.
“We connected the Greek immigrants from Canada and the Moustaki family in Israel, and a ceremony will be held in Canada where the medal will be awarded,” says Steinfeldt.
“You start with one email and a whole world unravels. This happens here all the time. We hear a new story and we say, ‘We’ve never heard such a thing.’ I still get shivers.”
Over the span of half a century, the title of Righteous among the Nations has grown in prestige. In 2007, former French president Jacques Chirac chose the Pantheon in Paris as the venue for a plaque recognizing the more than 3,654 French citizens who had received the award. The Pantheon is the burial site of France’s most illustrious citizens, the likes of Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo.
One award was to the entire Huguenot town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon for having sheltered in private homes, on farms and in public institutions between 3,000 to 5,000 Jews.
“We receive calls from embassies and some political pressure,” says Shalev. “Over the years, ministers have come to meet with me, but it didn’t change the procedure; and at the end of the day, integrity is very important to the prestige of the award. Whoever has received the Righteous among the Nations medal really deserved it. It isn’t done for any political considerations. The Poles have the most, with about 6,000, but they want more and more. It saves the lost honor of those nations that stood by while their Jewish citizens were murdered.”
Early in the history of the program, Yad Vashem officials realized that they needed a special committee chaired by a Supreme Court justice to vet every application before awarding the title. It was the case of Oscar Schindler that prompted this realization.
Schindler’s story, immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s epic film, is well known. Although he came to Nazi-occupied Krakow with the intention of making a fortune, Schindler’s resolve to save some 1,200 Jewish workers in his factories overcame his avarice. He spent his fortune and put his life at risk to save them.
At the very first ceremony held at Yad Vashem in 1962, in the presence of then-foreign minister Golda Meir and other dignitaries, 12 trees were to be planted, including one for Schindler. However, a week before theceremony, two survivors approached Yad Vashem protesting that Schindler had been a Nazi Party member and that his factory had belonged to their family before it was confiscated by the Germans. They said Schindler had beaten up their grandfather. The tree for Schindler was planted a week after the ceremony to avoid controversy. Oskar Schindler and his wife Emilie were recognized as Righteous among the Nations in 1993.
The chairman of Yad Vashem at the time, Aryeh Kubovy, realized that granting the awards was not going to be a simple matter.
What was needed was a commission headed by a Supreme Court justice along with historians, lawyers and Holocaust survivors. The first meeting of the commission in February 1963 marked the official start of the project.
The commission devised a set of criteria that include risk to the rescuer’s life, liberty or position; the initial motivation having been the intention to help rather than payment or any other reward; testimony of those who were helped or at least unequivocal documentation.
The committee’s first chair was Justice Moshe Landau who had been the presiding judge in the Eichmann trial.
“We play a clean game with total integrity,” says Shalev. “We don’t say that we haven’t made some mistakes. But there is no politicization of the award. You can’t buy it or get it under any pressure. No one in Israel intervenes in the process.”
One of the contributions of the Righteous program has been the introduction of the concept itself into the human lexicon, says Shalev. “The term has taken on a broader meaning and now includes those who risk their lives to save people from a different ethnic or religious background.”
The term, “Righteous among the Nations” (Chasidei Umot HaOlam) was taken from Jewish tradition where it was used to describe non-Jews who came to the aid of the Jewish people, or non-Jews who respect the basic tenets set down in the Bible, including the prohibition of bloodshed.
With decades’ worth of case studies collected by Yad Vashem, scholars have attempted to discover if there are unique characteristics that set the Righteous apart from their neighbors.
In the book, “The Altruistic Personality,” Samuel P. Oliner, a professor of sociology, and his wife, Pearl M. Oliner, a professor of education, both at Humboldt State University, interviewed 406 Righteous recognized by Yad Vashem. They also interviewed a sample of 126 bystanders who matched the group of rescuers in terms of age, sex, education, and geographic location during the war. The Oliners concluded that rescuers had formed friendly, personal relations in the course of their upbringing with people different from themselves in social class and religion. Thus, 59 percent of rescuers had Jewish friends before the war, whereas only 25 percent of bystanders did.
Rescuers, far more than bystanders, came from close, loving families in which discipline was light and based on talking and reasoning, as opposed to physical punishment. Rescuers were more likely to describe themselves as religious but also slightly less likely to have attended Catholic schools. Rescuers showed more trust in people generally, and thought more highly both of themselves and of others.
Bystanders, on the other hand, were more likely to be suspicious and insecure, and reserved a sense of obligation to a small circle from which others were excluded.
Nehama Tec, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, who also studied many cases of the Righteous, found that the rescuers’ independence enabled them to act against the accepted conventions and beliefs.
“They were simple peasants and they were highly educated,” says Shalev. “There were rich and poor, religious and secular. When you read case by case, it is fascinating to discover a variety of amazing human behavior. We don’t have a good explanation for the motivations.
There are a variety of reasons.”
Among those honored over the years have been several whose heroic actions have been immortalized in books and in film. There is Irena Sendler, a 29-year-old social worker employed by the Warsaw Municipality who smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto to the Aryan side and helped set up hiding places for them. Raoul Wallenberg, a secretary in the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, issued about 4,500 protective documents and purchased 32 buildings that he put under the Swedish flag to house Jews under the protection of the Swedish crown.
Why were there so few willing to rescue Jews? This question rattles Steinfeldt. “I sometimes hear tourist guides at Yad Vashem telling people that there were so few,” she says. “I have a problem with this because it borders on selfrighteousness.
Who am I to reproach people for not risking themselves to save someone? Do I really have the right to ask why there were so few? I have a right to reproach those who were indifferent, or those who profited.
There were very few, but in some way there were many people who were willing to pay the ultimate price to save a Jew.”
Will the project end in a few years as the survivor generation dies out? “Yes and no,” says Steinfeldt. “Yes, because the survivor generation unfortunately is leaving this world; and they have unfinished business. They write to us telling us that they are shamed that they didn’t do this earlier.
But there are also recorded testimonies by survivors that will remain forever, so research will go on for many years.”