Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance day, is observed on May 5, this year. It honors the memory of the 6,000,000 victims murdered during World War II and those heroes of the Holocaust who stood up to the Nazis.
Among the heroes are the Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the grip of the Nazis. They helped in many ways: hiding Jews and smuggling them out of Nazi-occupied countries; providing false identity papers and ration cards; and smuggling weapons, food and medicines into the ghettos. If caught, these heroes could be sent to the concentration camps themselves or executed (often in public, as a warning to others) along with their families.
Hiding someone was no simple matter. First a hiding place had to be constructed in an attic, a closet, a barn, a chicken coop – some place inconspicuous that your “guest” could get into quickly if the Germans showed up. (We see that in the story of Anne Frank.) There were nosy neighbors who would gladly betray you in exchange for a bottle of liquor, a pack of cigarettes, or cash. You’d have to provide food – that meant getting ration coupons, and shopping at many different places so you would not arouse suspicion if you were buying food for more people than were in your immediate family. And what about medical care for your guests? What if one became pregnant? What if someone died?
In France, Pastor Paul Vergara was a man with a lot of chutzpa. After one Nazi round-up, he went to the camp where 70 children were being held and asked to see the Commandant. He presented “official” Nazi documents that authorized the release of the children.
In Holland, Joop Westerweel, a school principal and father of four, smuggled children from Holland to Spain from where they would be sent to Palestine. He had to travel through Holland, Belgium, and France to the Pyrenees mountains and then into Spain. He traveled at night and hid during the daytime – you can image the difficulties of doing that with a group of children. Joop was caught, tortured, and executed, but he never betrayed his cohorts.
In Italy, Father Rufino Niccacci, a priest in Assisi, organized efforts to save Jews. He worked together with the underground to bring Jews to Assissi, provide them with false papers, and hide them in convents, monasteries, and private homes. Jews who could “pass” as Gentiles were provided with papers and taught how to live and behave as Catholics, thus enabling them to live and work in the open. Other Jews dressed as nuns and priests and were taught how to behave as such. Helping him was Gino Bartali, a professional bicyclist who used his “training rides” to act as a courier for Rufino, delivering false documents over a large area. (Incidentally, Bartali was a Tour de France winner in 1938 and 1948.) Another member of the group was Luigi Brizi, a printer. He ran his print shop during the day and at night printed false identification papers, birth certificates, work permits, and ration coupons. Brizi tried to hide his work from his son, Trento, in order to protect him, but the son discovered the secret when he found a document that was stuck in a press. After that, father and son worked together.
In Denmark, the entire country got involved in saving its 6000 Jews. The Germans had planned a mass round-up and deportation on Rosh Hashanah, 1943, but the Danish underground was warned by two Germans who were to be involved in transporting the Jews. The underground warned the community and put into motion a plan to send the Jews to Sweden. Jews were hidden in homes, hospitals, and schools until they could be taken to the coast where they were put on fishing boats that took them to Sweden through waters patroled by German warships. Torah scrolls and other valuables from synagogues were hidden in churches. Jews returning after the war found that their homes had been maintained, and they were given money for a new start.
In Lithuania, Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese Consul-General, was faced with a wave of Jewish refugees asking for Japanese transit visas after Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Sugihara asked his government repeatedly for permission issue the visas, but was denied. He had been brought up to respect authority and to obey according to Japanese tradition, but he could not stand by and do nothing. He and his wife wrote more than 8000 visas for Jews who then traveled to Japan and eventually to China, thus saving their lives. Because he defied orders, he was fired from his job and his career was ruined.
In Poland, Janina Buchholtz-Buskolska ran a translation office which was really a front for an operation to provide false papers such as birth certificates, ration coupons, marriage licenses, ID cards, and letters of recommendation for employment. Jews, made up to look like Aryans, came to her office and left with new identities.
In Lithuania, Anna Simaite, librarian at the University of Vilna, claimed that she had to go the Ghetto to retrieve books and manuscripts. While there, she helped individual Jews and contacted the underground. When the Nazis no longer accepted her story about the books, she dreamed up other excuses to go to the ghetto. She smuggled food, weapons, and false papers in, took children and valuables out, and acted as a link between the Jewish and Polish underground movements. Simaite was ultimately caught and sent to a concentration camp, but she survived.
Heroes like those described above may be honored as “The Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem, the Authority for the Remembrance of the Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust in Jerusalem. After their nomination, usually by someone they have saved, and their story has been verified, they receive a proclamation and a medal inscribed with the words from the Talmud “He who has saved one life – is as if he has saved the entire world.” They have right to come to Israel and plant a tree in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem.
When asked, they will tell you that they are not heroes – they simply did what needed to be done. Ona Simaite of Lithuania said, “When the Germans forced the Jews into the Ghetto, I could no longer go on with my work. I could not remain in my study. I could not eat. I was ashamed that I was not Jewish myself. I had to do something. I realized the danger involved, but it could not be helped. A force stronger than myself was at work.”
Friedman, Philip (1957) – Their Brothers’ Keepers
Ramati, Alexander – The Assisi Underground
Rittner, Carol and Myers, Sondra – The Courage to Care
Flender, Harold – Rescue in Denmark
Yad Vashem Website
Fry and Bingham