Stanlee Stahl has been executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous since 1992. Since 1986, the organization has provided $34 million in financial support to more than 2,500 gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Currently JFR supports 654 rescuers in 22 countries, with the vast proportion living in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus and Hungary. The foundation also runs a Holocaust education program that has trained more than 400 middle and high school teachers from the U.S. and Eastern Europe since 2000. On the eve of Yom HaShoah, The Jewish Week caught up with Stahl for a wide-ranging discussion on the rescuers she’s met and the impact of the group’s education program. This is an edited transcript.
Q: You’ve met a lot of rescuers. Do you see any commonalities among them that may have enabled them to risk their lives to save others?
A: They’re just unassuming, very sweet people. They do not over intellectualize: Should we do this or should we not do this? They did it. They’ll say: ‘There comes a time when the law of God is above the law of man.’ Or, ‘This is my classmate, we were best friends, how could I let her go [to the camps]?’ … The majority of the rescuers were people like us, who just lived their lives and they were called upon to make a decision. And as far as I’m concerned they made the right decision.
Do you give each rescuer the same amount of money?
Each rescuer in each country receives the same amount, but not every country receives the same amount. Last year the JFR board of trustees raised our annual commitment from $1.3 million to $1.7 million, so now just about everybody is receiving a minimum of $100 U.S. a month. Countries like Poland are receiving $150. … We guarantee them a base, and in September we evaluate how much money has been expended and then we give an award at the end of the year, which could be for $1,200 U.S. If you’re 88 years old and you’re in Albania, or Moldova, or Belarus, or Ukraine, or Crimea, it’s a huge amount of money. It provides for food at Christmas, for medication. It provides for home heating fuel in the winter.
What do you teach in your education program?
We teach the history of the Holocaust, A to Zed. We have a lecture with a scholar and then we break up into small groups, so teachers can say, ‘OK, I’m from a rural town in Texas, or Alabama, how do I go about teaching anti-Semitism in a class where there are no Jewish students, in a school or an area where there are no Jews?’ … We give teachers a grounding in the historiography. My experience is teachers shy away from teaching what they do not know.
What impacts have you seen from the program?
So far we have educated maybe 50 men and women from Poland who are out there teaching the history of the Holocaust and serving as role models and mentors for their Polish colleagues. … And we have several teachers who have linked up. I have a teacher near Seattle and he has a relationship with his roommate from Poland. And every year either his students come to America and stay in American homes or [the Seattle] students go to Poland and stay in the homes of the Polish students. It’s really exciting.
I’ve seen teachers go back to their districts who may have been teaching for a week, they’re now teaching a yearlong elective. … I see the whole school becoming involved. … One teacher, he’s gone to Europe every summer to meet rescuers on his own dime. You see a passion developing. There was a passion before but now you see a commitment.
Tell me a little about your personal life.
I’ve been doing triathlons since 2007 when I was 62. … One year I actually came in third in my age group — and there were more than three people. … I was never an athlete and it’s still hard for me, but I get up and I do it and I feel great. Now, I can do things that my friends who are 10 years my junior cannot do. I can lift stuff in the office. I have a wonderful staff of young women and energy-wise I can run most of them into the ground.