Having served as director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department for 25 years, I strongly support the important legislation currently before the Knesset — and respectfully disagree with Yad Vashem’s opposition to it (“Should Yad Vashem Honor Righteous Jews?” Letter From Israel, Dec. 9).
Honoring Jewish rescuers of the Holocaust is essential, for two reasons: It will enable Jews worldwide to learn the stories of true Jewish heroes, and it will help to rectify the widespread fallacy that Jews were cowards during the Holocaust.
The dozens of Jewish rescuers worthy of being honored did not offer “a slice of bread” to a fellow Jew, as Nathan Jeffay’s Letter From Israel claimed. They created rescue networks to save dozens, hundreds, even thousands of Jews, while simultaneously increasing their own risk of detection — and thereby endangering their families — beyond the risks inherent in simply being Jewish.
For example: In Belgium, a group of Jews representing various Jewish political factions secretly gathered in the summer of 1942, creating a network that led to the rescue of nearly 4,000 Jews, including about 1,000 children. Would honoring these Jews be, in the words of Moshe Zimmerman, an “idiotic idea,” since what they did was “something self-evident?” In those days, when your actions could risk not only your own life but those of your loved ones, who is to say what was self-evident?
Having been intimately involved in honoring thousands of non-Jewish rescuers when I was at Yad Vashem, I can resolutely state that honoring Jewish rescuers will in no way diminish the esteem and significance accorded to non-Jewish rescuers.
As for the claim that honoring Jewish rescuers will in effect pass judgment on Jews of the time who did not save Jews — that charge may justifiably be directed against the tens of millions of non-Jewish persons who, themselves not targeted for persecution, stood by and silently watched the horror of Jewish mass killings unfold before their eyes without attempting to intervene and help.
Shouldn’t Jews worldwide be able to take pride in their own heroes? Shouldn’t the younger Jewish generation in the diaspora and in Israel learn of Jewish rescuers such as Walter Süskind, who, employing wit, charm and intelligence, saved some 1,000 Jews who were being forcibly interned in the Dutch Theater, before they could be dispatched to concentration camps, by managing their escape? Or, shouldn’t they know of the partisan Tuvia Bielski, who, along with his brothers, safely harbored 1,200 Jews — an overwhelming number of whom were non-combatants — in the deep forests of Belarus (in contrast to other partisan groups, which only admitted fighting-capable persons). Or what about Marianne Cohn, who continuously led groups of children across the French-Swiss border, until she was caught and killed? Was she simply doing “something self-evident,” instead of first looking out for herself?
And what of Max Leons, Moussa Abadi, Andrée Salomon, Rabbi Michael Weissmandl, Recha Sternbuch, Zerach Warhaftig, Wilfrid Israel, Vladka Meed, Miriam Peleg, Recha Freier – each of whom saved hundreds and in some cases upwards to a thousand Jews?
Honoring these individuals — and dozens of others — will contribute to righting a pernicious wrong of Holocaust history: that practically all Jews went like sheep to the slaughter. This falsehood persists in Jewish collective memory, in large part perhaps because those Jews who succeeded in saving many Jews under the harshest conditions imaginable remain unknown to the Jewish public at large.
In 1996, Marion Pritchard, a Yad Vashem Righteous Gentile honoree who helped save 150 Dutch Jews (most of them children), delivered an address at the University of Michigan: “Yad Vashem, dedicated to memorializing and teaching the Holocaust, does not honor the Jewish heroes and rescuers, the ‘Jewish Righteous,’ if you will,” she declared. “Their philosophy is that Christians who saved Jews were doing something special, while Jews who saved Jews were merely doing their duty. Not recognizing the moral courage, the heroism of the Jewish rescuers, who if caught were at much higher risk of the most punitive measures than the gentiles, is a distortion of history. … Let me tell you about some of them.” She then related how some of her Jewish colleagues acted in tandem with her to save Jews.
More than a half century after the Holocaust, it is surely time that we acknowledge that “saving one’s own” is worthy of distinction and accolades.
Mordecai Paldiel, director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department from 1982 to 2007, is author of the forthcoming book “Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust” (The Jewish Publication Society, April 2017).