About the Righteous Among the Nations
Who were the Righteous?
In a world dominated by complete moral decline, there were people who, with incredible courage, nurtured human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. The courage of these people was the complete opposite of the indifference and hostility that manifested itself during the Holocaust. Despite the prevailing global direction, rescuers viewed Jews as the same people who became part of their moral commitment.
Granting the name
The Righteous Among the Nations are recognized and honored by Yad Vashem - the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Yad Vashem - direct translation is "monument and name", the title "Yad Vashem" is a verse from the book of Isaiah ( Isaiah 56: 6 ). The name of Righteous Among the Nations is granted to a man who, being a non-Jew, saved Jews during the Holocaust while risking his own life. Rescue took many forms and the Righteous came from different nations, religions and walks of life. What they had in common was that they protected their Jewish neighbors at a time when hostility and indifference prevailed.
The Holocaust was a systematic, massive genocide of Jews carried out during the Second World War by the Nazis and their collaborators under Adolf Hitler. Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany, said that Jews did not belong to even the lower race, they were simply not human. He proclaimed himself as the savior of the world from the danger of the Jews, and understood that salvation as the destruction of all Jews. Attitudes towards Jews during the Holocaust often ranged from indifference to hostility. Most people watched their Jews neighbors being killed, and some even collaborated with criminals.
Righteous during the Holocaust
Most rescuers started off as bystanders. In many cases this happened when they were confronted with the deportation or the killing of the Jews. Some had stood by in the early stages of persecution, when the rights of Jews were restricted and their property confiscated, but there was a point when they decided to act, a boundary they were not willing to cross. Unlike others, they did not fall into a pattern of acquiescing to the escalating measures against the Jews. Unlike others, rescuers refused to humbly accept the rapidly growing hostility against Jews. Salvation was usually a steadily evolving process in which the Righteous became more and more involved. Granting asylum for a few days escalated into a rescue mission that lasted for months or years.
Jews during the Holocaust
Most of the time, the Jews themselves turned to people of other nationalities for help. Not only did the people who rescued Jews showed ingenuity and courage, but also the Jews themselves who fought for their survival. Wolfgang Benz, who did extensive research on rescue of Jews during the Holocaust claims that when listening to rescue stories, the rescued persons may seem to be only objects for care and charity, however “the attempt to survive in illegality was before anything else a self-assertion and an act of Jewish resistance against the Nazi regime. Only few were successful in this resistance”.
Penalties for assistance
The price that rescuers had to pay for their action differed from one country to another. In Eastern Europe, the Germans executed not only the people who sheltered Jews, but their entire family as well. Notices warning the population against helping the Jews were posted everywhere. Generally speaking punishment was less severe in Western Europe, although there too the consequences could be formidable and some of the Righteous Among the Nations were incarcerated in camps and killed. Moreover, seeing the brutal treatment of the Jews and the determination on the part of the perpetrators to hunt down every single Jew, people must have feared that they would suffer greatly if they attempted to help the persecuted. In consequence, rescuers and rescued lived under constant fear of being caught; there was always the danger of denunciation by neighbors or collaborators. This increased the risk and made it more difficult for ordinary people to defy the conventions and rules. Those who decided to shelter Jews had to sacrifice their normal lives and to embark upon a clandestine existence – often against the accepted norms of the society in which they lived, in fear of their neighbors and friends – and to accept a life ruled by dread of denunciation and capture.
The origin of the Rigtheous
Most rescuers were ordinary people. Some acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions; others were not idealists, but merely human beings who cared about the people around them. In many cases they never planned to become rescuers and were totally unprepared for the moment in which they had to make such a far-reaching decision. Their humanity should become an example to us all. The Righteous are Christians from all denominations and churches, Muslims and agnostics; men and women of all ages; they come from all walks of life; highly educated people as well as illiterate peasants; public figures as well as people from society's margins; city dwellers and farmers from the remotest corners of Europe; university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.
Scholars tried to find out what commonalities the Righteous had in common and to identify who was more likely to extend help to the Jews. Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner distinguish altruism. By comparing and contrasting rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust, they pointed out that those who intervened were distinguished by characteristics such as empathy and a sense of connection to others. Nehama Tec who also studied many cases of Righteous, found a cluster of shared characteristics and conditions of separateness, individuality or marginality. The rescuers’ independence enabled them to act against the accepted conventions and beliefs. Bystanders were the rule, rescuers were the exception. However difficult and frightening, the fact that some found the courage to become rescuers demonstrates that some freedom of choice existed, and that saving Jews was not beyond the capacity of ordinary people throughout occupied Europe. The Righteous Among the Nations teach us that every person can make a difference.
Different ways to help
There were different degrees of help: some people gave food to Jews, thrusting an apple into their pocket or leaving food where they would pass on their way to work. Others directed Jews to people who could help them; some sheltered Jews for one night and told them they would have to leave in the morning. Only few assumed the entire responsibility for the Jews’ survival. It is mostly the last group that qualifies for the title of the Righteous Among the Nations.
In the rural areas in Eastern Europe hideouts or bunkers, were dug under houses, cowsheds, barns, where the Jews would be concealed from sight. In addition to the threat of death that hung over the Jews' heads, physical conditions in such dark, cold, airless and crowded places over long periods of time were very hard to bear. The rescuers, whose life was terrorized too, would undertake to provide food – not an easy feat for poor families in wartime – removing the excrements, and taking care of all their wards' needs. Jews were also hidden in attics, hideouts in the forest, and in any place that could provide shelter and concealment, such as a cemetery, sewers, animal cages in a zoo, etc. Sometimes the hidden Jews were presented as non-Jews, as relatives or adopted children. Jews were also hidden in apartments in cities, and children were placed in convents with the nuns concealing their true identity. In Western Europe Jews were mostly hidden in houses, farms or convents.
In order for Jews to assume the identity of non-Jews they needed false papers and assistance in establishing an existence under an assumed identity. Rescuers in this case would be forgers or officials who produced false documents, clergy who faked baptism certificates, and some foreign diplomats who issued visas or passports contrary to their country's instructions and policy. Diplomats in Budapest in late 1944 issued protective papers and hung their countries flags over whole buildings, so as to put Jews under their country's diplomatic immunity. Some German rescuers, like Oskar Schindler, used deceitful pretexts to protect their workers from deportation claiming the Jews were required by the army for the war effort.