What makes someone a hero? Are they born that way, or do circumstances shape the outcome? I maintain that, for the most part, heroes start out as ordinary people like you and me who, under certain circumstances, find the extraordinary courage and determination to do heroic things. So is the case with many of those who have been enshrined in Yad Vashem with the designation of “Righteous Among the Nations.” I will profile a few of these heroes below.
During WWII, at first, many, if not most people were mere bystanders, content to observe the persecution of the Jews and others rather than to speak out or act. We now know that a large majority of Germans were not Nazis, but for various reasons, apathy, fear, or anti-Semitism, they were reluctant or afraid to speak out against them or oppose them in any way. The attitude among the European populace ranged from indifference to outright hostility toward the Jews. The feeling was, so what if their property is confiscated, so what, if they are killed, beaten or transported to “work camps?” It’s not my problem. I’m not Jewish. Many even collaborated in exchange for favors or just out of spite, revenge, prejudice or hatred. As time went on, some regretted their failure to act early on when the Nazis could have been stopped. By then, however, it was too late.
This inaction or apathy calls to mind the famous quote about the pre-WWII German people attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoller, an outspoken critic of the Nazis who eventually was imprisoned in a concentration camp. After the war, Niemoller expressed his sincere regret for his inaction. There are various versions of this quote, but the gist of it is the following:
“First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then, they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then, they came for me… and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
As I said, most of these heroes were just ordinary people who found themselves embroiled in the caldron of war, turmoil, prejudice and hatred sometimes due to happenstance. Sometimes, their heroism was a gradual process. Maybe, at first they were just asked by a Jewish neighbor or friend to hide them for a day or two until more permanent arrangements could be made. Sometimes, that day or two became months or years. Other times, it would be an instant decision made on the spur of the moment. Rescuers lived with the constant fear of being caught in a raid, by their own slip-up, or being turned in by a friend or neighbor. Punishment would be swift and sure – arrest, torture or incarceration of the entire family.
Aid would take various forms:
1. Hiding Jews on their property. This was easier in rural areas where Jews could be concealed in barns, sheds or bunkers. In the cities it might be in attics, cellars or hidden rooms. People were very ingenious. There are even stories of Jews being hidden in cemeteries, zoos and convents.
2. Smuggling. This included helping Jews get to safe havens, such as Switzerland, Sweden or Casablanca.
3. Providing false papers. Examples abound. For example, forgers produced false documents; priests provided fake baptism certificates; light skinned people would pass themselves off as Aryans. We are all familiar with the story of Oskar Schindler, who provided false papers for many of the Jewish workers in his factories.
4. Rescuing children. Many Jewish parents made the heart-wrenching decision to give up their children, placing them with Gentile friends, orphanages or underground organizations, which would then transport them to other countries to increase their chances of survival.
The bravery and ingenuity of these rescuers were astounding. Sadly, many of their identities are unknown as they died during the war or shortly thereafter. Also, not all acts of bravery were successful.
Yad Vashem was established in 1953. The objective was to honor and perpetuate the memory of these heroes. Beginning in 1963 Yad Vashem set out to identify those who had risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Accordingly, the Israeli Government established a special commission to identify these people and examine their credentials to verify their eligibility. Those that were accepted were granted the designation of “Righteous Among the Nations.” The term was taken from Jewish tradition, the literature of the Sages, in which it was used to describe non-Jews who came to the aid of Jews in their time of need. The “Avenue of the Righteous,” where trees were planted to honor these rescuers, was inaugurated on Holocaust Memorial Day in 1962.
To date, over 25,000 people representing 49 countries have been so honored . Some, like Cuba, Egypt and Japan, have only one honoree; others, like Poland, France and the Netherlands, have thousands. The US has four (none of which is Golda Meir, incidentally).
As promised, I will present brief profiles of four honorees. Lois Gundin was a French teacher from Goshin, Indiana. In 1941 she went to work for the Mennonite Central Committee in Southern France. She established a children’s center for both Jews and non-Jews. Over two years, she saved many children. The Germans arrested her in 1943. In 1944 she was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
Waitstill Sharp was a Unitarian minister from Wellesley, MA. His wife, Martha, was a social worker. In 1939 they went to Czechoslovakia to do charitable work for the church. They also helped many Jews escape, including Lion Feuchtwanger, a famous German author who was on the Nazis “hit list.”
Varian Fry was editor of the Foreign Policy Association. In August, 1940 he went to Marseilles on behalf of the Emergency Rescue Committee. His mission was to smuggle refugees out of France. He started with a list of 200 names, but he ended up helping some 15,000 by May, 1941 when the Vichy police raided his office. He was deported to Spain. Sadly, when he returned to the US he was shunned by many of his former friends and colleagues.
Gertruda Babinlinska was born in Starogad, Poland in 1902. When the Nazis invaded she was working as a nanny for the Stolowicki Family in Warsaw. They had a son, Michael and a daughter who died. By happenstance, Mr. Stolowicki was in Paris and was not able to return. In addition, Mrs. Stolowicki was sickly and weak, so Gertruda assumed responsibility for the family. She was the only servant or employee who remained loyal to the family. They made their way to Vilna, Russia, but they were trapped when the Nazis invaded. Subsequently, Mrs. Stolowicki died. Gertruda elected to stay in Vilna during the war. She obtained false papers and a baptismal certificate for Michael that identified him as her nephew. After the war she took him to Israel to fulfil a promise she had made to Mrs. Stolowicki. First, they sailed on the “Exodus,” which, as most of you know, was denied entry to Israel. Subsequently, they spent several years in various displaced persons camps before finally arriving in Israel in 1948. Gertruda remained a devout Catholic the rest of her life; however, she raised Michael in the Jewish faith, again to fulfil a promise to Mrs. Stolowicki. Her life and experiences have been chronicled in a book, entitled “Gertruda’s Oath,” and a movie is in the works.
These four stories illustrate the bravery and ingenuity demonstrated by so many people during WWII to rescue Jews. As I said, these were ordinary people, just like you and me, who found themselves thrust into extraordinary situations. Most people just went with the flow, but these and others like them found the courage and determination to rise above and beyond the norm. As a consequence, they deserve to be recognized as truly the “Righteous Among the Nations.” If you’re ever in Israel I strongly recommend you visit Yad Vashem. It is truly an amazing and powerful experience.