The basis for this blog was provided to me by my good friend and loyal reader, Rich, who spotted the story in the Associated Press.
As you know, the Holocaust ended 74 years ago with the Nazis’ defeat. Yet, even now, every so often, we learn of another story of bravery that reminds us that amid the horrors of the Holocaust some ordinary citizens risked everything to help Jews. Normally, these heroes are regular people who could have stood by and done nothing, like many others did, but, unlike those bystanders, they rose to the occasion. The bravery they exhibited was remarkable. All too often, we only learn of their heroics on the occasion of their death, but in this case, the heroine is receiving her recognition while she is still alive to appreciate it.
The heroine of this story is 92 year-old Melpomeni Dina. During the war Dina was living in Veria, which is small town in northern Greece. In 1943 that area was occupied by the Nazis, who systematically exterminated all “undesirables,” including, among others, Jews, within the space of only a few months. According to the AP this level of brutality was one of the most extreme of the entire war, which says a lot.
The seven members of the Mordecai family were among the Jews living in Vernia. All Jews were frantically scrambling around to avoid capture. Some fled the area; others remained, acquired false identity cards and hid, hoping to ride out the war.
At first, the Mordecais hid in the attic of an abandoned Turkish mosque. They remained there for the better part of one year. During this time, they were forced to endure the sounds of their fellow Jews being rounded up and/or shot. Eventually, the cramped, poorly-ventilated space began to affect the health of some of them, so they had to leave. Also, around this time an informant disclosed their location to the Nazis. Unfortunately, this was all too common for various reasons, such as a desire to curry favor with the Germans or simply hatred for the Jews.
This was when Dina and her two sisters “stepped up.” They took the entire Mordecai family into their home. According to the AP, at first, the entire group was cramped into the Dinas’ one-room apartment. The Dinas had very little in the way of material goods, but they freely shared what they did have, such as food, clothing, medicine and, most importantly, shelter. Later, they helped some of the Mordecais escape into the woods or the mountains.
Yossi Mor, now 77 but a mere infant at the time, remembers the “kindness” of the Dinas. “They even washed our clothes. She loved me very much.” Sarah Yanai, 86, the oldest of the Mordecai siblings, told the AP reporter, “the risk they took upon themselves to take in an entire family knowing that it put them and everyone around them in danger” was incredible.
Incredibly, after the war ended the family was able to reunite, and emigrate to Israel where they thrived and raised the next generation. This was miraculous in and of itself as most families that were split up did not succeed in reuniting for one reason or another.
Recently, the 40 descendants of the Mordecai family held a very special and emotional reunion with Dina, now 92. One by one, each person embraced Dina and thanked her for rescuing the family from certain death. As Dina greeted each one the tears flowed freely. “Now, I can die quietly,” Dina told the AP reporter.
The number may not have been on the scale of Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg but it was a goodly amount nonetheless. You may recall that Oskar Schindler, whose story was brought to life brilliantly by Stephen Spielberg in the 1993 Academy Award-winning movie, “Schindler’s List,” was credited with saving some 1,000 Jews from the Nazis. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, was reputed to have saved some 20,000 Jews before he tragically disappeared.
Dina is one of some 27,000 non-Jews who have been designated as “Righteous Among the Nations,” which is the highest honor for non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Sadly, of that number, only some 350 are still alive today.
The touching and emotional reunion was sponsored by the organization “Righteous Among the Nations,” which brings groups of Holocaust survivors and their rescuers together every year. In addition, it pays a monthly stipend to the rescuers, many of whom are in dire straits and need the money. As part of the process, a special committee carefully and thoroughly vets every case beforehand.
Some 500 persons are approved every year as new stories come to light. Unfortunately, many of them are recognized posthumously. Stanley Stahl, EVP of the “Jewish Foundation for the Righteous,” observed that these reunions will “probably” soon end “because of age and frailty.” That would be a shame, because they serve as a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust and the bravery of those who sacrificed to do the right thing.