I’m simultaneously pleased and morose; sad and astonished. On 28,411 recorded occasions, gentiles sheltered Jews. But I’m amazed, in light of the intense risks, that this has happened even once; each occurrence is a Black Swan, a highly improbable but highly consequential event.
On October 8 of 2010, my wife and I attended a Yad Vashem banquet dinner at which were honoured the 2nd and 3rd generation descendants of the “True Heroes of the Holocaust” — heroes who seventy years ago risked not only their own lives but the lives of their entire families, often involving four or five generations. The hall was filled with hundreds of people who survived because they were sheltered from the Nazis by these and other True Heroes.
Emcee and Yad Vashem National President Fran Sonshine introduced the Hon. Minister Jason Kenney, Avner Shalev of Yad Vashem Jerusalem and Consul General D. J. Schneeweiss. All spoke touchingly well.
When descendants of the Dutch honourees — the Kottelenbergs and the de Jonghs — and Vera Hartog, who survived the Holocaust due to their heroism, rose to speak, the hall was electrified. We met the descendants of Gert Kottelenberg and his wife Hermina, Gert’s brother, Jan, and Bob and Maria de Jongh — True Heroes.
I have met a number of these True Heroes and their descendants, as well as the hundreds of survivors they saved; I have seen much evidence of their deeds in videos, movie footage, letters, artifacts, documents and books. The more I see, the more intense my astonishment and my dilemma become.
So what, you ask, is my dilemma? When they are asked why they took such risks, I’ve many times heard True Heroes answer, “We had no choice; we felt compelled to do it”. When I think of the danger to these Heroes it is very difficult for me to easily accept such a simple explanation. Of course, I’m so very happy — thrilled — to meet these True Heroes. But I become sad and dejected when I try to imagine the unfathomable horrors of the circumstances out of which these heroes arose. I would like to think that perhaps under similar horrible circumstances, I too, would become a True Hero. But then I stop to consider what danger these heroes braved and I become unsure; I wonder and reflect, and like almost everyone else I can think of who has considered the matter, I answer, “I don’t know and hope I never have to decide”. This disturbs me and (to be frank) makes me question my character. I am perplexed by the fact that people risked so very much to try to save total strangers — very often by sheltering them for long months, and even years. I’m amazed and awestricken.