Paying the Ultimate Price
The Righteous Among the Nations were willing to risk their lives to rescue Jews, and in many cases, were indeed forced to pay the ultimate price for their selfless actions.
Nazi Germany’s genocidal racial ideology called for the total annihilation of the Jews. In their determination, the murderers set out to hunt down every hidden Jew and to eliminate every obstacle that stood in their way. Openly defying the murderous endeavor therefore required enormous moral strength and great personal courage.
The aid to and rescue of Jews took many forms that required varying degrees of involvement and self-sacrifice. Manifestations of sympathy and maintaining social contacts with the Jewish outcasts; providing moral encouragement, food, housing or money; warning about upcoming arrests or razzias; and offering advice as to hiding options are some of the forms of help that survivors describe in their testimonies. Although these humane and generous deeds were often crucial to the Jews' ability to survive, the Yad Vashem Law used a more restrictive characterization. By defining the Righteous Among the Nations as persons "who risked themselves to save Jews," the lawmakers delineated a small group within these wider circles of men and women who helped and supported Jews in the darkest hour of Jewish history.
According to this definition, the Righteous were people who not only helped the Jews, but were also willing to leave their relatively safe positions as bystanders. These were people who were prepared, if necessary, to pay a very dear price for their stand, and even share the victims' fate.
The price that rescuers had to pay for their actions differed from one country to another. In Eastern Europe, the Germans executed not only the people who sheltered Jews, but also their entire family. Notices warning the population against helping the Jews were posted everywhere. In general, punishment was less severe in Western Europe, although there, too, the consequences could formidable: some of the Righteous Among the Nations were incarcerated in camps and even murdered. Moreover, seeing the brutal treatment of the Jews and the determination on the part of the perpetrators to hunt down every one of them, the local populace must have feared that they would suffer greatly if they attempted to help the persecuted. In consequence, both rescuers and rescued lived under constant fear of being caught, and 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 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 the dread of denunciation and capture.