This past week, President of Israel Shimon Peres honored 50 years of activity of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations. In a moving reception at the President's Residence, Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev gave the President a special memento - a copy of the testimony that Peres' father Yitzhak Perski presented to the Commission in 1965 regarding an English soldier named Charles Coward. Coward aided Perski when they were both being held in a German POW camp in Greece. Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Commission Chairman Supreme Court Justice (ret.) Jacob Turkel and committee members also participated in the special event.
President Peres remarked to the members of the Commission:
"Your job is not only an historic duty, it is also an educational mission. The recognition of Righteous Among the Nations is important to those who lived then, but also to those who were born later. We all need to know and appreciate those extraordinary and brave individuals who risked their lives and showed that even during the darkest of days there were people with a shining inner spirit."
Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations Chairman Jacob Turkel emphasized that "The job of the Commission members to decide who is eligible for the title of Righteous Among the Nations and who is not requires great powers of inner strength, intelligence and compassion. They undertake this holy work that has been placed upon their shoulders with devotion and love and out of a deep historic commitment."
British soldier Charles Coward joined the British army in 1924, and served five years in India. During WWII, holding the rank of sergeant major, Coward fought on the French front; in 1940 he was wounded and captured at Dunkirk. He escaped from captivity several times, and was eventually incarcerated at the Monowitz camp near Auschwitz. During this period, Coward helped save a number of Jews. Known as the "Count of Auschwitz," he had the idea of collecting precious chocolate and cigarettes from his fellow British prisoners, and exchanging them with Auschwitz guards for dead bodies. He substituted these bodies for Jewish inmates, who he helped to escape. On February 16, 1964, Yad Vashem recognized Charles Coward as Righteous Among the Nations.
The Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nation has been active for 50 years. The independent committee acts much as a jury and its final decisions are reached by a vote. The Commission is comprised of researchers, legal experts and historians, many of whom are Holocaust survivors, and all of whom are volunteers. To date, more than 24,000 individuals have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.