The Slovenian Righteous Among Nations
Irena Šumi and Oto Luthar (Eds.)
Ljubljana: Založba ZRC, ZRC SAZU, 2016
Physicians worldwide are expected to uphold the Hippocratic Oath. According to a modern version written by Dr. Louis Lasagna of Tufts University, doctors make the following pledge: "I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm."
The vast majority of doctors attend medical school over many years. Doctors are often perceived as well-educated citizens who are expected to heal the sick and not to do bodily harm. Unfortunately, most non-Jewish physicians who lived during the Shoah generally did not recognize their "special obligations to all fellow human beings." According to Robert Jay Lifton, doctors played a significant role as perpetrators during the Nazi era.
The Hippocratic Oath is associated with medical personnel. However, if doctors did not abide by the moral standards of their profession, then what does this say about people who are not obligated to take such a vow? Moreover, pursuant to the letter and the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath, should we expect that more doctors would have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations? In fact, the number of doctors so recognized is no higher than other rescuers from all walks of life.
The responsibility of human beings during the Shoah and the dilemmas that people faced during this period remain central to the work of Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies. All of the School's educational programming places the Shoah in its historical context and the human chronicle, particularly highlighting personal stories of Jewish people who struggled to survive this period.
Since its establishment in 1953, Yad Vashem has sought to document the victims of the Shoah as well as “the high-minded non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.” In the shadow of the genocide of a third of its people, a new country not only made it a priority to commemorate destroyed Jewish communities but also to honor non-Jewish people who endangered themselves by helping Jewish people during the Shoah. The vision of Holocaust survivors and Israeli lawmakers at the time had clear educational implications – not only to remember the past to shape the future, but also to give sincere thanks. Yad Vashem is the only organization in the world that gives official recognition, on behalf of the victims, to non-Jewish people who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Since the 1960s, this title has been bestowed upon some 26,120 people from over 50 countries.
The Ljubljana-based Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts recently published the English translation of The Slovenian Righteous Among Nations. This volume contains two sections: The first one focuses on people with Slovenian background whom Yad Vashem has officially recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. "As the reader will notice, most of these people lived and worked outside Slovenia during the war. Out of the nine Slovenian women and men proclaimed Righteous Among the Nations, only one, Uroš Žun, then commander of the border police in Maribor, performed his act of rescue on Slovenian soil. All others were scattered throughout Yugoslavia, except France Punčuh who initially worked as an adjunct and then external diplomatic employees of the Yugoslav embassy in Warsaw, Poland, and who married, lived and died there."
The second section recounts a compilation of stories about Slovenian individuals who have been deemed "courageous" for assisting Jewish people during the Shoah. Since this book's publication earlier in 2016, the Yad Vashem Commission for the Designation of the Righteous has bestowed this internationally-recognized honor on Elizabeta Savica Rožanc Horvath, one of those mentioned in the book as a candidate. Although the editors note that research is still underway regarding the cases described in this section, it appears that additional efforts are needed to collect documentation and witness testimonies.
Importantly, the editors provide historical context to the stories included in this volume. The authors aimed to write this book "in such a manner as to be accessible to the broadest circle of readers, especially to the young." Although the contents may be appropriate for some high school seniors, this book is not an educational resource per se. This writer recommends that teachers refer to this book only after their students have gained a strong background about what happened during the Holocaust, and that teachers first assign their students online research projects related to Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony. After learning more about the stories of individuals who were murdered during the Holocaust and about how Yad Vashem commemorates their identities in its Hall of Names, teachers should introduce how Yad Vashem commemorates the Righteous Among the Nations and highlights their stories.
For example, educators may wish to feature the story of Zora Pičulin in the classroom. Leon Gatenyo and his wife Fini Gatenyo née Bejosif, a Jewish family in Skopje, Macedonia, employed Pičulin as a nanny for their only son, Shaul. In 1941, when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, Macedonia was annexed to Bulgaria. In March 1943, all the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace were rounded up under Bulgarian rule and eventually were transported to Poland, where they were murdered at Treblinka on arrival. When teaching about instances of rescue, it is incumbent upon educators to provide historical context, particularly the threat of deportation and imminent death.
Over a period of two years, Pičulin and Shaul hid in a small Catholic monastery in Letnice. After the war, Pičulin returned to Skopje with Shaul, where she discovered that all the Jews of Macedonia had been murdered, including Shaul’s parents. Pičulin contacted the Jewish community and asked for permission to adopt Shaul, but Ester Biti, the younger sister of Shaul’s paternal grandmother, was awarded custody of the child together with her husband. They took Shaul, then five years old, away from Pičulin, whom he called “Mama.” Separating from Pičulin was very difficult for Shaul, and to ease the situation, the Bitis invited her to live with them. In 1948, the Bitis immigrated to Israel with Shaul, and for many years he maintained contact with Pičulin. On July 15, 1975, Yad Vashem recognized Zora Pičulin as Righteous Among the Nations.
As outlined in this book, Dan Stockhamer, saved by Ljubica and Ivan Župančič and Olga Rajšek during the Shoah, later studied medicine in Zagreb and became a doctor. Ultimately, the choices of three Slovenian individuals–the Župančičs and Rajšek–enabled Stockhamer to take the Hippocratic Oath and dedicate his career to saving lives. This book illustrates the Talmudic axiom, "One who saves another life, saves an entire world."
The author wishes to thank her colleagues, Irena Steinfeldt and Shulamit Imber, for their insight and constructive feedback on this book review.