Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev: "The stories of Jews rescuing Jews during the Holocaust is both fascinating and significant"
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11 December 2017
Despite the extreme circumstances and breaking down of normal life behaviors during the Holocaust, many Jews offered help – food, shelter, guidance and support – to their fellow Jews. Those receiving assistance were often members of their immediate and larger families or communities; however, sometimes they were also people they had never met before, with whom they had been thrown together in the crucible of the Shoah.
For decades, Yad Vashem has included the phenomenon of Jewish rescuers within the larger context of Jewish solidarity and mutual aid in its varied educational and commemorative efforts. However, on Monday 11 December, the topic of Jews rescuing their brethren during the Holocaust was highlighted at a special symposium held at Yad Vashem.
The event, moderated by Inbal Kvity ben Dov, Director of Yad Vashem's Commemoration and Public Relations Division, was held in the presence of a packed audience in Yad Vashem's Edmond J. Safra Lecture Hall. In his opening words, Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev called the issue "fascinating and significant," and pointed out that the multitude of stories of Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust took place under different circumstances with varying experiences, albeit sharing some common themes. Knesset Member Merav Michaeli, who recalled how her grandfather Israel Kasztner helped arrange the rescue of some 1,600 Hungarian Jews through negotiations with Nazi Germans, praised the efforts by Yad Vashem and others to bring the issue of Jews Rescuing Jews into the public arena. Survivor Haim Roet, Chairman of the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust, agreed, emphasizing the need to raise awareness of the topic in Israel and worldwide, and encouraging further studies and expanding educational activities that will "shine a light" on this important topic.
Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Director of Yad Vashem's International Institute for Holocaust Research, elaborated the characteristics of the issue by sharing the story of a group of Jewish children who were taken from Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia on a four-year-long rescue journey, led by Yoshko Indig, and aided by other Jewish rescuers, Aron Menczer and Goffredo Pacifici. All three of them risked their lives to save the children. Dr. Nidam-Orvieto pointed out the varying elements in rescue attempts – the geographical location of the rescue attempt, the time period in which it took place, and the motivation of the rescuers (religious, ideological, resistance); and the differences between individual and group efforts, sometimes involving non-Jewish partners. She also highlighted the difficult dilemmas often faced by the rescuers, such as leaving behind family members; placing at risk some Jews in the effort to save others; and cooperating with the enemy in order to secure the safety of fellow Jews. Senior Historian at the International Research Institute Dr. David Silberklang illustrated some of these themes in his presentation of Jewish rescue in Poland. How much the Jews knew about the real intentions of the Germans, as well as the knowledge of collective punishment, often influenced their decisions with regards to rescuing their fellow brethren. Dr. Silberklang brought heart-breaking testimonies of those forced to choose who, from their own families, should be saved, and who had to be left to die. In one case, a group of children rescued the adults caring for them and paid the ultimate price. He also emphasized that the Jews were human beings in an impossible situation, and hence no story is unblemished. "We often call these people heroes, but they were not always angels," he said.
Historian Dr. Jeannine Frenk gave a fascinating presentation of the highly successful rescue work carried out by the Jewish Defense Committee (Comité de Défense des Juifs; CDJ) in Belgium, together with members of the Left Poalei Zion (LPZ) political party. Due to their diligence in disseminating information and instructions on survival to Jews across the country, as well as taking care of all the needs of Jewish children and adults in hiding, the CDJ managed to save the lives of some 5,000 Jewish adults and 3,000 Jewish children during the Holocaust.
Holocaust survivor David Gur offered a captivating first-person testimony of Jewish rescue during the Holocaust. A member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth group in Hungary, Gur helped forge documents, enabling thousands of Hungarian Jews to escape deportation to the death camps. The Zionist Jewish youth groups working underground also established and supplied over 50 children's homes in Budapest under the auspices of the International Red Cross, saving thousands more Jewish lives.
The seminar concluded with the screening of Wilfrid Israel: The Rescuer from Berlin, enabling the audience to discover the story of the Jewish businessman who clandestinely helped set up the Kindertransport operation, assisted many hundreds of Jewish employees of his family's business to escape Germany, and was involved in rescue efforts until his tragic death in 1943.
"In a reality that demanded each individual Jew to concentrate on the rescue of himself and his immediate family, we find Jews who decided to endanger themselves in order to save others. Despite the terrible choices and moral dilemmas faced by Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust, one thing is clear: they took the difficult path while others could not," concluded Dr. Nidam Orvieto. "Among other things, we encounter stories of extreme courage, and humble people who didn't realize that they were heroes. This important topic calls for more research."
Click here for more information regarding the phenomenon Jews Saving Jews.