As Nazi Germany intensified its anti-Jewish policy, increasing numbers of Jews across Europe were driven to flee or seek ways to emigrate. Long lines of desperate people formed in front of foreign consulates, but the free world was reluctant to permit entry of the many refugees. Most diplomats went on with their professional routine; only very few felt that extraordinary times required extraordinary action and that there was a moral obligation to protect the persecuted Jews, who were of a different nationality and different religion; only very few chose to defy their superiors and, if necessary, suffer the consequences.
At the request of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yad Vashem recently produced a traveling exhibition focusing on diplomats who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Set against the backdrop of the Shoah and the attitude of world leaders to the persecuted Jewish populations across Europe and North Africa, the exhibition tells the stories of these envoys, and the challenges they faced, enriched with quotes from the Righteous and the Jews they attempted to save.
Another story featured in the exhibition is that of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania in 1940 who saw the desperate Jews who had gathered in front of his offices, and decided to award transit visas to people who clearly did not fall within the strict rules Japan had set for foreigners. “This is so horrible. The entire world is closed to us, and the storms waging over Europe are arriving here,” wrote Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, Head of the Mir Talmudic school, about the situation of the Jews who attempted to flee eastwards. Among the people Sugihara saved were a group of students from the Mir yeshiva, including Zerach Warhaftig, the future Minister of Religion of the State of Israel.
Four years after Sugihara had enabled more than 2,000 Jews to escape, at another end of Europe, Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish Consul-General on the island of Rhodes, saw the preparations for the deportation of the island’s 1,700 Jews. Courageously facing the Germans, Ülkümen saved 42 Jews, some of them by falsely claiming that they were Turkish citizens and therefore eligible for his protection. Ülkümen wrote to one of the Jews he saved:
“If I could, I would save them all. But unfortunately, that is beyond my competence.”
"Beyond Duty" opened on 5 February 2018 at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. At the opening, a wall dedicated to diplomats recognized as Righteous Among the Nations was unveiled. The exhibition, which has been produced in more than ten languages so far, will be displayed in some 70 diplomatic representations worldwide.
This article originally appeared in the "Yad Vashem Jerusalem Magazine," volume 85.