In a morally bankrupt world, at a time when the attitude of the majority of the local population towards Jews was tainted by apathy or outright hostility, there was also a small minority of people who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold their moral values. People who were willing to leave their place among the bystanders and in many ways share the fates of the Jewish victims.
In this episode of "On The Holocaust" we discuss several of these exceptional stories, some controversial cases, and the driving forces that led to the establishment of Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations.
The episode is accompanied by Dr. Joel Zisenwine - historian and Director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem.
Righteous Among the Nations - Transcription:
One of the tasks defined in the Yad Vashem Law, passed by the Israeli parliament in 1953, was to commemorate the actions of the Righteous Among the Nations. In a world that had lost its moral values, at a time when the attitude of the majority towards Jews was tainted by indifference or hostility, there was also a small minority of people who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold their moral values. Non-Jewish people who saved Jews, in life-threatening situations and without receiving any compensation. People who were willing to leave their place among the bystanders and in many ways shared the same fate as the victims.
Welcome to On the Holocaust, a podcast from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I’m your host, Nate Nelson.
Andrée Geulen was a 20-year-old teacher at a school in Brussels. One day one of her students showed up at school wearing a yellow badge on his clothes. Up to this point Geulen had not taken significant notice of the persecution of Jews. It was probably the first time that she had to confront discrimination so clearly, and up close. Geulen could’ve ignored, expressed grief, empathy or even her displeasure with that rule. But she chose to take active action and ordered all her students to wear a sort of apron over their garments that would hide the degrading patch. That way it would not be possible to know which of the students was "marked." Geulen could have stopped there; she had certainly brought about a significant change in the feeling of her Jewish students. But instead, she took it one step further. Geulen joined an underground rescue network and started helping and saving lives by escorting Jewish children to hiding places. To do this, she had to leave her parents' home and move to a boarding school where she continued working as a teacher.
In May 1943, the Germans raided the boarding school in the middle of the night. They had probably been tipped off. The students were woken up and forcibly dragged from their beds; their identities checked. The Jewish students were arrested and Geulen was interrogated. The school principal [Odile Ovart-Henri] and her husband [Remy] were sent to a concentration camp, where they later died.
Geulen stood again at a crossroads. The raid had made the danger of continuing her illegal activities painfully clear, but she chose to continue.
For more than two years Geulen took in children and sent them into hiding with Christian families and monasteries. She made sure that those families were able to take in the children - both physically and mentally - and continued to visit them and take care of their needs. But she did even more: Every time she went on a mission, she would memorize their real and assumed names and their new addresseses, and would later prepare secret lists with this information. The hope was that these hundreds of children might be able to be reunited with their families after the war.
After the liberation, Geulen did in fact work to return the children to their surviving family members. On February 2, 1989, Yad Vashem recognized Andrée Geulen-Herscovici as a Righteous Among the Nations.
Her story is indeed a ray of light, but it’s a ray of light in a very dark period. Out of a population of four hundred million people living under Nazi occupation, only over 27,000 have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. The prevailing atmosphere was of hostility towards the Jews and anyone who tried to help them. To provide that help, simply put, was a very difficult decision that put you directly at risk in so many ways.
Dr. Joel Zisenwine - historian and director of the Department of Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem:
Dr. Joel Zisenwine: quite often, the decision to let a Jew or Jewish family or several Jews into your house, this was often done in the haste of a moment. Sometimes somebody would literally knock on your door and a decision had to be made on the spot.
Will you provide aid to these people or not? And once they were let in, there were various difficulties. First of all just on the, I would say ordinary daily level, you had to provide them with food.
Now we’re talking about Europe under occupation during World War Two. There was a shortage of food all across Europe and people could usually obtain food or purchase food mainly by ration cards. These cards were rationed according to the number of people registered in a family or in a house.
So you suddenly had a situation where you had people that are not registered and you can’t report them and you have to acquire food somehow. So this was often done I guess through the Black Market. This of course was one challenge.
Another problem I would say even more complex and more risky than finding food was the need to keep this as a secret. The general public or the neighbors could potentially report to the authorities that you suspect that your neighbor is hiding Jews or assisting Jews. This could be done sometimes out of antisemitic motivation and sometimes just out of opportunism to maybe perhaps if you reported your neighbor that’s hiding Jews, you could receive an award, a prize, money, more food.
So these were things that posed a risk.
It’s important to point out that Geulen was active in Belgium. The act of saving Jews in Western European countries - Belgium, France, or the Netherlands, for example - was very different than in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe such as Poland, Lithuania or Soviet territories, where the German occupation was more violent, and the danger involved in assisting or rescuing Jews far greater.
Dr. Joel Zisenwine: In certain regions of Europe, particularly I would say in Eastern European, in Eastern European regions, occupied Poland and certain regions of the occupied USSR, the Nazi authorities explicitly announced to the general public that rescuing Jews would result in death penalty not only to the rescuer himself or herself but also to the entire family.
In other words, attempting to rescue Jews could result in a death penalty or execution not only of the one individual but of his entire family, his children. Maybe his parents or his siblings. So that’s one thing you have to understand.
In Western Europe, the German authorities were less explicit about the consequences of harboring Jews, though the threat was real enough. We know today that in many cases rescuers weren’t executed, but this wasn’t widely known at the time. And in many cases, in countries like France or the Netherlands, those harboring Jews were sent to concentration camps.
In such a risky environment, different people reacted in different kinds of ways. There were those like Andree Geulen, who went above and beyond to help complete strangers. Others tried to help where they could, but were afraid to go too far. Many more stood aside entirely, or did far worse.
Dr. Joel Zisenwine: The spectrum of responses to persecution of Jews ranges between or from I would say – you can talk about some kind of polarizing or polarizing attitudes.
On one hand, you have the extremely small minority of rescuers who I guess you could say sympathized with the fate of the Jews and were willing to risk themselves and their – possibly their loved ones and then on the other extreme end, you have the perpetrators and in the middle, I think you could talk about various ranges or categories of attitudes towards Jews.
You have indifference. You have to remember this is – we’re talking about World War Two. Though the general non-Jewish population of Europe is not necessarily suffering like the Jews, many of them are subjected to various degrees of brutal treatment by the Nazi authorities and by their collaborators. So I would say they’re first and foremost looking after themselves and their families.
They may not necessarily have the time or I would say emotional ability to look out for what’s happening to Jews. So that’s I would say in the middle and then you have various degrees of hostility towards Jews.
I mentioned before the existence of sort of traditional antisemiitic sentiments. So this could result in will to report Jews to the authorities. It could be cases where someone would literally just slam the door on Jews looking for aid and then we have the “grace” of active collaboration with the Nazi authorities. This sometimes resulted in active participation in round-ups and even in active participation in mass shootings.
One pointed example here is the story of Malka Rosental. Malka, formerly known as Marisha Dulberg, was born in 1934 in the city of Stanislavov], then Poland. Her little brother was murdered in the ghetto and she and her mother were smuggled by a Polish nanny - Denisa - who worked for them before the war started - into hiding in the home of a Polish acquaintance in town. After someone reported them, they both had to leave his home and travel by train to a small village named Utin [UTIN] hoping there they could be reunited with their father who escaped earlier to find a safe haven.
narrator: “My mother told me that someone had recognized her, and the professor told us we had to leave. She explained that we'd travel by train to Ottynia, to one of the villages. She said we didn't have a choice. It was forbidden, so we'd pretend that we were Polish and we would leave. It was nerve-wracking. We were under terrible pressure. We sat there... We tried not to stand out. We sat without speaking. I pretended to sleep on her lap, and she stroked me. We sat there in the train, very, very quiet on the outside, but very, very frightened on the inside. Then we passed by Stanislawow. My mother and I breathed a sigh of relief. A few moments later, someone got up and shouted, "A Jewess and her bastard Jew-child!" Violence broke out in the compartment of the train. They beat us, pulled our hair, pulled out my mother's hair, Someone kicked me in the back. They really beat us up... I'd call it a brutal beating. They yelled, "Stop the train! Stop the train! " "Hand them over to the Gestapo! " Suddenly, a Ukrainian man stood up. He was tall and dark, and he said, "Wait. Wait. Don't stop the train. " "If you stop it, we'll all have to pay a big fine. " "The Germans don't like to play around." "I live in Ugorniki. There’s a train station there." "I'll take her and and hand her over to the Gestapo there. " He asked, "Does anyone want to join me? " No one... There were no volunteers. The train reached the station, and he took us off very violently. He gave me a fierce slap. I don't think that anyone has ever hit me so fiercely. He beat my mother and yelled and cursed us and took us off the train. He held us like this, here, by the coat. He held on to us tightly, and led us out ahead of him. Suddenly, when the train had disappeared from view, he said, "Mrs. Dolberg, are you crazy? How can you travel here?" "Everyone recognizes you. What are you doing?"
One of the questions that arises from this situation Malka described in her testimony is how the choice of passengers on that train car can be explained. First of all, the choice to reveal the identity of Malka and her mother as Jews. They could ignore it. Even if that passenger feared that if the Germans discovered that Jewish passengers were on the train it would have consequences for all passengers in the car, they could ask them to just get off at the nearest station in a different, more discreet way. But instead it was done brutally, a course of action that was also adopted by other passengers. Who beat an innocent woman and a six-year-old girl. Of course, this evokes thoughts about the reality of that period and the variety of external and internal factors that turned that said train into a kind of pressure cooker that exploded. In all of this there is one person who came to their aid. In order not to arouse even the slightest suspicion, he had to make sure that he was doing it in the ”right way.”
In light of this new reality the Jews were asking for help, in some situations, by letter, at a meeting, many times it was a knock on the door has changed the fate of rescuers and survivors alike. If the door opened, it saved the Jews for at least some time. Redeemed them from their loneliness. At the same time - the rescuers crossed the line and joined the side of the persecuted - living in constant fear, often underground and under constant threat.
Jan and Anna Pohalski [PO-HAWL-SKEE], parents of five children who lived in severe poverty, hid five Jews in the basement of their home. One of them was a man named Felix Zandman. He said about his saviors, quote:
"They did an extraordinary deed . When you talk about heroism, you talk about heroes on the battlefield. Someone is injured, you come to his aid, and in 2-3 minutes you get him out of the line of fire, really big deal! And you get a medal for that. Big hero, right?" And here they are not only risking their own life but also the lives of their children. and it is not something that ended within five minutes it lasted 17 months! 24 hours a day! It was terrible! And they did it."
End quote. It’s important to emphasize that the decision to save Jews was not a one-time decision. The choice to continue to save those Jews was made every day. Every new risk they faced put rescuers again and again at the crossroads of choice: whether to continue to rescue, or say that's it, I have done my part, I can't continue, economically, physically, mentally.
Dr. Joel Zisenwine: when you provided – or the Righteous Among the Nations provided shelter to Jews, they didn’t have a set time table or a schedule how long this was going to last. Just to give an example, if someone provided shelter in Poland in 1942, this let’s say a Polish peasant or a Polish priest or whatever, doesn’t necessarily know when war is going to end.
So the time table is unknown and as we mentioned before, the risk is great and this could be said for any place in Europe, whether the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Ukraine. This would create what you could call a pressure cooker. You have in many cases people that you have absolutely no prior familiarity with or you don’t know them from before and now you have – you’re suddenly I would say – I wouldn’t say stuck together but you suddenly have these people living in your house for an indefinite period of time and you have to both provide for them and also keep this as a secret.
We heard earlier the beginning of the testimony of Malka Rosenthal who was smuggled by her caregiver, to the house of a Polish professor in Stanislawow, she was rescued from a hostile caravan by another passenger who brought them to his house and then accompanied them to the Crook family's house where the father hid.
One day the Germans conducted a search and Malka's mother had to sacrifice her life so that Malka and her father could escape to the depths of the nearby forest. After days of escaping in the rain, the snow, without food, tremendous fear, the feeling of helplessness, of despair, they got to the one who was considered the headman of the Hrosno [village – his name was Wojciechowski], and he hid them in his home and gave them food and a place to sleep and peace of mind for a few days.
narrator: “I don't know how long I slept, but when I woke up, Father was gone. I was all alone in this village, with strangers. The woman took my hand, Mrs. Wojciechowski, and took me across the street, where there was a house. She knocked on the door and a woman opened it. Three girls were standing beside her. In her hand, she held the baby Władzia …”
Malka was hidden by the Kot [COHT] family and their four daughters in their little home. After about two months there was an incident in the village.
narrator: “And then, one day, I heard a child screaming. What an awful scream. "Have mercy on me! Mercy!" "Leave me alone!" It was horrible. Horrendous cries. It turned out that a Jewish boy was hiding with some neighbors. The neighbors' son, found out and brought his friends over. It was a Sunday, and they were a little drunk. He brought his friends. They used pitchforks to search in the straw, and killed the boy with the pitchfork.”
The Kot family found itself once again at a crossroads of choice. The relatively calm atmosphere in the village was interrupted, the Germans might have heard about the incident and come looking for Jews hiding in other places, that Polish boy and his friends could have continued their hunt. They have four daughters, one of whom is a baby girl, so do they continue to risk themselves, do they continue to risk their daughters for Malka's saving attempt? They did continue. They hide Malka in a pit they dig under the manger of a cow in a barrel. Once a day Ange [AHN-JA], daughter brought her food, took her out of the barrel, ate with her and talk with her to try and keep her peace on mind. Malka hid with the Kot family for a year and a half, of which she hid in the same barrel for ten months.
Malka survived the Holocaust and later immigrated to Israel. We can count no less than six people and families that were required to save one Jewish girl.
In the 1953 law that establishes Yad Vashem, one of its stated missions is to commemorate the Righteous Among the Nations who, “risked their lives to save Jews.” One possible reason why this need to recognize rescuers arose so early - this is only eight years after the end of the war, and only five after the founding of the State of Israel - is that this kind of recognition was already taking place during the Holocaust.
Dr. Joel Zisenwine: Anton Schmid was one of the first rescuers to be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nation. He was a sergeant in the German military. He was posted in Vilna, Lithuania in 1941. He was in somewhat of an office job I guess you – office position and he was stationed nearby the local rail station.
He witnessed or started to hear about the various cases of the mass killings of Jews in the vicinity of Vilna and general mistreatment and persecution of Jews and he started providing the Jewish laborers that were stationed at the railway station. He treated them in a nice way and word sort of spread that there’s this sergeant in the military who’s treating the Jews nicely. At some point, he started providing them with work permits. Work permits were often the – were distinguished between staying alive and being sent to Ponary. That’s the local murder site in Vilna.
At some point he also – since he had various vehicles at his disposal, he started using them in order to smuggle out Jews from Vilna to regions that were considered less dangerous or less risky at that point. We have a story that was reported during the war itself, during the Holocaust itself of a case in which on the New Year’s Eve 1942, he participated in a gathering along with the members of the Zionist underground in Vilna and hear a very touching story in which they – some of them spoke about the future where they hope that one day, once a Jewish state would be established, Schmid would be invited and they even talked about awarding him a – some sort of medal.
Some see this is a possible roots or the beginning of thinking about how the Jews would pay tribute to these few Righteous Among the Nations after the war.
We are talking about a unique and unprecedented thing: A people suffers greatly from such horrible crimes, survives, and just a short time after, actively tries to locate those few who had tried to save them, even those from the countries that had initiated these very atrocities.
For several years after the 1953 law, nothing formal had been done to this end, mainly because Yad Vashem had been focusing on research and archival work. But then, Yad Vashem started receiving a lot of letters from survivors, even more so after the news of the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960. The statement of the survivors was: we don’t only want to prosecute those who murdered us, we also want to acknowledge with gratitude those who saved us. One of the letters was sent by Rachel Auerbach-- a member of the "Oneg Shabbat" archive in the Warsaw Ghetto, which we’ve covered in an earlier episode. She wrote to the management of Yad Vashem asking to honor the Righteous Among the Nations by planting a forest in their name.
The Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations was scheduled to be inaugurated on the national the Holocaust remembrance day, in May 1962. The plan was to hold a ceremony in which the first twelve trees would be planted on the Avenue in honor of the rescuers who were known at that time. Among them was Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved more than a thousand Jews from Krakow and its surroundings by employing them under more humane conditions and preventing their deportation to extermination camps. A few days before the planned ceremony, however, Julius Wiener [VEE-NER], a Holocaust survivor from Krakow, threatened that if Schindler be recognized, and were to attend the ceremony, he would make a scene and uproot the newly planted tree. According to him, Schindler was not a Righteous Among the Nations at all but a, quote, "Nazi who had turned his skin," end quote, in order to save himself after the turn of the tide of war. According to Wiener and another Holocaust survivor, Schindler was an opportunist, a member of the Nazi party who came to Poland to make money and brutally confiscated the factory that belonged to their families.
The trees were planted on the avenue a few days later with no official representation from the state, including the tree in Schindler's honor. However, following the incident, the then chairman of the Yad Vashem board, Dr. Aryeh Kobobie [AH-RE-EH KU-BOH-VEE], decided to establish an independent committee headed by a Supreme Court judge. The committee formulated the full definition of who is eligible for the title of a Righteous Among the Nations. Schindler, incidentally, did not receive full recognition that year. When he died at his home in 1974, the person who chaired the committee was Judge Moshe Bejsky, who was himself one of Schindler's survivors, and therefore did not feel that it would be appropriate to reopen the case under his own tenure. In 1993, 85-year-old Emilie Schindler arrived in Israel to shoot the final scene of the film "Schindler's List". The Committee of the Righteous Among the Nations decided to take advantage of the event and award Mrs. Schindler the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" for her good deeds towards the Jews. Dr. Mordechai Paldiel, who was then at the head of the Department of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, and was a member of the Committee, said that the decision had created a paradoxical situation, because Mrs. Schindler was declared Righteous Among the Nations "while her husband remained without full recognition.” The hearings and the committee discussions regarding Schindler’s case were renewed, and it was decided to grant him the full title, without objection.
Perhaps it took so long because, in 1962, there was less room for edge cases. The fact that Schindler was a member of the Nazi party, wore the swastika on his chest, and confiscated Jewish property, prevented him from getting recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations at the time, despite the change he went through and the fact that he went above and beyond at great risk in order to save Jews. Even today you can find many even more complex cases, in which the individual in question will be debated several times over before a final decision on the subject is made.
Dr. Joel Zisenwine: a known case is the case of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky from Lviv, Ukraine. This is a supreme leader of the Ukrainian Catholic church who on the one hand we know – served as a spiritual leader of the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement and its struggle against the Soviet Union and we know that he greeted or welcomed the German invading forces in June 1941 while they entered the City of Lviv, and it should be said that members of the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement played an active role, at least some of them, in round-ups of Jews and active participation in mass murders.
On the other hand, Sheptytsky provided shelter and aid to several of his Jewish acquaintances during this period. So we had – this is a situation where the committee has to weigh – have to weigh. On the one hand, testimonies about aid that Sheptytsky provided to them. On the other hand, we have a religious leader who is linked to the Nationalist Movement that some of its members played an active role in the persecution of Jews.
We also know that at a certain point, Sheptytsky issued several pastoral letters in which he preached against the persecution of the innocent. Though he didn’t necessarily explicitly – he didn’t necessarily refer to Jews, it is assumed that people who read those letters knew to whom he was referring.
So this is a case where the – this case was brought to the committee several times. The committee weighed both ends and decided ultimately not to recognize Sheptytsky as a Righteous Among the Nations.
We’ll end with the story of Olena Hryhoryshyn. A simple woman from the Kosov region of Ukraine, who rescued a 12-year-old girl named Donia Rosen. Donia recounted it later in a book, writing, quote:
"Olena Hryhoryshyn was a 65-year-old woman tired of life, kneeling under the yoke of distress. She was by herself and with no one else nearby, without anyone close, without a place of her own. Her only assets were her physical strength and good heart. She worked hard for a piece of bread. People took advantage of her, mocked her, called her a fool, a miserable one. Olena went from place to place, from house to house where she worked, where she slept, and more than once she had to spend the night in the open air ... "
End quote. Donia’s mother died when she was two years old, and she was taken in by her grandparents who owned a local inn. Her grandfather knew all the residents of the town, but it was Olena, the same woman who lived on the fringes of society, who took pity on her and took her to her home. Not the richer folks from the higher social classes. Donia wondered whether it was that loneliness that moved Olena to take her under her wing.
Donia Rosen survived, immigrated to Israel and later became the director of the Righteous Among the Nations department at Yad Vashem. She did not start a family and dedicated her story "Friends of the Forest" to her guardian. Quote:
"This book is dedicated to Olena and all the anonymous people who risked their lives to save the children of Israel. [. . .] Dear, unforgettable Olena: if I were a sculptor, I would create your monument, I would commemorate your noble figure, a motherly figure who is willing to endure the cruelest torments for her children, and who is willing to sacrifice her life at any time."
End quote. Finally, Donia writes, quote:
"I want you to commemorate us - a monument that will reach to heaven, a sign that the whole world will see. A sculpture - not of marble or stone, but of good deeds."
End quote. The Righteous Among the Nations are a very, very diverse group of people of all ages and from all countries in Europe. From cities, villages, from all professions - there’s a zoo director, a circus director, a sewer system maintenance man, an undertaker, teachers, nuns, diplomats, and security people. All walks of life; Muslims, Christian, atheists. They come from all over the political spectrum. What they have in common is that at a certain moment they saw Jews in trouble and decided to act. And they teach us that everyone has a choice.
That’s it for this episode. If you’d like to learn more about the Righteous Among the Nations, visit yadvashem.org.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. This program was produced by Itamar Swissa, Dani Timor, Ran Levi and me, Nate Nelson. Research and content management by Jonathan Clapsaddle and Dafna Dolinko. The story you heard was written by Irit Dagan. Thanks for listening; hit ‘Subscribe’ for more stories like this.