Since the inception of the Righteous Among the Nations program fifty years ago, Yad Vashem bestowed the title on close to 25,000 men and women from 48 nationalities. The Department of the Righteous’ archive contains thousands of files with hundreds of thousands of pages of documentation – it is a wealth of testimonies, photos, official and personal documents, newspaper clippings and other material with information about rescue efforts during the Holocaust. It is therefore only natural that this repository is of great interest to scholars, and that it is being used in attempts to statistically and otherwise evaluate rescue efforts and the attitude of non-Jews to the persecution of Jews, or to explore rescuers' profiles and motivations. This collection is no doubt unique and most valuable, but it is my opinion that before embarking on such studies, it is extremely important to note the methodological constraints and particularities of this resource.
In this context it is important to remember that the Righteous Among the Nations is a honorific title, and the criteria used by the Righteous program were defined with the purpose of bestowing an honor. Hence, these provisions need not necessarily accord with the methodology used by historians. In other words, the questions asked by the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous – the autonomous body established by Yad Vashem and entrusted with the decision of bestowing the title – reflect the requirements for the title; they may differ from the questions posed by scholars, when exploring the very same event.
Most acts of rescue during the Holocaust were, by their very nature, performed in secret, leaving no paper trail, and making it very difficult to obtain evidence. This obviously reflects on the nature of the gathering of documentation for the purpose of bestowing the title, and the Commission for the designation of the Righteous has its own requirements with regard to the necessary evidence. For example, recognition can only be based on primary sources. Secondary sources, such as books and articles which are works of analysis and interpretation, are used to establish the historical circumstances, but cannot in themselves constitute the basis for recognition. Moreover, the Commission requires testimony from the side of the rescued person – for obvious reasons, a case cannot be based on testimony only from the side of the rescuer or his family and friends - and only in rare cases and particular circumstances does archival documentation of the Holocaust period suffice for bestowing the title.
The Righteous Among the Nations, as defined by the law establishing Yad Vashem in 1953, are persons “who risked their lives to save Jews”. The lawmaker thereby defined a small group of rescuers within a much wider circle of people who helped or assisted Jews in ways which did not necessarily involve danger to the rescuer. Faced with cases of diplomats who enjoyed diplomatic immunity and other officials who were relatively protected, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous decided that it would award the title also to people who did not risk their very lives, but who put their positions, careers and jobs in danger. Over the years, the Commission developed a series of regulations and measures in the attempt to draw a clear line within the diverse and nuanced ranges of conduct and attitudes – a division that separates the acts of rescue that qualify for recognition from other manifestations of help and solidarity to Jews. The challenge of drawing such a line is compounded by the fact that the same set of criteria is used for all cases and countries.
Based on the principle that each individual is responsible for his or her deed, the title is bestowed on individuals, not on groups, organizations, towns, etc. Contrary to historians, who wish to delineate trends or general outlines of the story and who attempt to identify overall phenomena, it is the individual and his or her motivations that come under examination by the Righteous program, not the description of broader patterns of behavior or mentalities.
Hence before drawing any statistical conclusions one should bear in mind that the cases recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations do not necessarily reflect the full extent of help given by non-Jews to Jews during the Holocaust. There were other forms of rescue and help that, even though much appreciated and admired by us, did not involve danger, or rescue that may have been dangerous to the rescuer, but does not fall within the Righteous program’s framework because it was motivated by financial or other gain. Nor can we be certain that the cases recognized by Yad Vashem fully represent the full extent and variety of rescue; they are rather based on the material and documentation that was made available to us. Most Righteous were recognized following requests made by the rescued Jews. Only a smaller number of recognitions were initiated by the rescuers’ side, by researchers or other third parties. Sometimes survivors could not overcome the difficulty of grappling with the painful past and didn’t come forward; others weren’t aware of the program, did not believe it was important or couldn’t apply – especially people who lived behind the Iron Curtain during the years of Communist regime in Eastern Europe; other survivors died before they could make the request. Another important factor is that most cases that were recognized represent successful attempts – the Jews survived and came forward to tell Yad Vashem about them. In this context it is important to note that we still receive some 400-500 new requests every year.
Despite the methodological pitfalls in drawing statistical conclusions from the data about the Righteous, there is broad use of the numbers of Righteous per country or other criteria for different purposes. Some compare the numbers of Righteous of different countries in the attempt to draw conclusions and compare those nations’ attitudes towards the Jews. It is needless to say that such comparisons are totally meaningless; that they are in some cases exploited for political reasons, at times in attempts to whitewash the past.
Another aspect of such erroneous statistical conclusions occurs when Yad Vashem is criticized, for example, because of the relatively small number of Bulgarians who were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations (20 as of 1.1.2013). Some go as far as to describe this discrepancy between the small number of Bulgarians honored by Yad Vashem and the large number of rescued Jews in Bulgaria as a historical injustice or as a result of prejudice. This approach suffers not only from the overall problem with statistics that I have described, but totally ignores the particular historical circumstances of the rescue of the Jews in "Old Bulgaria". The small number of Righteous recognized is not due to an oversight by Yad Vashem or the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, but results from the unique nature of the events. The Bulgarian case is characterized by the fact that the deportations were called off by a couple of bureaucratic acts, and thus the Jews were saved and there was no need to go into hiding as it happened in many other European countries. Due to these circumstances Bulgarian citizens, unlike in most other places, were not faced with Jews knocking on their doors in the attempt to flee from murder. Bulgarian rescuers who were awarded the title of Righteous were mostly those who protested and acted to stop the deportations (such as Dimitar Peshev, the members of the delegation from Kyustendil, the church leaders Kiril and Stefan, etc.), only a few acted against other anti-Jewish decrees. For example, Stanka Stoicheva hid the Efraim family after the evacuation of the Jews of Sofia to the provinces, and even went as far as to help Lea Farhi to give birth while staying illegally with her family. And of course goodness is not restrained by political borders. Thus we have Nadejda Vasileva in Lom, who defied Bulgarian police and extended brought food and water to the Jews from Thrace who were locked in the cattle cars.
The cases of the Bulgarian Righteous touch on dilemmas the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous has been struggling with since the beginning of the program. One such question is when a rescuer saves one member of the family and not another – for example, when they take the blond girl and not the dark haired and circumcised boy. This issue becomes most painful in the Bulgarian case and touches on conflicting narratives. Peshev and his colleagues acted nobly and courageously to save the Jews of "Old Bulgaria", while at the very same time the Jews in the occupied territories were taken from their homes and transported by Bulgarian officials and police, until the border, when they were handed over to the Germans. In 1973 the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous justly considered Peshev’s courageous conduct as worthy of the high honor, and honored him for the Jews he had saved. Nevertheless the most recent controversy over the naming of a Plaza in Washington DC in memory of Peshev reveals the danger of restricting the perspective only to one side of the story and shows the need to represent the full context.
Another dilemma the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous sometimes faces is that human conduct is rarely all black or all white, and that there are cases when the need arises to evaluate the shades of grey and to weigh them against the nobility of the rescue act. One of the blatant examples is Oskar Schindler, who was finally recognized as Righteous even though he had been a member of the Nazi party who had been drawn to Poland by the opportunity of enriching himself. A similar, though different, issue exists in the conduct of Peshev, who voted for and accepted the Law for the Protection of the Nations as necessary, as he himself later described. His recognition expresses the notion that his subsequent acts outweighed his earlier conduct, and therefore Peshev rightly serves as a model of a person who was a part of a system, but who at a certain point felt that a red line had been crossed, and who, realizing the significance of what was about to happen, refused to acquiesce, and accepted full personal responsibility for the actions of the institution he was part of.
Like in Bulgaria, the number of rescuers in Macedonia (10 as of 1.1.2013) is also very small. This too is due to the historical circumstances. It is a tragic parallel that while the rescue of Bulgarian Jews occurred within a short period of time, the Jewish communities of Macedonia and Thrace – under the very same rule - were almost totally destroyed within less than a month. The deportations were implemented swiftly, with no advance warning. Arrested in the middle of the night, and taken to the Monopl Tobacco factory, the Jews of Skopje were isolated until they were put on the trains. This extremely limited the opportunity to escape and find a hiding place. In addition, unable to understand the implications of the sudden decree, the extended Jewish families tended to stay together. Exceptions were few, such as in the case of the Frances family from Skopje who were hidden by two couples: Todor and Pandora Hadzi and Trajko & Dragica Ribarev. Tragically, although they had been under Bulgarian rule and subject to severe persecution for two years, the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace were totally unprepared and could not grasp the true significance of the deportation. The most blatant example – and I thank my colleague Angel Chorapchiev for bringing it this account to my attention - is described by Sampetai Tsimino from Kavala who was taken to Bulgaria for forced labor. Working in the construction of a railroad, this group of Jews saw their families in the cattle cars of the passing transports. Being totally ignorant of the fate that awaited the deportees, the forced laborers complained to the authorities that they had been left behind and asked to be taken to wherever their families were headed. The total lack of knowledge about the deportation is also well described in the rescue of 4-year-old Betty Behar, who was at the home of Aleksander and Blaga Todorov, close friends of her parents, when the roundup of the Jews of Skopje began. Believing they would not be gone for long, the parents left Betty and her belongings with the Todorovs, who hid the child until the end of the war.
Like in Bulgaria, there was also an act of protest in Macedonia against the deportations, but unlike Bulgaria, the protest of Smiljan Cekada, the Catholic Bishop of the city, did not change the events and went unheeded.
Marking 50 years of honoring the Righteous, Yad Vashem created an exhibition that opened on 26 June 2013 in the Exhibition Pavilion of our museum complex. The exhibition uses film and multimedia, and rather than display as many stories as possible, we decided to construct the exhibition around five themes, each representing a human situation or dilemma. One of the five themes deals with officials, diplomats, soldiers or policemen who, when faced with the fateful consequences of fulfilling their jobs, decided that extraordinary circumstances and orders required extraordinary responses, and took the courageous decision to openly and publicly defy the system. Trying to choose from the many stories – each with its particular moving or significant aspect – was a most difficult task, and after long deliberations it was decided to take Dimitar Peshev as the leading story for this theme. The short film that is displayed in the exhibition tells the story of the man who first supported the anti-Jewish legislation, but who in 1943 acted in frenzy to stop the deportation. These acts of rescue are set against the background of the deportation of the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace, and tell a story of sublime and inspiring rescue and hideous and dreadful destruction.