The following has been excerpted from Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust by Mordecai Paldiel (Jewish Publication Society, 2017).
In a 2002 publication about the role of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews, Holocaust historian Nechama Tec, who earlier wrote on Polish rescuers of Jews, lamented, “Why had I overlooked the rescue of Jews by Jews? . . . Historically Jews have been viewed as victims, and not as rescuers, not as heroes. Had I unconsciously assimilated these perceptions?”1 As also pointed out by Marion van Binsbergen Pritchard, a celebrated non-Jewish Dutch rescuer in Holland and a recipient of Yad Vashem’s Righteous title, in a private communication with me in 1997: “Not recognizing the moral courage, the heroism of the Jewish rescuers, who if caught were at much higher risk of the most punitive measures than the gentiles, is a distortion of history. It also contributes to the widespread fallacious impression that the Jews were cowards, who allowed themselves to be led like ‘lambs to the slaughter.’”
While it is true that in many instances Jews failed to take adequate contingency measures to meet the Nazi threat, there are dozens of documented cases of Jews who took great risks to safeguard the lives of fellow Jews, and most of their names still remain unknown to the public at large. I’ve written this book to finally have their stories told, and in so doing counter the general, erroneous impression that only the Righteous Gentiles saved Jews.
There are more stories that one book can contain, so I’ve chosen the most remarkable accounts of Jews going out of their way to establish rescue networks in most of the countries occupied by the Germans. There were also efforts by Jewish activists in countries not under German domination, such as Switzerland, England, and the United States. Many of these Jewish rescuers remained anonymous in the postwar period. Why was this? Some have argued that it was because Jews are morally obligated to help fellow Jews and hence they merit no special acknowledgment. In contrast, gentiles helping Jews were engaged in behavior not expected of them, and so they merit special recognition. I find this argument fallacious: who is to say that the Jews who were themselves in great danger were obligated to risk greater danger in order to create clandestine networks to save others?
A more compelling reason, however, for trivializing the role of Jewish rescuers has to do with the Zionist ethos that led to the creation of the State of Israel. It was part of the Zionist teaching before and during the formative years of Jewish state to minimize, and some would say to dismiss, accounts of Diaspora Jewry assertiveness. It was furthermore argued to justify historical Jewish impassiveness that in order to survive the ongoing explosions of anti-Jewish rage in countries inhabited by Jews, Jewish leaders counseled a passive and submissive response to local authority, so as to minimize physical harm by outside forces. This is best borne out in the records of Jewish behavior during the Holocaust: a mixture of confusion, helplessness, and submissiveness, because European Jews were not conditioned to fight for their rights and their safety. The sole exception to this hapless situation, so goes the argument, were those who took up arms against the Germans in the ghettos and the forests. It was only in the State of Israel that Jewish assertiveness came to full bloom, as the country stood off numerous powerful enemies bent on the destruction of the new nation.2
Ironically, when survivors of the Holocaust arrived in Israel to help build the new nation and wished to tell the stories of their heroism in saving fellow Jews during the Holocaust, they were quickly silenced because their stories were at odds with the negative Diaspora image of passive Jews.3
The Righteous Among the Nations program, to honor non-Jewish rescuers of Jews, launched by Yad Vashem in 1962, is based on the Yad Vashem 1953 law passed by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, which stipulates that the honoring of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust was one of the basic obligations of the newly founded national memorial institution. In my twenty-four years as head of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, I dealt with thousands of such cases, and I take pride that during my stewardship of the Righteous Department (1982–2007) some 18,000 names were added to the original 4,000 names. As I write this, there are more than 25,000 on the list, and several hundred more are added each year, as additional requests are received at Yad Vashem, sent in by survivors who were helped by non-Jewish rescuers. At the same time, in my work of processing these cases, I noted many stories in which non-Jewish rescuers worked in tandem with Jewish rescuers, and in some cases the Jewish rescuers played the dominant role in the rescue operation. In truth, one cannot properly speak of rescue undertakings during the Holocaust, especially in Belgium and France, but also in other countries, without mentioning the role of Jewish rescuers.
The stories of Jewish rescuers in the Diaspora need to be told: persons and organizations who displayed not submissiveness and resignation to a bitter fate but initiative, inventiveness, and courage, in a superhuman attempt to outwit the enemy and rouse fellow Jews to self-asserted rescue acts, and who succeeded in saving literally thousands of Jews. These Jews deserve an honorable place in the Jewish pantheon. Hopefully, this book of Jewish rescuers will help to fill this void and to instill in the Jewish people pride in the role many of their brethren played in saving their own.
1. She illustrated this by citing Oswald Rufeisen and the Bielski brothers, who acted in Byelorussia, a place of unspeakable horrors for Jews during the Holocaust. Tec, “Reflections on Rescuers,” 657–58.
2. In 1951 Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion, who was still opposed to the creation of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, explained that the ethos of fighting was utterly foreign and unnatural for the Jews of Europe. A Jew coming to Eretz Israel undergoes a change of mentality, a kind of metamorphosis, in which he sheds his Diaspora mentality and acquires a new value system. From now on he relies on himself. Stauber, Holocaust, 53–54. Also see Shapira, Old Jews, 155–74.
3. Very little was made of the Zionist youth movements in Hungary that were responsible for saving thousands of lives. As they focused their efforts on rescue, rather than fighting the enemy, they too were lumped together with Diaspora Jews who in the Zionist historical reinterpretation failed, so to speak, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. David Gur, one of the still living former Zionist youth activists in Hungary living in Israel, is currently making great efforts to tell the story of his fellow rescuers and integrate their story in the Holocaust narrative of Israeli educational facilities.