Righteous gentiles

Hans Rollmann
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The Holocaust Mem-orial Service on Sunday, April 11, focused our attention on "righteous gentiles."
The term once re-ferred to those resident strangers among the nations who, although not following the entire Torah, obeyed God's basic laws for all of humankind and thus, according to Jewish tradition, shared in the life to come.
In more recent times righteous gentiles, or the "righteous among the nations," came to mean non-Jews who, under the risk of their own lives, had saved the lives of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust.
Two moving testimonials - one by a child, the other by a relative of survivors who had received help from "righteous gentiles" - touched everyone in the audience.
Dr. Gerhard Bassler, professor emeritus of history at Memorial University, who has received recognition for his work in Holocaust education, offered the keynote address.

What would we have done?

Dr. Bassler began with a soul-searching question: what would we have done if we had lived in Poland during the Second World War and an escaped Jew from the Warsaw Ghetto had knocked on our door and asked for help?
We would not only have faced the threat of our own execution at the hands of the occupying Germans if we had helped, but would also have been promised much coveted food and other rewards if we had alerted the authorities.
To bring this question even more uncomfortably close to home, Dr. Bassler recalled that Newfoundland had a chance in the 1930s to provide sanctuary to refugees from Nazi persecution, but, as he has shown in his meticulously researched book, "Sanctuary Denied," "the government, supported by the medical establishment, the business community, and most of the St. John's public, refused to offer sanctuary to refugees from Nazi persecution even though there would have been no penalties for helping."
Even if at times the choices were difficult and potentially lethal in German-occupied areas during the war, people were moved by the plight of their fellow human beings and helped them. Some have since been officially recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.
Since 1963, 22,770 people from 45 countries have been recognized with the title. In order to qualify, the people they rescued had to be unrelated to them and the help had to have come at a "personal risk to
the rescuer" and with "no expectation of return favours or financial gain."

Heroic individuals

The countries with the most officially recognized righteous gentiles are Poland (6,140) and Holland (5,000), followed by France (3,000).
Dr. Bassler noted especially in Poland the work of Irena Sendlerowa, social worker and member of the Polish underground. She "managed to smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto with forged documents and shelter them in safe homes."
Another example is that of 40 villagers in the small community of Le Chambon sur Lignon in France, who, with the help of their Huguenot pastor, forged IDs, organized education for Jewish children and ultimately led 5,000 Jews to safety in Switzerland, one Jew for each inhabitant of this mountain village.
Although today the publicity of Thomas Keneally's book and Stephen Spielberg's film "Schindler's List" have made a German, Oskar Schindler, perhaps the most famous righteous gentile, the low number of Germans officially recognized as having helped Jews during the Nazi period, 455 in all, is striking.
It ranks, as Dr. Bassler pointed out in his talk, "well below the righteous of the much smaller populations of Ukraine, Belgium, Lithuania, Hungary, Belarus and Slovakia."
Why so few Germans?
Why have so few Germans been recognized as righteous gentiles, especially if, as Bassler points out, "the maximum punishment for a German hiding a Jew was less severe - three months prison or concentration camp, instead of the death penalty?
"No German," Bassler said, "was executed for hiding a Jew."
The reason for such low numbers has to do with the fact that "West Germany cultivated a postwar climate of amnesia and amnesty for war criminals that was not conducive to honour the courage of Germans who had saved the lives of Jewish fellow Germans."
"Their help," Bassler said, "was not recognized as resistance and, unlike numerous other classes of Germans, they were not eligible to receive compensation for war-related loss and deprivation."
Only very recently has the social stigma of having helped a Jew given way to greater recognition based on sober research. The German Holocaust historian Wolfgang Benz calculated that "some 30,000 helpers and passive supporters, that is 1.4 per cent of Berlin's population, would have been required to provide life support (accommodation, food ration cards, false papers, coverup, etc.) for the 1,500 surviving Berlin Jews."
The lesson I learned from the address was that people in Germany and elsewhere had choices. Recent research about righteous gentiles proves, according to Bassler, "that it was risky but possible to help their stigmatized and persecuted 'non-Aryan' fellow citizens.
"The stories of their help," he said, "were ignored so long because postwar Germans did not want to be reminded of their own ignominious role during the Holocaust. These forgotten helpers
and their motives deeply offended and shamed them. The vast majority of Germans liked to cherish the myth that their only choice had been between obedience to Nazi laws and death."

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by e-mail at hrollman@mun.ca

Organizations: Remembrance Authority

Geographic location: Poland, France, Newfoundland St. John's Israel West Germany Le Chambon Lignon Berlin Switzerland Ukraine Belgium Lithuania Hungary Belarus Slovakia

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Recent comments

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    Oh poor mortals , how ye make this earth bitter for each other ~ Thomas Carlyle

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:06

    Oh poor mortals , how ye make this earth bitter for each other ~ Thomas Carlyle