It’s not only righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, Mordecai Paldiel tells us. Jews saved Jews too.
It’s not as if righteous gentiles didn’t save Jews, as Dr. Paldiel is quick to say. Although he now lives in Fort Lee, Dr. Paldiel spent 24 years as the head of the department of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel. He knows the stories of rescuers and the rescued as few other people do. He wants to add the stories of Jewish rescuers to their place among those narratives of extraordinary goodness and courage.
He will tell some of those stories at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Yom Hashoah commemoration. (See box for more information.)
Dr. Paldiel’s view of Nazi Europe, of righteous gentiles, and of human mercy came firsthand. He was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1937. When the Germans invaded Belgium, his parents took their children to France; in September 1943, when all of France fell to Nazi control, the family escaped to Switzerland. “We were helped by a French Catholic priest, who arranged our flight across the border, so that we would not be stopped by either the French of the Germans,” he said. The Swiss border police stopped them in Switzerland, but because Swiss policy allowed adults to enter and stay if they were accompanying small children, the Paldiels were not chased back out again. “I met the priest again,” Dr. Paldiel said. “He was a village priest in Evian les Bains; his name was Father Simon Gallay, and we honored him as Righteous Among the Nations.”
Switzerland remained neutral during the war that was waged all around it, but it was not oblivious to it. It allowed refugees in to find shelter, but did not treat them with any particular warmth. Still, compared to the countries that surrounded it, Switzerland was a haven.
“They separated parents from children; I was in a children’s home operated by the Jewish federation,” Dr. Paldiel said. “And they separated men from women and kept them in different detention camps, and they had to perform some labor.
“But they were not physically harmed,” he added. “And after about a year, the Swiss government allowed us to be together as a family, and to move to Geneva together.” Once the war ended, “they told us that we were classified as illegal refugees — we had gotten into the country illegally — they told us that we had to get out.”
They went back to Belgium, “but as the Cold War started, we had a fear of ‘here we go again.’ So in 1950, we moved to the United States, to Bedford Stuyvesant, and I went to a Lubavitch yeshiva on Bedford Avenue,” he said.
After high school, Dr. Paldiel was drafted into the U.S. Army; the conflict in Korea had ended but the one in Vietnam had not started yet. He was sent to Europe and discharged in 1962, and then he went to Israel and was drafted into that army, where he fought in the Six-Day War in 1967. He also married, studied at Hebrew University, had three children, came back to the United States to earn a doctorate in history and theology, specializing in the Holocaust, and then went back to Israel to work at Yad Vashem. His extensive work there — his output included eight books, as well as many journal articles, interviews, and television appearances — meant that “I became known as Mr. Righteous Gentile,” he said.
After he retired, Dr. Paldiel and his wife moved to the United States to be closer to their children and grandchildren; he also teaches about the Holocaust and about Zionism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College during the school year and at Touro University during the summer.
It was while he worked at Yad Vashem that Dr. Paldiel started noticing “incidences of Jews who work in tandem with non-Jews at creating clandestine networks to save Jews,” he said. “Sometimes it was the Jews who did most of it, and they were helped by non-Jews. And I wondered how come nothing is being done to acknowledge the stories of Jewish rescuers of Jews, so I decided that I would write about it.”
His book, “Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust,” tells some of the stories he unearthed. “This is the first book of its kind, because all of the other books dealing with the Holocaust are either about the Holocaust itself, or about the righteous gentiles who helped Jews, or they are personal memoirs,” he said.
Why is that? “There has been a debate in Israel about it,” he said. “One opinion is that Jews who helped Jews simply were doing what was required of them, so there was nothing to brag about.
“That’s silly,” he said. “When we talk about a person who created a network to help Jews, who added risks on top of the risks he already was facing… And maybe you also could say that he was obligated to save his own neck.” Saving other people put that neck further in danger.
“The argument is that a Jew who helps a Jew is no big deal,” Dr. Paldiel said. “A Christian helping a Jew — that is unexpected. We have to mention it.”
In other words, it’s a basic man-bites-dog argument, the unlikeliness of a Christian helping a Jew, versus the dog-bites-man of a Jew helping a Jew. Both of those assumptions are facile and untrue. It was extraordinarily risky and extraordinarily decent for anyone to help anyone — and still, astonishingly, many people did.
“When I came to Yad Vashem, we had about 4,000 names on the list of Righteous Among the Nations,” Dr. Paldiel said. “During my tenure we added about 18,000 names, based on evidence and testimony.
“I am very proud of that — but why should we overlook the deeds of the Jews? It doesn’t detract from the deeds of the gentiles. It is an additional thing, something to complement it.
“After all, I am Jewish, and I am proud of being Jewish. I think that if there are Jewish people who did extraordinary things, saved fellow Jews, then this serves as role models for Jewish youth.
“We should be proud of this. We should not say that it was just expected, so never mind.”
There was a second reason why Jewish heroism was ignored, Dr. Paldiel said. “Israel was created in wartime conditions. It had to fight, and even after it was created it was at war with Arab states. So the mentality in Israel was that there were two types of Jews. There is the Jew who lives outside of Israel — a passive, submissive person, who doesn’t know how to protect himself, who tries to negotiate his way out whenever he finds himself in trouble.
“The Zionist in Israel is a different type. When he is in danger, he takes a gun, he fights, and he wins.
“So the attitude in Israel was to dismiss Jews outside of Israel as not being the heroic, Maccabean type. In that Holocaust narrative, most Jews allowed themselves to be killed, and if they weren’t killed it was because there was some righteous gentiles who helped them.
“So whenever you tell stories of Jews who did not allow themselves to be killed, but created clandestine organizations to fight back, that goes against the narrative that Jews in the diaspora don’t know how to protect themselves.
“The Zionist narrative says that Jews need a country for themselves because they don’t know how to protect themselves outside of it, to stand up and fight for themselves, and that’s why you should be a Zionist and live in the state of Israel.
“I’m not debating all of this viewpoint,” said Dr. Paldiel, the Israeli Zionist. “But it is not true that Jews living in the diaspora never learned to protect themselves. It is true that they learned to negotiate, but when the odds against them were so great, what are you going to do? Are you going to fight against the majority, when you know that you will be wiped out?
“That is not fair. The Jews in Israel who think that are in the majority.” And what’s wrong with negotiating anyway?
And, Dr. Paldiel added, now that time has passed, now that the effects on the Israeli psyche of the Eichmann trial, the Yom Kippur War, and the Six Day War have receded into history, “The idea that there is nothing good to say about diaspora Jews is dying out.”
Dr. Paldiel is telling those stories. Many are in his book; he’ll recount some of them at the JCC of Paramus. “Jews should know these stories,” he said. “Everyone should know them.”
Who: Dr. Mordecai Paldiel
What: Will tell some of the stories of Jews who saved other Jews he has gathered in “Saving One’s Own.”
When: On Sunday, April 23, at 4 p.m.
Where: At the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah, 304 E. Midland Ave.
Why: For the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Yom Hashoah commemoration.