This year, the West Orange-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous decided to sweeten Christmas for 110 Holocaust rescuers it supports in Poland.
“Many have been locked down in quarantine,” JFR’s executive vice president, Stanlee Stahl of West Orange, said. “They’re afraid and scared and they could use the extra money right now, even though it’s been a difficult year for the foundation. They saved Jewish lives when most of the world turned away.”
The $2,550 is more than the usual end-of-year supplement to the JFR’s grants of $200 per month, delivered three times a year.
The organization was founded in 1995 by prominent Los Angeles Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who died in 2014. Two years ago, it moved its two-person office from Manhattan to West Orange.
“Rabbi Schulweis met a German who had saved Jews, and he realized the Jewish people have a double memory: a memory of indescribable evil, but also a memory of blessed righteousness,” Ms. Stahl said. “He thought we needed to remember both. We need to have an understanding of the Shoah, the annihilation of European Jewry. But we also need to take the time to respond to the needs of those precious few non-Jews who risked their lives — and often the lives of their families — to save European Jewish lives during the Shoah.”
Harvey Schulweis, a cousin of Rabbi Schulweis and a prominent real estate investor, is the organization’s chairman; Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, is its president.
Twenty years ago, the foundation supported 1,850 rescuers in 34 countries. Today it supports 199 in 17 countries, including four in the United States. “Like our beloved survivors are dying, so are the rescuers,” Ms. Stahl said. The organization provides small grants to help with funeral expenses.
In most cases, the rescuers are certified by Yad Vashem as the “Righteous of the Nations of the World”; there are seven exceptions, whose stories were attested but whose paperwork was in essence held up.
Most of the rescuers are Christian. Two, who live in Albania, are Muslim.
Poland is the center of the rescuer community. “Yad Vashem has recognized over 7,000 from Poland,” Ms. Stahl said. Every year — well, not this year — the foundation hosts a recognition dinner in Warsaw at the Jewish museum there. “It’s very special. They get to take taxis back and forth and have their pictures taken. Usually the American ambassador is there. For the rescuers, sometimes it’s the only time they get to go out. Poland is not an eating out society.”
Even now, 75 years after the war, new rescuers are being added to the foundation’s roster. “Two in Belarus, two in Poland, a Polish rescuer who lives in Germany,” Ms. Stahl said. “Two of them were just recognized by Yad Vashem.” Others had previously been recognized but only now are in need of the funds. “One was a Polish political prisoner who was in Auschwitz. She was recognized years ago. She’s 99. She needs the money now.
“We have a Danish rescuer in Jackson, Wyoming. She was a member of the resistance. She will be 106 in January. She just got started to get funding this year.” A year ago, JFR started aiding a 97-year-old woman in New Jersey.
“We don’t send money to people who don’t need it,” she said. “We honored Ambassador Władysław Bartoszewski — but he didn’t need our money.” (Mr. Bartoszewski aided Jews as part of the Polish underground. After persecution by the Communist regime and exile, he served two brief terms as the country’s foreign minister and five years as its ambassador to Austria.)
“You talk to the rescuers and they’ll say they don’t think they’re heroes,” Ms. Stahl continued. “They say it’s what any Pole or German or Dane would have done. We know that’s not the case. Not many chose to be rescuers.”
The foundation’s other focus is on Holocaust education. In non-pandemic years, it runs three annual teacher training programs. There’s a week-long seminar at Columbia University in the summer, for about 28 people, followed by a two-week European trip to Germany and Poland for a dozen or so people. On Martin Luther King Day weekend, an advanced seminar at a Newark Airport hotel draws around 23 people. Last year’s summer programs were cancelled; next month the advanced seminar will be held online.
Ms. Stahl said the scope of the organization’s educational work is set by the teacher guidelines drawn up by the Holocaust museum in Washington.
“We work with middle and high school teachers, grades six through 12,” she said. “They teach social studies and language arts; we made the decision not to work with math teachers. There have been some very problematic math lessons in the past, with train word problems and calculating Auschwitz diets.”
For the heavily subsidized Columbia program, the foundation recruits from regional Holocaust centers. Most of the teachers are not Jewish, and many have no Jewish students in their schools. At least five years of teaching experience is a requirement, as is not being too near to retirement. The goal is to give them the historical background they need to properly teach the Holocaust, and to be able to transmit it for many years before they leave the profession. “We have outstanding English teachers, but they don’t know the historiography,” Ms. Stahl said. “Why did the Frank family go into hiding? Because Margot got a deportation notice. The Dutch Jews were going to get rid of their foreign Jews. The Franks left Germany in 1933. Most people don’t know that.”
In their week at Columbia, the teachers learn from a dozen world-class scholars. Over the years, the foundation has accumulated a network of 650 alumni.
Ms. Stahl had her own encounters with anti-Semitism back in the 1960s, when she went to Miami University in Ohio.
“There were not many Jews on campus,” she said. “I had to ask for a substitute for ham loaf on Friday. I learned things. Do you know what a ‘Jew canoe’ is? A Cadillac. Do you know what a ‘Jew bath’ is? A Jew bath is a sponge bath because Jews were stingy with water. I was first generation college. Their parents were doctors and lawyers. That was in the 60s, and it still exists.
“It is what it is,” she said.