You’ve heard about the “Righteous Gentiles” — those non-Jews who risked their lives, and those of their families, to save Jewish lives under Nazi rule during the Holocaust.
But what about the Jews who saved other Jews?
That’s the question Dr. Mordecai Paldiel asked during his 24-year tenure heading the Righteous Gentile department of Yad Vashem, and that he answered, in part, in his 2017 book, “Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust,” published by the Jewish Publication Society. (See below).
Dr. Paldiel lives in Fort Lee; he teaches Holocaust and Zionist history at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and, in the summers, for Touro College. Dr. Paldiel, 83, was born in Belgium. In 1940, when he was 3, his family of six fled to France, where they were rescued by a Catholic priest who was able to smuggle the entire family into Switzerland.
Finding and honoring the righteous gentiles was written into Yad Vashem’s mandate when it was founded by Knesset legislation in 1953. Dr. Paldiel only learned about it when he saw a job posting in Jerusalem after earning a doctorate in religion and Holocaust studies from Temple University in Philadelphia. Despite his unfamiliarity with the topic, he was hired to lead the Yad Vashem department.
He first encountered the quandary of how to note Jews who rescued other Jews when, in reviewing cases of righteous gentiles, he found Jews who worked in tandem with them to save other Jews.
“I was told that a Jewish person who helped a fellow Jew was no big deal,” he said. “They were simply doing what was expected of them.”
But Dr. Paldiel disagreed — particularly as he discovered Jewish rescuers who weren’t just saving one person, but built up processes to save dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of Jews.
“What was expected of every Jew to do during the Holocaust was to save themselves, not to add more danger on themselves by saving others,” he said. “These people should be lauded.”
So Dr. Paldiel started collecting the stories from the Yad Vashem archives — a project which grew into his book.
“These are the Jewish heroes of the Holocaust,” he said.
The largest of these efforts was in France, where “Jewish organizations saved over 4,000 Jewish children by looking after them, finding them hiding places, and taking them across the border to Switzerland. These were big-time operations,” he said.
Dr. Paldiel said that Yad Vashem’s reluctance to recognize these rescuers stemmed in part from old-fashioned Zionist ideology.
“The philosophy in Israel has always been that Jews need to live in their own country,” he said. That ideology critiqued Jews living among others by saying that “they don’t know how to defend themselves. They’re passive. They try to bribe their way. Throughout history Jews would use these tactics,” the critique went, “so we need a state of Israel because only in Israel do Jews know how to defend themselves.
“That was the mainstream of Israeli education until recently — to downplay anything that happened in the diaspora and say they don’t have the spirit of fighting. So in Israel they laud people like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, because they fought back, or the partisans who were fighting Germans in the woods.
“In my book, I talk about Jewish people who did not take a gun and shoot at the Germans. They knew that while they might be able to kill a few Germans, they were not going to win the war against the German army with a few guns. But if there was a train going by with thousands of Jews going to the gas chambers, maybe the best thing was to stop the train and save some of the people. The issue was to save lives, not to defeat the German army. That they could leave to the British and Russian and American armies.
“A lot of Jewish people during the Holocaust didn’t simply sit back and do nothing, or pick up their suitcase and flee and leave everybody behind. Many said, ‘I’m going to stay here and see how I can save some of my fellow Jews.’”
Dr. Paldiel tells about 30 of these heroes in his book. “These stories took place all across Europe, all the countries that were dominated by the Germans,” he said. In his online talk, he hopes to explore four or five. Speaking with the Jewish Standard, he sketched out a couple.
“Walter Suskind saved over a thousand Jews in Amsterdam,” Dr. Paldiel said.
Mr. Suskind was able to rescue children from the very place where the Nazis were assembling the Jews for deportation from Amsterdam “ right under the nose of the Germans.” He found places to hide the children, arranged for them to be taken from the deportation center, and destroyed their entries in the Nazi files recording the deportees.
And then there was Rabbi Zerach Warhaftig, who became an Israeli Knesset and cabinet minister after the Holocaust. During the war, “he was in charge of trying to get Jews out of Lithuania,” Dr. Paldiel said. “He found out there is a place in South America called Curacao, an island where you didn’t need a visa.” He persuaded Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Kovno, Lithuania, “who had never dealt with Jewish issues, to disobey his government and issue thousands of transit visas” which saved thousands of lives. Late in Mr. Sugihara’s life, the diplomat’s heroism came to light. In 1985, the year before he died, Yad Vashem honored him as a Righteous Gentile. He has been the subject of books, and even an asteroid has been named after him. For Dr. Paldiel, however, it is important that Rabbi Warhaftig’s role in the story be remembered too.
In Israel, the Jerusalem chapter of B’nai B’rith has begun honoring some of these Jewish rescuers.
“Several times a year they have a ceremony where they honor them,” generally “posthumously, through their relatives.
“Yad Vashem still refused to. A group of people in Israel, including me, tried to have the Knesset pass an additional law adding a sentence that Yad Vashem should honor these people, but Yad Vashem fought against it, successfully.
“What Yad Vashem has done is to say ‘We will talk more about this, we will have conferences, maybe symposiums. But we’re not going to have any program to honor these people, to create a certificate.’”
So what did Dr. Paldiel find to be the common denominator of these Jewish rescuers?
“They all say, kol yisrael areivim zel lazeh, all Jews are responsible for one another,” he said. “They all felt they could do something. They felt they had an obligation to do something and they could make a difference. They started by small steps and expanded, and they found out they could do more.”
Dr. Paldiel said that where the Jewish rescuers made a conscious decision that they wanted to save Jews, as many as possible, “among the non-Jewish rescuers it didn’t happen like this in most cases. In most cases, it was a Jew who approached a non-Jew with a request: ‘Can you help me?’
“Most Jews approached non-Jews they had known from before already. They had some business relationship before the Germans came in, they went to school together, they were neighbors. In some cases an acquaintanceship developed from a friendship, and then a Jew who was fleeing from the Germans would say, ‘Joe, do you remember me? Can I stay here one night?’
“In situations like this, it’s very hard for people to say no if the request is not too demanding. If I know this man is totally innocent, he has a right to live, maybe I’ll tell him, all right, sleep over one night. Usually the answer is one night, but not longer. The overnight can turn into two nights, or three nights. In some cases the person sheltering the Jew says you can stay in the attic or the basement or the barn. It started with small steps and it expanded.
“The common denominator among these rescuers is confrontation, proximity, eye-to-eye contact. If I stand in front of you in your doorstep, it’s more difficult for you to say no, especially if it’s 11 at night and you can say go somewhere else,” he said. “These people were not cut out to be saints. They became saints as a result of what they did.”
Dr. Paldiel said it is important to remember the rescuers, both because of the Jewish value of hakarat hatov — gratitude — but also “the fact that there were people like that who put their own lives on the line is an indication that human nature is not hopeless. It’s not simply that people are bad and only care about themselves.
“We shouldn’t give the last word to Hitler. Hitler said in his writings that man is basically an animal and the only law that applies is the law of the jungle, that the strongest rule and the weakest submit. Why should we give the last word about what human nature is? There’s a lot of goodness buried in human nature.
“We talk a lot about the Nazis and Hitler and so on, but the more we talk about them we are doing a lot of damage to ourselves. When you talk a lot about evil people, some of it rubs off on you.
“When you have stories of people who acted contrary to that and said ‘I’m going to save lives, even at risk to myself,’ you should talk about these people too. The good deeds should rub off on you too.”
Who: Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, author of “Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust”
What: Online series, “Antisemitism and the Holocaust: New Dimensions,” sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society
When: Monday, January 11, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
How to join: Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.