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For and against the 'righteous Gentiles.' (non-Jewish defenders of Jewish lives during the Holocaust)

"Righteous Gentiles" is the common translation of the Hebrew "Hasidei Umoth Ha'olam" [literally, "Righteous among the Nations of the World"] - an honorific title now known mainly through its conferral by Yad Vashem on non-Jews who acted during the Holocaust to save Jewish life at the risk of their own. This use of the traditional phrase, however, is a misrepresentation of the conduct it is meant to honor as well as of other moral issues related to the Holocaust; furthermore, the weight of its distinctions between Jews and non-Jews and between "righteous" and other gentiles is invidious and offensive. As the language of the Holocaust itself was expressively significant in the unfolding of that event, so the language of post-Holocaust reflection ought to be considered - and questioned - in its effects on the shape of this history.

The fault in the "Righteous Gentiles" is not, to be sure, in the rescuers or their actions, or in the decision to honor them. Rather it is in the concept of "Righteous" Gentiles - the standard by which they are judged and which, by implication, the larger number of other, "non-righteous" gentiles failed to meet. This criterion, I should argue, produces a two-fold distortion - at once of diminishing and exaggerating. It diminishes the acts of the gentile rescuers of Jews - since the responses in which they risked their lives were clearly more than only "righteous"; at the same time it exaggerates what the other, "non-righteous" gentiles were morally obligated to do, as it implies that they too ought to have risked their lives as the rescuers did. The effect of this twofold distortion, furthermore, is to obscure the common and actual responsibility of the non-Jews touched by the Holocaust which was more fundamental and in the end more consequential than the responsibility attributed to them on the invidious comparison between them as a group and the much smaller group of heroic rescuers.

Again: the "Righteous Gentiles" cited by Yad Vashem are individuals or groups who in the Nazi-occupied countries of Europe risked their lives in order to save Jews - and who, after passing an examination of the evidence by a Committee at Yad Vashem, are then formally recognized. (As of the end of 1995, 13,618 names had been so designated.) And the issue that emerges here is not with the probative process but with its conclusion - that is, in the status and implications of the term "righteous" itself.

To judge someone as righteous ordinarily implies that that person has acted as he or she ought to have, presumably meeting their obligations more fully than is usual (otherwise there would be no reason for mentioning it at all), but not necessarily doing more than is required of them or anyone else. To act righteously, after all, is just to do what one ought to. This connection between righteousness and the fulfillment of obligations, furthermore, is part of the connotation of the corresponding Hebrew phrase in its traditional usage. The phrase's earliest (and slightly different) appearance [Tosefta Sanhedrin, xiii, 2] refers to "Tsadikei Umot Ha'olam" rather than to "Hasidei . . ." - "Tsadikei" being more narrowly "righteous" than "Hasidei," with its nuance of "pietist" or "loyalist." Subsequently (in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah), "Hasidei Umot Ha'olam" designates any non-Jew who observes the seven Noachide laws; it has otherwise been applied more generally to non-Jews "who stood by Jews in an hour of adversity."(1)

A common feature of these diverse contexts is the absence from them all of any stipulation that the "Righteous among the Nations of the World" must go beyond the expectations of normal - rightful - moral conduct. The title thus applies to non-Jews who reacted as they should have in the circumstances indicated, making allowance for the fact that they were limited (the condescension here is undeniable) by their identity as non-Jews; that is, by their place among the "Umoth Ha'olam." Accordingly, when "righteous" comes to be applied in the aftermath of the Holocaust only to gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews, this implies that they also did in those circumstances what they should have done: no less, but also no more. Even though their recognition as "righteous" points by contrast to the response of others among the "nations" who did less than they did, this does not mean that the "Righteous" Gentiles did more than they ought to have. To do what one should do, after all, is only right. This implication then joins the fact that the number of "Righteous Gentiles" is relatively small (and unlikely to grow much larger), indicating the further conclusion that the other, "Non-righteous" Gentiles (for the Holocaust, the 300,000,000 other non-Jewish inhabitants of Nazi-Occupied Europe) were remiss in not doing what they should have done. In sum, then, the "Righteous Gentiles" did only what they ought to have - and what the much larger majority of their fellow-Gentiles were guilty of not doing.

The principal issue involved in judging the "Righteous" Gentiles thus occurs in the related questions, on the one hand, of what the gentiles (viewed as a single group) did or did not do and, on the other hand, of what they should have done. But this is not the only issue raised by the application of that moral criterion. In addition to its invidious distinction between the Righteous and the Non-righteous Gentiles, it implies a similarly invidious distinction between the gentiles (as a group) and the Jews. Why, after all, single out for recognition the quality of righteousness among gentiles - unless that characteristic could simply be taken for granted among the non-gentiles, that is, among the Jews? To be sure, the commemorative institutions of the Holocaust sometimes link the memory of that event's destructiveness with a celebration of heroism (the official Israeli "Holocaust Day" - intended to coincide, as closely as it could, with the beginning of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto - is formally the "Day of the Holocaust and of Heroism"). But relatively little has been said or written about that heroic aspect in connection with the ritualization of "Holocaust Day." Certainly there has been no official effort, in that context or any other, to gather the names of Jews who conducted themselves heroically, as has been done in respect to the non-Jewish rescuers.

One reason for the latter absence has nothing to do with the question of whether some Jews conducted themselves more "righteously" than others during the Holocaust. It remains a harsh truth that among the millions of Jewish victims, all of them, including those who might be said to have acted badly, paid in the end with their lives, and only because they were Jews. As honorific titles in general are nullified by death, so too, it seems, invidious moral distinctions, drawn in retrospect among the Jewish victims, are out of place.

The consequences of the invidious implication of the "Righteous" Gentile do not stop here, however. What I have suggested to be the trivializing effect of this tribute to the non-Jewish rescuers also suggests - inversely - a misleading exaggeration in the status of the Jewish victims. For if the Gentiles who risked their lives are "righteous," then the Jews, for whom death was mandated - a certainty - ought by that additional burden to warrant a stronger term of approbation. At least reasoning of this sort seems required to explain the use of words like "holy" or "heroic" or "martyred" in religious or commemorative references to the Jewish victims, in contrast to those terms' more usual application to individuals who in some measure chose their fates. It was, after all, the persecutors who determined in the Holocaust who would or would not count as a Jew, with the Jews so identified including some who had rejected that identity no less than others who affirmed it, and with similar indifference to their characters or to the kind of lives members of either of these groups had lived. As imposed identity differs essentially from an identity freely chosen, we see again the consequences of an invidious distinction - this one in respect to the Jews in the Holocaust - with its roots in the application of "Righteous" only to certain gentiles.

Even considered without reference to these other implications, however, the criterion of "righteousness" remains an inadequate measure - first, of the non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, but then also of the non-Jewish non-rescuers. The conditions applied by Yad Vashem in judging "Righteous Gentiles" include no requirement that they have observed the seven Noachide commandments (let alone, as Maimonides stipulates, that this observance should have followed from belief in those commandments' divine authority). On the other hand, the rescuers clearly meet the criterion of "standing by Jews in an hour of adversity" - but they go beyond it so markedly that to describe them as satisfying that condition becomes an understatement which borders on misrepresentation.

The demanding standards applied by Yad Vashem's examining committee to nominations for the title of "Righteous Gentile" are explicit. The designation is reserved for gentiles (1) who aided Jews in danger of being killed or sent to concentration camps, and (2) who were aware that they were risking their lives in providing that aid; and (3) who acted without requiring or expecting material reward, and (4) whose aid was active, not passive (as when "rescuers" only refrained from turning someone over to the Nazis).

The second of these requirements clearly exceeds any criterion historically associated with the concept of the "Righteous Gentile." Of course, great value is attached in the Jewish tradition to the saving of human life; thus, the frequently cited Talmudic line that "He who saves a single life, it is as if he saves the world." But nothing said in affirmation of this value or of the conditions traditionally set for the Righteous Gentiles obligates anyone (Jew or non-Jew) to risk their or their family's own lives in behalf of other people, not even in the extreme situation where those other people's lives are at risk. Indeed one has to look far in any legal or moral code, irrespective of culture and time, to find legislation or practice that makes it mandatory - not praiseworthy, but mandatory - for a person to put his or his family's lives at risk for others, even when the failure to do this makes it more likely that other people may lose theirs. Perhaps such a legal or moral standard should exist - but it doesn't. The few states in the U.S. which have "Good Samaritan" laws that require giving aid to others in circumstances where the latters' lives are in danger specifically exclude those situations where the rescuer might himself be endangered by doing so. And certainly the requirement in Jewish law that a person ought himself to suffer death rather than commit murder is not a positive commandment for self-sacrifice in the cause of saving other people's lives. When it is the case that someone else's life will be at risk (through no doing of your own) unless you risk your own to save him, Jewish law (although with some dissenting opinion) has generally followed Rabbi Akiba's dictum: "Thy [own] life comes first."

These considerations do not mean that the people confirmed by Yad Vashem's scrutiny are not "Righteous Gentiles" in that phrase's traditional meaning; surely they are. But the designation by itself does not do them full justice because their actions show them to be more than righteous. What they did went well "above and beyond the call of duty," certainly beyond what is in any usual sense obligatory for the situation in which they found themselves. Their deeds, in other words, were supererogatory, meritorious but (because) not required - precisely what distinguishes heroism from ordinary acts and obligations. No one has a duty to be heroic; to claim that is a self-contradiction. And the rescuers now called "Righteous" were by common standards not righteous but heroic.

There can be no doubt that the "Righteous" Gentiles - anyone - who voluntarily took the risks that they did should be honored. But again, the measure of honor due them is not because they did what was incumbent on them, but precisely because it was not. Their acts, they came to know afterward and might have predicted beforehand, placed them in a precarious minority, inviting threats to themselves and their families which neither social nor religious standards required them to incur. Anyone who doubts the extraordinary status of this conduct would do well to consider - quite apart from what our formal legal and moral principles say about such situations - who among the members of their own community they could rely on to act as the supposedly only "Righteous" non-Jewish citizens of Nazi-occupied countries did under the circumstances they faced. More immediately, we might each ask ourselves what, and how much, and for whom we would be willing to risk what those rescuers risked.

It is true that in the Nazi-occupied countries of Western Europe, non-Jewish rescuers of Jews did not, if caught, face the automatic death penalty imposed in Poland. Those who helped shelter the family of Anne Frank in Amsterdam, for example, were "only" sent to concentration camps. But of course the threat of death was present there, and some Western rescuers died in consequence of their selflessness. In choosing to act as they did, they could not have been unaware of this possibility.

Typically, the autobiographical accounts by "Righteous Gentiles" are low-keyed and self-effacing, describing the help they voluntarily offered as "only right," or as based on the teaching of moral or religious (specifically, Christian) principles.(2) There is no reason to doubt the explanations stated in these modest self-descriptions as their authors understood and acted on them; but neither are the authors' own accounts of their motives decisive for judging what they did. Some authentic heroes might, quite differently, claim or boast about their heroism; but just as such statements would not substantiate and would certainly not add to the quality of the actions they refer to, neither should a disclaimer of heroism diminish or nullify that achievement. Even the views sometimes expressed by the rescuers that what they did was a "natural" human response or that it fulfilled a universal moral obligation do not prove either of those claims. Again: the occurrence of self-sacrifice as an extreme instance of altruism is socially recognized - generally regarded as noteworthy and deserving of honor. But it is in general (or, I have claimed, ever) not formulated as a moral imperative or norm. And although ethical ideals are not determined only on the basis of past practices or beliefs, where no instances of a particular requirement appear in the long history of ethics, this would, it seems, count as evidence against its status as a norm.

Applying historical judgment retrospectively to conditions in which life and death weighed in the balance is always fraught, turning easily to cant - and moral hindsight is even more subject to this danger than other judgments made after the fact. To contrast the small number of "Righteous Gentiles" with the hundreds of millions of others then viewed as having failed morally is an instance of this cant, not because of the difference in numbers but because of the supposed basis of the distinction. For the contrast thus drawn at once understates the magnitude of what the "More-Than-Righteous" Gentiles did - and exaggerates what was obligatory for those who were not. And an even more serious moral consequence follows from a third implication - the reduction of heroic acts to only righteous ones diverts attention from a larger group of "un-righteous" acts which had far more significant consequences in the history of the Holocaust. I refer here to the decisions and acts by non-Jews which were also voluntary, not obligatory, but which contributed (and would have been known beforehand to do this) to the weight intended to crush the Jewish people - and which, if they had not been done, would have incurred no risk for those who avoided them.

Not to volunteer for the voluntary organizations of the Nazi apparatus: the S.S., the Einsatzgruppen, the teams of "mercy-killers," the Nazi Party itself; not to take advantage of the opportunistic "windfalls" which occurred as Jews were deported; not to take over their businesses or apartments or belongings, to assume their professional positions or practices; not, at a farther extreme, to brutalize or to torture - all these varieties of voluntary action could have been avoided without serious risk, almost all of them with little risk whatever. At each of the junctures named, the agents had before them the option of deciding to act by declining to act: that is, to act by inaction. And insofar as the decision for inaction would at these points have required no heroism, would have required only not doing what should not have been done - that was also, we may conclude, what those who had the decision to make ought to have done, what could reasonably have been expected of them. It is at this more mundane and commonplace level that righteousness became and should now remain central to the judgment in relation to the Holocaust - of what could, and should, or could not, or should not, have been done - here in the balances of a scale with murder on one side and, on the other, the temptations of material comfort, or professional advancement, or "saving face," or perhaps only the pleasure of wrongdoing. To honor the heroic and "More-than-Righteous" gentiles in no way diminishes the responsibility of the much larger number of others who were (as they then, and we too now, might be) less than heroic. Quite the contrary. To identify and honor those who are heroic means that the burden of being "righteous" goes back where it belongs, in the day-to-day life of ordinary people who are not and perhaps cannot be heroes, but who are nonetheless responsible for knowing and acting on the principles of common humanity. That is, for being righteous.


1. E. E. Urbach, The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs, translated by Israel Abrahams, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 544; see also Michael Zevi Nehorai, "Righteous Gentiles Have a Share in the World To Come," Tarbiz LXI (1992): 465-487.

2. See, e.g., M. Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of the Jews during the Holocaust (Hoboken: KTAV, 1993).

BEREL LANG is Professor of Philosophy and Humanistic Studies at the State University of New York at Albany. He is the author, among other books, of Heidegger's Silence (1996) and Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide (1990). A version of this essay was presented as a lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in December 1996.
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Author:Lang, Berel
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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