The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust.
Martin Gilbert is a famous English historian who has written more than fifty books. He has collected material on the Holocaust for more than thirty years. This book is an account of non-Jews during the Second World War, who, at great personal risk, usually the threat of death, attempted to save the life of Jews who would otherwise have been put to death. For the first half-century after the end of the war, the subject of the evil and brutality of the Nazis has been given the most attention in writings on the Holocaust. Now, initiated by Jews, greater attention is being paid to those non-Jews who risked their own lives to save the lives of Jews.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and archive in Israel, has been mandated by the Israeli government to officially recognize such persons as Righteous Ones, and to honour them. Gilbert has gotten much of his material from this museum. By January 1, 2000, over 19,000 of these heroes had been recognized. This book gives the numbers of them found in thirty-five countries in Europe or countries just east of Poland. The countries with the largest numbers of Righteous Ones to date are Poland (5,632), Holland (4,464), France (2171), Ukraine (1,755), and Belgium (1,322). Two of the best-known persons who qualified are Raoul Wallenberg, who saved 1500 Jews in Hungary, and Oskar Schindler, who saved 1500 German Jews. Eight hundred additional Righteous Ones are named each year.
Who were the Righteous Ones? They were often priests or nuns; or nurses, nannies, colleagues, neighbours, teachers, fellow students, or employees, of the Jews they helped. But they were often also people who had never previously known the Jews they saved. Sometimes it took ten or more people to rescue one Jew. Why did all these people help? The answer they give is nearly always that it was the only decent thing to do. One man said: "We were fully aware of the risks and the clash of responsibilities, but we decided that it would be better for our children to have dead parents than cowards as parents." Most people indeed did not help, often no doubt because the penalty for doing so was usually death. And many people were either indifferent or sometimes in favour of what the Nazis were doing. When the war ended, several of the Righteous Ones were killed by their fellow citizens.
The sacrifices that the Righteous Ones made were heroic. They often had to find a hiding place for the Jews, perhaps a small space under the roof of the house or the stable. Or they had to dig a pit and cover it over. Usually the Jews being hidden had to be seen by no-one, and perhaps for years. They had to stay indoors all day and, if they were in the house at night, a look-out had to be on the watch. They were afraid not only of being discovered but also of what might happen if another Jew who knew about them was captured, and of what might happen to the Righteous Ones looking after them if they were found. Sometimes one of them would develop claustrophobia and thus need special help. Very often, neighbours reported the Righteous One to the police. Moreover, food was universally scarce. Many people would have tea in the morning and a few boiled potatoes and onions for supper. So it was a great sacrifice for the rescuers when they had to provide food for their guests.
This book is full of the stories of the Righteous Ones. As much as possible their own words are quoted. Let us take an example from Lithuania, where only 6,000 of the 135,000 Jews survived the German occupation. Ona Simaite was the librarian at Vilna University. The Jews were forced to live in a ghetto, and came out of it only to be deported for execution or to be forced to work in the factories. Ona told the authorities that she was trying to recover books that had been loaned to people in the ghetto, and she brought medicine and food to the Jews with this ruse every day. She smuggled out a girl and hid her, though she was later discovered by accident. When she adopted a ten-year-old Jewish girl she claimed that she was a relative. But, when the truth came out, she was taken and cruelly tortured. However, she gave out no information about the hiding-places she had first-hand knowledge of. She was sent to Dachau concentration camp and survived the war, but was much weakened by her incarceration.
What is the value of this book? It is that we have no trouble thinking of all the evil in the world, even inhuman evil, but this history gives us an opportunity to think of the good, of the incredible good, that can be found in these accounts of superhuman charity. One Jew who was saved from death has said this about those who were saved and were still alive: "For each of us is living proof that even in hell, even in that hell called the Holocaust, there was goodness, there was kindness, and there was love and compassion." There is a Jewish tradition that, "whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world."
The book has seventeen helpful maps and many pictures of Righteous Ones. It is not possible to read some of these accounts with dry eyes, because they are accounts of real people of recent times, people just like ourselves. And we must keep asking ourselves, what would I have done?
REVIEWED BY FR. LEONARD KENNEDY, C.S.B
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2006|
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