Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day) in Israel is not something that can be ignored. All the newspapers and broadcast outlets are dedicated to it. In thousands of ceremonies across the country, schools, academic institutions and government offices solemnly mark the murder of one third of the Jewish people during World War II. Traffic comes to a standstill and everyone—or nearly everyone—stops in their tracks while a piercing siren is heard across the land. I very much doubt that there is another nation in the world that shows greater respect for its national tragedy than Israel does towards the victims of the Holocaust.
Although the main thrust of the commemorations remain on the crimes of the Nazis and the devastation they wrought to a world of Jewish communities, rites, learning, traditions and individual victims, the B'nai B'rith World Center has been at the forefront of an effort to use these tragic events to fittingly turn the spotlight on Jews who went beyond the call of duty, endangering themselves and their families to rescue other Jews. Little known to most people today, thousands of Jews were engaged in such rescue activities in Germany, in the Axis states and in German-occupied territories. Together with a dedicated group of volunteers, members of the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust (JRJ) and the B'nai B'rith World Center have held annual large scale events on Yom Hashoah in partnership with the Jewish National Fund. JRJ was established over 15 years ago at the initiative of Haim Roet, who survived in Holland as a child through the heroic efforts of two non-Jews who were subsequently recognized as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem and a Jew, Max Lions.
This event is, to the best of our knowledge, the only annual tribute dedicated to Jewish rescuers anywhere in the world. Through it we strive to inspire the nearly 1,000 school students and border police cadets present with the understanding that contrary to the popular perceptions validated by some Holocaust historians, Jewish solidarity did not die in the Holocaust—although it was, undoubtedly, put under tremendous strain. In reality, thousands of Jews rose to the challenge and, when the opportunity arose, found ways and the wherewithal to help fellow Jews.
The contemporary message we wish to promote is clear: these days when divisions among the Jewish people are escalating and dialogue has become polarized, the example of those Jews who rescued others in the face of annihilation should encourage us to rally our sense of solidarity and common Jewish destiny. Hundreds of thousands more in Israel are exposed to this message through the press coverage the event receives and other initiatives undertaken by the Committee.
The vast variety of rescue efforts that are reflected in the hundreds of documented stories is mirrored in the last two rescuers we recognized. Soviet Communist educator Samuel Markowitz Pevzner eluded the surprise Nazi attack on the USSR in June 1941. He escaped Lithuania with about 180 children—140 of them were Jewish children from Bialystok, Poland—in a daring 12-day train journey to the remote Ural Mountains where he cared for them for five years until their repatriation to Poland and eventual immigration to Israel. Pevzner remained in the Urals, and married a young woman he helped rescue.
The second was Wilfrid Israel, the last scion of the Berlin Jewish business dynasty of N. Israel Department Store—one of the largest retail establishments in Europe in the 1930’s, and the grandson of Britain’s first chief rabbi. A friend of both Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann and an ardent pacifist in his youth, Israel—an enigmatic figure who left no personal record of his rescue efforts—was one of the leading figures in the Kindertransport, which is credited with saving 10,000 children (7,500 of them were Jewish).
Through the efforts of the World Center and the Committee, key institutions and leading figures have become aware of the phenomenon of Jewish rescue. Writing to me and to Roet last month, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot noted that “our letter to him (about rescue by Jews in the Holocaust) brought home the importance of memorializing the Jews who endangered their lives to rescue the lives of their brethren during the Holocaust. As a result of this I found it appropriate to note these heroic rescue activities in my comments at a symposium of the General Staff at Yad Vashem prior to Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day. We must remember and not forget the bravery that was shown alongside the pain. The principals of courage and camaraderie upon which the Jewish people acted in order to rescue their brethren, accompanies us—the commanders of the IDF and its soldiers…”
Another recent breakthrough is the acceptance of an MA thesis by the University of Haifa Faculty of Humanities, Multidisciplinary Program in Holocaust Studies by Noa Gidron, “Jews Saving Jews—individual initiative during the Holocaust 1939-1945” in which the World Center’s work on this issue was recognized.
These developments have inexorably set Jewish rescue on a path to become the next major topic of Holocaust research and attention.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.