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The B’nai B’rith World Center and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jews who Rescued Fellow Jews During the Holocaust (JRJ) will confer their joint “Jewish Rescuer’s Citation” upon Naftali Backenroth-Bronicki, who risked his life saving Jews from deportation and extermination during the Holocaust in Drohobych, Poland. The citations will be conferred at a ceremony on March 7 at Beit Hatfutsot – Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Backenroth was born in 1905 in Drohobych, Galicia. Heir to an oil family, Backenroth studied agriculture in France as part of his plan to make Aliyah, but returned home after graduating to help his family cope with the severe economic crisis at the time. Between 1939 and 1941, under Soviet rule, Backenroth was appointed as county agronomist by Nikita Khrushchev, then a regional official.
With the German invasion of Drohobych in the summer of 1941 and the beginning of the destruction of the Jewish population in the town and the surroundings, Backenroth started to systematically organize and employ Jewish workers who were conscripted under the Gestapo orders. Recognizing that if the Nazis became dependent on Jewish labor there was less chance that they would be deported and murdered, Backenroth initiated the establishment of workshops, agricultural farms and a horse riding school for the Germans that provided an excuse to employ Jews and save them from death. The status he attained as “foreman” of Jewish labor in Drohobych allowed him to extract Jews who were detained in a major actzia (mass round-ups of Jews during the Holocaust) in 1942 and bring them back to work. When it became evident that the work permits were only a temporary defense from deportation and murder, Backenroth used the means accessible to him in the workshops to build bunkers, which served as a hiding place for dozens of Jews. They survived the war with his assistance.
In 1943, in a clever ruse, Backenroth was recognized by the Gestapo as an “Aryan.” Despite the danger to him and to his family from the local population he continued to play, befuddle and confuse the Nazis. His position as an “Aryan” allowed him to move freely and organize a food supply system for the Jews who survived in the bunkers and hiding places he created. However it endangered him as the war came to a close as he could have been viewed by local Jews as a Nazi collaborator.
Thousands of Drohobych Jews were executed at the Bronitza forest nearby. In memory of them, Backenroth changed his name after the war to Bronicki.
When Backenroth-Bronicki was asked why he does not tell stories about that period of his life he said, “what accompanies me all the time, are not the Jews I was able to save, but the memory of all the Jews I could not rescue.”
The committee’s considerations state that “Backenroth-Bronicki is a symbol of Jewish solidarity during the Holocaust, expressed in surprisingly varied initiatives to rescue Jews from deportation and extermination. The resourcefulness, dedication, wisdom and courage demonstrated by Backenroth-Bronicki against the Gestapo from the moment he realized he could save the lives of Jews, is a marvel of risk-taking and limit-testing on a daily basis. His unique personality, authoritativeness and reliability, made him amenable to both his enemies and friends—among them two Germans who helped with the rescue operations, and later received Righteous Among the Nations. These rescue operations ensured the survival of dozens of Jews. Therefore the committee decided to honor Backenroth-Bronicki with the Jewish Rescuer Citation.”
“The heroism of Naftali Backenroth-Bronicki should put to rest once and for all the notion that the Jewish people didn’t fight back, which has wrongly tainted Holocaust historiography for more than 70 years,” B’nai B’rith World Center Director Alan Schneider said. “It is very important for Jewish rescuers to be included among the categories of all who rescued Jews.”
The Citation will be presented posthumously to Backenroth-Bronicki’s son Yehuda Lucien, who as a child was complicit in some of his father’s rescue efforts.
Since its establishment in 2011, the Jewish Rescuers Citation has been presented in order to correct the public misconception that Jews did not rescue other Jews during the Holocaust. To date 162 heroes were honored for rescue activities in Germany, France, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Holland.