Photo via Wikimedia Commons
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.
Another 8,000 young German Jewish men released from Nazi imprisonment—many ransomed using his own fortune—were rescued through a scheme he proposed to establish internment camps in Britain. Israel died on June 1, 1941 along with actor and British intelligence office Leslie Howard when their plane was brought down in the Bay of Biscay by the Luftwaffe on a flight from Lisbon, Portugal. At that time Israel was busy planning the rescue of children from Nazi-occupied Europe to pre-state Israel for the Jewish Agency. He is credited with saving 50,000 Jewish lives. Each rescue story—like these two examples—is a narrative of heroism and selfless dedication to fellow Jews.
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…”
Also, in a letter dated May 17, Asa Kasher, professor emeritus in philosophy at Tel Aviv University and the author of the IDF’s code of ethics and a leading moral voice in Israel, wrote to the Committee in support of its initiative to amend the Yad Vashem Law and charge it with recognizing Jewish rescuers.
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.
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