Choosing Whom to Honor for Holocaust Commemoration

Alan Schneider: It is emotionally tough to decide which stories should get the spotlight on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Rabbi Moshe Shimon Pessach with his family
Rabbi Moshe Shimon Pessach with his family
The Historical Center of Volos

If you have ever had the honor to attend a Holocaust dedication ceremony, it is a harrowing experience. That can be especially so when attending a guest lecture from a survivor of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, or hearing the dramatic tales of survival by elders who were only kids who hid in forests, attics or basements.

There are literally thousands of stories that Alan Schneider, Director of the B'nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem, has tried to bring to light for Jews in Israel and America. The trouble is choosing which stories should be the ones given particular focus for special ceremonies.

“There is in fact a lot of choice, but we're only able to tackle so many stories a year that we become aware of. So there is a process. On my desk now there are a number of stories that I have had to put aside for this year that I'll have to bring up in coming next years,” he said.

This week’s ceremony will honor Rabbi Moshe Pessach, who was instrumental in the rescue of the Volos Jewish community just days before their expected deportation by the Nazis.

It is a hard process, but the public recognition ceremonies that Schneider has initiated try to focus on Jewish heroes during World War II, awarding the Jewish Rescuers Citation in several ceremonies over the last few years. Sometimes it is a matter of how much a story can be further researched, who might represent the prospective honorees if they have passed away, or even how enveloping the story might be for listeners. In short, while Schneider says they are all worthy, he laments Bnai Brith’s resources are limited to organizing events around so many epic storytellings and presentations.

“We don't have the capacity to give each individual the attention they deserve, for us to become familiar with their story and bring it to the attention of the people.”

“We’ve recognized well over 100 individuals but we know thousands of Jews were involved in rescuing other Jews during the Holocaust. We have a database that includes some of those people. In some countries the documentation is better - France and Hungary for instance - where Jewish organizations formed after the Holocaust have done a lot of the research and brought the stories in both cases of Jews involved in the rescue of Jews.”

B'nai Brith has been running a series of special ceremonies on Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel for the last 13 years. Greece tends not to be on the radar for popular Holocaust history – unlike Poland for instance. When asked if the goal was to find more obscure chronicles and shine a light on those, Schneider says yes.

“We've tried to find also lesser known stories like Rabbi Pessach’s of Volos.”

Rabbi Pessach’s experience also provides a unique opportunity to expand the perspective of Jewish history toward Greece and southern Europe, outside of the countries with better documentation and records. It is a mix of initiative by the leader of a small Jewish community, the urgency of religious cohorts from local Christian communities, and investment to help by the Greek underground.

Rabbi Pessach ignored an order from the local Nazi administration to provide a list of the community’s Jews, instead turning to friend Archbishop Joachim Alexopoulos who made quick connections through the Underground for hiding places for the Jews of Volos. As the Nazis sought Rabbi Pessach, they murdered two of his sons. Rabbi Pessach, among many others, put their lives on the line to accomplish the great escape of the Volos community.

“We're focusing on his but we are honoring others from Hungary and Greece. His story in particular is not very well-known at all (at least in Israel), so we thought it would be appropriate to focus our ceremony on him," said Schneider.

One of the major challenges logistically might be finding first hand witnesses or players in the events that led to the honors the ceremonies hand out. When asked how organizers manage to track down so many major players in these events, Mr. Schneider says a number of organizations have been helpful in naming the figures involved, making contacting them a matter of finding a name or a known connection. Schneider points to another case where a woman heard about these programs and wrote to him, providing many of the connections from the outset.

As time moves forward, Schneider says it is becoming increasingly difficult to make that happen.

“To the extent that we can find surviving rescuers we always try to do that. But at this stage unfortunately it is very difficult. We have recognized a number of rescuers who live abroad. A few months ago we recognized Berta Davidovitz Rubinsztejn in Riverdale, NY who was involved in the rescue of Jews from Hungary. One of the boys she rescued is now in his 70s. He flew out to New York for the ceremony.”

Rubinsztejn rescued Brand Meir, an orphan she found on the streets of Budapest, in 1944. They survived Bergen Belsen before reaching Switzerland. The two would make Aliyah, but eventually went their separate ways as Rubinsztejn emigrated to New York in 1960.

As for the story of Volos, it is someone a disappointment to Schneider that Rabbi Pessach himself has long since passed away, but he explains that how he came across his story is indicative of how unsuspecting it can be to discover heroes hiding in the annals of Jewish history.

“Speaking to an old friend, Dr. Elias Pessach, and telling him about these different events we were running, he said, ‘It’s interesting you mention that. My great grandfather had a hand in rescuing the Jewish community of Volos, Greece.' That's how we became exposed to the story. It grew from there.”